Photographers' Blog

Looking into the eyes of a mass murderer

By Fabrizio Bensch

A lot has been written about Andres Behring Breivik, the 33 year-old Norwegian man who a year ago was unknown.

He lived completely withdrawn on a small farm far from Oslo, alone to work on his diabolical plan. He built bombs to explode in central Oslo, and in the following chaos drove to Utoeya island and shot as many teenagers as possible. In all, he killed 77 people that day.

Today, for the first time, I looked directly into the eyes of this man – the eyes of a mass murderer.

Back on the afternoon of July 22nd, I heard the first news about what was happening in downtown Oslo and on the island of Utoeya. Of course at that time, no one knew the full dimension of these two attacks. I took the very first flight from Berlin to Oslo, then drove straight through the night to Utoeya island. The first photographs I took were of survivors. As the number of victims on the island grew, clues emerged as to what terrible tragedy was hitting this country.

It was early the next morning when a colleague and I rented a boat to go to the island. Red Cross boats were everywhere, as were police searching for bodies in the Tyrifjorden lake. As we approached the island I looked through my telephoto lens at the white sheets on the shore. The closer we got, the more and more precise the details became. Shoes, jeans and feet. The bodies of the victims were still laying on the shore.

The way to the island of horror

It was a typical Friday afternoon in Berlin — traffic in the streets and people looking forward to their weekend. A few hours earlier, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had finished her traditional summer press conference in the capital city, where she answered with quite a lot of humor and unusual looseness, journalist’s questions about the Greek crisis and the EU summit in Brussels before she left for summer vacation. I was at home and not aware of the latest news when I got a phone call from the Berlin office: “It’s an emergency. There was a bomb explosion in Oslo. Can you book a flight to Oslo and immediately fly there?” At first I did not know what exactly had happened. My wife searched for information online and the first breaking news images from Oslo had flooded the media. People were wandering amid the rubble in the governmental area of the Norwegian capital.


REUTERS/Berit Roald/Scanpix


REUTERS/Morten Holm/Scanpix


REUTERS/Per Thrana

I booked the next flight from Berlin to Oslo. I had just two and a half hours until departure. I quickly packed my equipment, took a 500 mm telephoto lens and a few days worth of personal belongings. At the airport check-in I met other journalists — a mix of foreign colleagues and the Reuters cameraman with whom I would fly to Oslo. The plane was packed, every seat occupied, mainly with journalists. This was one of the fastest routes to Norway after the bombing. There was free internet onboard so I was able to check the latest news non-stop. There was now concrete news trickling in about a shooting on Utoeya island, about 40 kilometers (24 miles) northwest of Oslo, with a number of people reported dead.


REUTERS/Jan Bjerkeli


REUTERS/Morten Edvardsen/Scanpix


REUTERS/Morten Edvardsen/Scanpix

When the plane landed in Oslo at 22:30 it was still light out and given the situation and the information about the shooting on the island Utoeya, I decided to go there immediately. I rented a car at the airport and drove off, with the help of my GPS navigation. Meanwhile I had contacted the Reuters text correspondent and our local photographer who had made one of the first pictures for us from the island. I told him that I would drive to Sundvollen, which is the closest village to the island. There was a hotel where all the survivors and their relatives were being taken. It was raining when I reached the hotel after midnight. I parked and walked into the hotel. There were rescue workers and survivors everywhere and parents who had managed to reunite their children who survived the shooting. When I asked at reception for a room for the night, I realized I was standing in a group of survivors. To stay there — or even to photograph it — was quite impossible. People were crying and hugging each other. There were reports that a considerable number of people had been killed during the shooting on Utoeya island and that there was a connection with the bombing in Oslo. It was after leaving the hotel that I took the first photos of survivors, from outside the police cordon.