It was March 9, and Ty Cacek had just climbed into the bed of a truck as it wove through the streets of Benghazi, Libya. Three weeks after the start of the popular uprising, Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi's forces were in the middle of a violent push to regain the rebel stronghold.
Cacek, a 20-year-old Columbia native, wasn’t alone in the vehicle.
“I’d hopped in the back of the truck that was carrying one of the bodies to the cemetery,” Cacek said. “The brother of the fallen soldier was sitting next to me, and he was the most emotional I’ve ever seen any human being in my entire life, and I don’t say that as an overstatement."
At that moment, Cacek started shooting photos.
Cacek’s photograph of that ride freezes Abdul Farj, the brother of the dead man, in a state of almost unthinkable grief. Farj’s face rises out of the middle of the image. His mouth is open in a cry. His eyes are squeezed shut. The other men in the truck have disappeared into the background.
This was one of the many images Cacek, a photojournalist, took over four weeks of covering the revolution in Libya.
In the last three years, Cacek has made a quick progression from shooting photos for the newspaper at Rock Bridge High School, where he graduated from in 2009, to covering the conflict in North Africa.
‘The perfect storm’
Debbie Cacek, Ty Cacek’s mother, remembers clearly when she realized what path her son was taking. He was getting close to graduating from Rock Bridge and was in a meeting with the head of the photojournalism department at Western Kentucky University on a college tour.
“All of a sudden, Tyler, just out of the blue said, ‘So, have you had any photojournalism students graduate and become embedded photographers?’ And to be quite honest with you, that was the first time I had ever heard the term ‘embedded photographer,’” Debbie Cacek said. “That was the first time I realized that was the direction he was really interested in going.”
Ty Cacek didn’t pick up his first camera until he was in high school and began looking at the world in a different light.
“Tyler was just a gangly bright-eyed kid as a sophomore who asked a lot of questions,” said Matt Webel, world studies teacher at Rock Bridge High School. While photography grew as a hobby, Cacek also began developing an interest in global human rights issues through world studies and contemporary issues classes.
Cacek would regularly stay after class discussing everything from modern slavery to the Burmese fight for independence with Webel and other teachers and students.
The new perspective gained in these classes, along with friends at the school newspaper and a growing interest in photography, built up what Cacek describes as “the perfect storm for creating a passionate photojournalist.”
From the beginning, he took his camera to the subjects that would get people talking. Years before photographing war-zone hospitals, he was creating a stir at Rock Bridge for a photo that appeared on the front page of the school newspaper that showed a kid smoking on school grounds.
After high school, he continued pointing his camera into the unknown and sometimes controversial directions: looking at life inside the Ku Klux Klan, Third World prostitution and in September 2010, a cover story for Time magazine on extremist militias in Ohio. And last year, Cacek packed his bags, left school and moved 8,000 miles to Kampala, Uganda.
“I predicted that there would be some unrest in Africa last year, looking ahead at the events that were happening,” Cacek said. “There was an election in Uganda, there was a referendum in Sudan, there was the election in the Ivory Coast.”
He wanted to be there when the news happened.
“No one foresaw what happened in North Africa and the Middle East. No one thought that was going to happen,” Cacek said. “That was just by coincidence that I happened to be here, and I’m glad I was.”
In the first weeks of 2011, massive protests erupted in Egypt. From his new home in Uganda, Cacek prepared to head north to Cairo.
“Between my boss at my agency and my parents, I got two noes — 'Don’t go,’” Cacek said.
He never got to cover the Egyptian revolution. At that moment, though, he began preparing in case another country was swept up in the protests that were moving through the region. That next country was Libya.
On Feb. 17, anti-Gadhafi protests took place around the nation. The crackdown by the government was fast and violent. Cacek knew he had to go. On Feb. 28, he crossed the Egyptian-Libyan border and began hitchhiking toward Benghazi.
The decision to go
“Typical,” Webel said, remembering when he heard Cacek was going to Libya. “Typical for Tyler. Not typical for anyone else.”
The two of them have stayed in touch and become friends since Cacek graduated and began traveling.
“He is not afraid,” Webel said. “He is fearless. I’m sure he’s afraid underneath it all, but if you look at him on the surface, he’s sort of brazen. Arrogance isn’t the right word, but he has a lot of confidence in what he can do, what he’s taking on and what he wants to do.”
By the time Cacek arrived in Libya, the violent crackdown on anti-Gadhafi forces was in full swing. Reports by Al Jazeera estimated over a thousand died. Bombings, mercenary killings and kidnappings were common along the ever-changing front line.
The recent deaths of American photojournalist Chris Hondros and British photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Misrata, Libya, have shown how the country is just as dangerous for outsiders as it might be for soldiers.
For Cacek’s parents, it was a balance of recognizing their son's talents and wishes, but also wishing he had chosen a safer line of work.
“I always try to remind him of his faith and his mortality and our love for him, and, you know, there’s only so much a parent can do,” Debbie Cacek said.
Behind the lines
Once in Libya, Tyler Cacek began looking for stories away from the front lines.
“I don’t have as many pictures of shootings or explosions or any of that,” Cacek said. “My role is to document the story of the civilian population within rebel-controlled territory, which I think is a story that’s being under-reported.”
While these behind-the-scenes photos show calmer moments like a group of protesters in prayer, Cacek and his camera were also there for the more graphic moments of the war.
Cacek’s voice shook as he described taking pictures in a hospital in Ajdabiyah.
“It's absolutely horrific,” he said.
One photo shows a Gadhafi-loyalist soldier lying on a hospital bed. His face is covered except for his open mouth, screaming. Gloved hands press gauze onto a bullet wound in his ribs.
“I think back on the situation that was happening in Ajdabiyah, and it was an absolute nightmare,” he said.
It was one week later that Cacek climbed into the back of the truck with the mourning brother as they made their way to the cemetery. Cacek continued photographing when they arrived.
“I was in the cemetery in Benghazi, and there were three young, little boys who were just really, really weeping over the grave of their brother who had been killed while retreating from one of the battles,” Cacek said. “At that moment I just realized, those kids are going to be growing up without a big brother now, and they had just totally lost composure, and it was really, really hard for me to see.
"But I realized that if I’m in a situation where people are mourning the loss of a loved one or they’re expressing such raw emotion about their situation that I have a responsibility to document it.”
For Cacek, photographing emotional moments in Libya was like shuffling and re-dealing all of the cards. Many people wanted a photographer there in their greatest moment of tragedy so the story of what was happening could get out.
After one funeral, he was invited home with the family he had just photographed in tears. Even when he first arrived at the border, rebel forces welcomed Cacek without paperwork as soon as they saw his camera.
“The reality of war is that families are destroyed, sons are lost, people will grow up without fathers because of war, and we don’t get to see that just looking at the newspaper,” Cacek said. “That’s my job: to go in and tell a slightly different story that maybe shows a different aspect of the conflict.”
After two weeks, Cacek left Libya and returned to Uganda, but in April he was back in Benghazi for a second trip.
“He just wants to make a difference,” Webel said. “He wants to do something that matters, and he found a gift and pursued that gift single-mindedly for the last four or five years in a way that I haven’t seen very many people do.”
On Thursday, Cacek flew from Kampala to Kansas City. He’ll be spending the next few weeks in Columbia before starting a summer internship with The New York Times.
But he plans on returning to Libya.
“At the end of the day, the work isn’t finished and I feel a very, very strong calling to finish it,” Cacek said. “I’m not resting on anything until it's finished.”