Nieman News

Brent Renaud head shot

Brent Renaud at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard

Brent Renaud, a gifted documentary filmmaker and photographer and a member of the Nieman class of 2019, was shot and killed in Irpin, Ukraine, a suburb of Kyiv, on March 13, 2022. He was 50 years old.

At the time, Brent was working on a film about the experiences of refugees and migrants in 10 countries around the world for Time Studios. While in Ukraine, he wanted to document people leaving their homes and fleeing their country as a result of the Russian invasion and provide them with an iPhone, with which they could record their journey wherever it took them. He had already been filming the project for a year, in Africa, Europe and South America, working with individuals fleeing the climate crisis, war and gender violence.

When he was killed Brent was with his Nieman classmate Juan Arredondo, another visual journalist, who was also wounded in the attack but received medical care and is recovering from his wounds. In a video interview posted on Twitter by Annalisa Camilli, a journalist for Internazionale, Juan indicates that the two men came under attack while traveling by car to reach an area where refugees were crossing a bridge.

According to The New York Times, Anton Gerashchenko, an adviser to Ukraine’s interior minister, said in a statement that Mr. Renaud “paid with his life for attempting to expose the insidiousness, cruelty and ruthlessness of the aggressor.”

The Nieman community is deeply saddened by this tragic death. Nieman curator Ann Marie Lipinski said: “Brent’s filmmaking was exceptional and what made it so was not just his abundant skill but a kindness and deep humanity he brought to his work. He told us that what he sought in his journalism was ‘thoughtful stories about disenfranchised people,’ and he lived up to that credo every day. His death is a devastating loss.”

A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Brent began his career covering the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the war in Afghanistan. Since then, he had worked mostly with his brother Craig on film projects including the HBO heroin documentary “Dope Sick Love” and the TV series “Off to War,” about a National Guard unit deployed to Iraq. He covered the earthquake in Haiti, cartel violence in Mexico, the youth refugee crisis in Central America, political upheaval in Egypt and the war on extremism in Africa and the Middle East. In 2015, he received a Peabody Award for the Vice News series “Last Chance High,” about a therapeutic school in Chicago.

At Harvard, Brent studied the effects of trauma and mental and emotional illness on rates of poverty and violence in America.

Brent’s Nieman classmates remember him not just as an extraordinary journalist but as an extraordinary person — humble, sensitive, gentle, smart, funny. “He came to his work with a human-first attitude,” says Mary Ellen Klas, capital bureau chief for The Miami Herald in Tallahassee, Florida. He conveyed to his subjects “not just that he was listening to their words, but that he was understanding their souls, who they are.”

Kaeti Hinck, leader of the data and visuals team at CNN, recalls coming away from every conversation with Brent “having learned something new, discovering some wild story, finding out some fascinating thing about his life. He never bragged. He was just this kind, compassionate presence.”

Brent loved animals — especially his dog‚ Chai — and was devoted to animal rights. He also loved old motorcycles and constructed a hybrid studio/repair shop, where he could edit videos and tinker with his beloved bikes. Though instinctively shy, Brent experimented with stand-up comedy and after his Nieman fellowship took up teaching visual journalism in addition to continuing his filmmaking practice.

Though Brent came to his Nieman fellowship an accomplished visual journalist, he quickly revealed himself as a powerful writer as well. “His writing was superb,” says author Steve Almond, who teaches the Nieman narrative nonfiction class for fellows. “He was shy and didn’t speak a lot in class, but when he did his comments were astonishingly sensitive and precise. We all kind of waited for Brent to weigh in — he had that kind of quiet power of insight.”

For someone with such a natural gift for connecting to other people’s stories, Brent was sometimes hesitant to share his own. But, early on in the fellowship, when Brent spoke movingly about his own struggles to connect, he “cracked something open in the class,” says photographer Samantha Appleton. “He opened us all up to being more vulnerable together. He changed the chemistry of the entire class.”

Mattia Ferraresi, managing editor of the Italian newspaper Domani, remembers Brent telling him, “‘You’ve got to love what you report on,’ challenging the principle that you need to keep a distance from your subjects to report fairly. Brent was all about empathy. He believed he had to really enter your life to really tell your story.”

Through his personality and presence, as well as the stories he told, Brent entered the lives of his classmates and colleagues at Nieman in ways that will not be forgotten.