Taking the Heat

updated 10/06/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/06/1997 AT 01:00 AM EDT

JACQUES LANGEVIN HAD SEEN HIS share of carnage. In a photojournalism career that had taken him to Bosnia, Rwanda and Lebanon, he had made a name for himself documenting the ravages of war with humanity and skill. Nikola Arsov was newer to the trade, having worked just nine months snapping photos for a Paris agency. Yet the two were equally unprepared for what they witnessed in the early hours of Aug. 31 in a Paris underpass, where they came upon the scene of the grisly accident that killed Princess Diana, Dodi Al Fayed and their driver. "I still can't get over having been one of the last to see Diana alive," says Arsov, who arrived minutes after the crash. "It's an image that marks you."

It was not just the image, it turns out, but their very presence that morning in the tunnel where Langevin, 43, and Arsov, 38, were among six photographers and a motorcyclist taken into custody. Though the media and the public were quick to savage them as amoral bounty hunters who might have contributed to the fatal crash, French police soon focused their investigation on the intoxicated driver, Henri Paul. Still, Langevin, Arsov and the others rounded up by Paris police that morning—several of whom had not been pursuing the Mercedes that crashed beneath the Place de l'Alma—still find themselves under a cloud. More than three weeks after Arsov was released, his cameras were still being held by police, leaving him unable to work. As for Langevin, "his life is never going to be the same," says former photographer colleague John Giordano. "They're making him a villain because he happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time."

In fact, Langevin, a soft-spoken bachelor who lives outside Paris, hadn't planned to be anywhere near Princess Diana. On call that weekend for his agency, Sygma, he was dining at a friend's at 10:30 on Saturday night, when the agency called to send him to the Ritz Hotel to snap Diana and Dodi. "Showbiz isn't my thing, but I'm on call," Langevin told the French magazine Nouvel Observateur.

Posted at the hotel's back door, he photographed the couple, who exited separately and slid into the back of the Mercedes, which immediately drove away. "I thought at that moment that my job was finished," he said. But 15 minutes later, driving to rejoin his dinner companions, he noticed the flashing police lights and the crowd gathering around the tunnel. Grabbing his camera, he got out to see what was wrong. Only when he saw rescue workers trying to revive Dodi on the ground did he realize it was Diana's car and begin shooting the wreckage. "I didn't see any altercation between press and police," he says. (In fact, Dr. Frédéric Maillez, who happened upon the scene moments after the accident, has denied that photographers interfered with rescue work, though police say at least one, Christian Martinez, insisted on snapping photos during the rescue effort.)

Nearby was Nikola Arsov, a staff photographer for the Sipa agency. He had been developing photos of a demonstration he had covered that afternoon when he was sent to the Ritz, where he saw Diana and Dodi arrive. Later, on his BMW 1000 motorcycle, he followed a decoy car, a black Range Rover, when it left the hotel. "We knew Di wasn't in the car," he says, "but we thought if we kept following, it would end up where she was." Since a Sipa colleague was also following, he abandoned the chase to head home, but then he noticed flashing lights near the tunnel and went to investigate. "Nobody knew what was going on," says Arsov, who eventually took five or six shots of the scene but was so flustered he forgot to use his flash. "If I'd been allowed to go right up to the car and take pictures of her in there, I wouldn't have done it. Too much for me, too painful."

Moments later, police seized Arsov, Langevin and the five others, took their press cards and cameras and marched them to a paddy wagon. "I thought we were just going to be asked to be witnesses," Langevin told the newspaper. Instead the van delivered them to a police station, from which they were sent—each in a separate car with three officers—to criminal-division headquarters. "The way we were treated was scandalous," says Arsov, who says police strip-searched and fingerprinted him, took a blood sample and then questioned him for an hour early Sunday before placing him in a solitary cell. Only hours later did police tell him of Diana's death. And only after two days did police release the seven men, still under investigation for manslaughter and failure to assist the victims.

For Langevin, the run-in with the law was only the latest chapter in a dramatic career. At least once—in Rumania in 1989—he was hit by a stray bullet. After an attempted trek across treacherous terrain to cover a skirmish on Iran's Afghan border in the late 1970s, he came back half-starved, says a friend. "Here's a guy who has dedicated himself to documenting things that most people would look away from, and he risks his life," says Giordano—now a New Jersey pharmaceutical company executive—who worked alongside Langeviri in several trouble spots.

Langevin, a native of Anjou in France, was appalled by his treatment at the hands of police in his native country. Yet he has no regrets about photographing the accident scene—which he did from behind a police barricade. "If I had to reshoot the photo of Diana in the car that was her coffin, I would do it for the sake of my idea of my work," Langevin said. "I was witness to an event that any professional could guess was of major importance."

Arsov, a former dental technician who worked for nine years as a motorcyclist carrying photographers during the famed Tour de France bicycle race and other events, seems more ambivalent. A native of Macedonia, he now makes $3,000 monthly from Sipa and lives in a small house in a Paris suburb with his girlfriend, an architect's assistant. Arsov defends his profession and acknowledges the journalistic importance of having been so close to an event that captured world attention. But personally he has reservations. "I wish," he says, "I'd never been anywhere near this."

CATHY NOLAN in Paris, JOSEPH V. TIRELLA in New York City and BRENDAN BOURNE in Los Angeles

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