Hetherington at the opening night of the World Press Photo Award exhibition in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 7, 2008. (AP/Keystone/Eddy Risch)
Hetherington at the opening night of the World Press Photo Award exhibition in Zurich, Switzerland, on May 7, 2008. (AP/Keystone/Eddy Risch)

Tim Hetherington: A star inexorably, humbly rising

I first met Tim Hetherington in Monrovia in 2005, in the run-up to Liberia’s then historic elections, which officially drew the line under the country’s 14-year civil war. Tim had already reported from Liberia in the chaotic final stages of that war in 2003, marching for days on end through dense and unforgiving tropical bush filming rebels making a last desperate assault on the regime of the falling president, Charles Taylor.

He was already a colossus of modern day war reporting to many of the journalists who thronged to the rooftop of a downtown Monrovia hotel for our late-night beers during that 2005 election campaign. But there was Tim, telling stories, asking questions, sharing tips, swapping information, mucking with the rest of us after a day spent with his cameras on the streets of Monrovia.

It sounds like one of those clichés, but there really was none of the pompousness of someone whose star was inexorably rising. Everybody who knows Tim will tell you this. He was a rare creature of genuine intellect, curiosity, and dedication to his subject material.

Within a few months of meeting him, we were already corresponding regularly. I was keen to repay his generosity for his helping hand in Liberia; he was already firing me a steady flow of questions by email as he got ready to make his way into Nigeria, where I was based, for a project he was preparing on the insurgency in the notoriously complicated oil-producing Niger Delta.

He wanted to understand everything. His questions were relentless. He would not have been satisfied with taking pictures of heavily armed masked militants in oil polluted swamps–the stock image of the conflict at that time. He wanted to explore the root causes. He constantly struggled to peel back the layers of information to gain new understanding and a fresh way of approaching the story with his lens.

I saw Tim twice in 2006, in Nigeria. We travelled down to the delta in 2006 for his first trip, and he came back a few months later to make a documentary film. When he got down there the second time he called me regularly for advice and contacts. But before long the tables had turned. I was no longer his guide down there. Rather, he was mine, ensconced in the new underworld he had found.

It was that hunger for the granular details, for truth, that made him put down his cameras later that year and join the U.N. Panel of Experts on Liberia, returning to the country he saw wrecked by war to investigate continuing support to militia groups and attempting to get to the bottom of where Taylor had stashed his money.

By 2007, Tim was already strapping his cameras over his shoulders again, and scooped the World Press Awards Photo of the Year for his work in Afghanistan. I called him to congratulate him soon after he took the award and he chuckled down the line, saying he was “gobsmacked.” He changed the subject quickly and started asking questions about what was going on in my life. Typical.

For the next three years Tim dedicated much of his own finances and emotional strength to the completion of what has become one of the most important war documentaries of modern times–Restrepo–which he shot and co-directed. His sensitive portrayal of U.S. soldiers in the miasma of Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley revealed a visceral connection to his subject matter as much as his capacity to coolly capture powerful images in places too dangerous for the rest of us to set foot in. He understood the risks he had to take to do his job, but from all accounts by those who have worked with him in volatile situations, he was always mindful of the security of others around him.

During these three years, I was lucky enough to run into Tim frequently in New York, where he was based. His dedication to Restrepo was clear, and it was equally clear that he was developing something that would have a formidable impact on the world stage. But he was always the same guy, always hungry for information, always eager to talk about how he could find the next story to reveal. He wanted to know about places I had been to and seen. It was the same for all his friends.

And so my fondest memories of him don’t involve wild forays in the field or great adventures, more just propping up a bar telling stories and laughing at the absurdities of situations we had encountered on our ways. We all miss him terribly.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Photojournalist and documentarian Tim Hetherington was killed in an explosion in the western Libyan city of Misurata on Wednesday.