Tim Hetherington, center, is the subject of a new documentary. (HBO)
Tim Hetherington, center, is the subject of a new documentary. (HBO)

Two years after his death, Hetherington studied, celebrated

Two years ago this week, on the central boulevard of the Western Libyan city of Misurata, freelance photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed by mortar rounds from government forces. Hondros lost consciousness almost immediately. Hetherington bled out in the back of a pick-up truck as he clutched the hand of a Spanish photographer. 

Their deaths, which shocked the international journalism community at the time, now seem like a harbinger of what was to come: A chaotic, non-traditional frontline. Disorganized rebel groups. Experienced journalists next to kids using iPhones and local activists brandishing camera phones. The two men were almost the first, and certainly then the best-known, Western journalists to die covering the still-nascent Arab Spring. Now, after Marie Colvin, after Aleppo, Misurata seems like a distant, but portent, memory.

But the loss that day on Tripoli Street continues to be deeply felt in the journalism community, as evidenced by a newly released book and a separate documentary about Hetherington premiering tonight in the U.S. on HBO. The book, Here I am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer written by Alan Huffman, and the film, “Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington” directed by Sebastian Junger, focus on the wide-ranging career of the British photographer.

While only one of the all-too-many journalists lost in recent years (most of whom, it must be noted, were part of the local, not foreign, press corps and received far less media attention), Hetherington’s allure as a subject is inescapable: tall, handsome, articulate, and warm, he was the ultimate leading man. In archival interviews used in the film, he comes across as alternately puckish and reflective, goofing around and making bawdy jokes with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan in one scene, and in the next, discussing the self-referential and self-perpetuating aspects of war imagery in his work with a post-modern aplomb that would make Susan Sontag proud.

As an “image-maker,” as he called himself, he was also full of contradictions. His skilled images of conflict, for which he won multiple World Press Photo Awards, and his talent for the classical aesthetic elements of documentary photography place him in the long line of descendants of Robert Capa. The affinities with Capa, who died at a similar age when he stepped on a landmine in Vietnam, extend morbidly to death. Yet Hetherington’s early embrace of video on the frontline, and later, his multimedia gallery exhibitions and stream of consciousness video-diary, place him distinctly ahead of the curve. One of his early photography instructors recalls in the film that Hetherington was his “first genuinely modern student,” and Junger writes in the movie’s press materials that the film’s title, “refers as much to Tim’s artistic instincts as to any combat situation he may have been in,” implicitly recalling the original militaristic meaning of “avant-garde.”

From 2003-2006, when the majority of his colleagues were reporting on the most dramatic years of the Iraq War with the latest digital SLRs, Hetherington was in Liberia, documenting the civil war there and its aftermath with a medium format camera, looking to bring a “quieter kind of reflection to images of conflict.” Even more unlikely, in 2006, he put down his camera to be an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee. Five years later, he found himself on the red carpet at the Academy Awards when the film “Restrepo,” which he co-directed with Junger, was nominated for Best Documentary.

It was this incongruous experience–posing in a tuxedo while the Middle East was in flames–that may have induced Hetherington’s trip to Libya only a few weeks later, despite having expressed a desire to stop covering conflict, his girlfriend, Idil Ibrahim, says in the film.  That decision–and the more fateful one to return to Tripoli Street in Misurata on April 20, despite having survived dangerous events there earlier the same day–has been a source of much debate.

While the book and the film celebrate Hetherington’s life, his death may offer important lessons. At an event hosted by CPJ last week, Huffman discussed the then-novel dangers of Libya, where the rebels, who were eager for journalistic coverage they hoped would garner international support for their cause, gave journalists unfettered access and actively encouraged them to get closer to the combat. Photographers, who are always closest to the action among the press corps in any conflict, were at times even a step ahead of the rebels, according to Huffman.  The author speculated that while the situation was clearly perilous, Hetherington, without a vest, helmet, or any kind of security protocol in place, could not keep himself away from the frontline. Caught up in the moment and a dangerous pack mentality, Huffman said, the group of journalists, which included photographers Guy Martin and Michael Brown who were also injured in the attack, went back to Tripoli Street.  

Haunted by the idea that Hetherington most likely died from a treatable wound, Junger founded the organization RISC last year to teach emergency medical skills to freelance journalists who lack the institutional support of news outlets. Now Junger also has this film to honor his friend, which he says in the press materials he was in part inspired to make because of the wealth of archival footage Hetherington left behind.

One harrowing example from Misurata at the end of the film’s opening sequence has a camera panning around a car filled with smiling faces as generic English-language pop music plays in the background, before zooming in on an assault weapon adorned with a Libyan flag.  Moments later, the car speeds off and the scene dissolves into chaos, showing the full gamut of war experience–banality and boredom to frightening and tumultuous–in a matter of seconds.  Despite his expert combat imagery, Hetherington’s colleagues and admirers have consistently stressed his humanitarian and artistic sides. As a bookend to the early action footage, in a scene towards the end of the film, we see Hetherington at home with his parents as they examine a book of his images, which the photographer’s s father dryly states are “very emotional.” “Good,” Hetherington replies, playfully rubbing his father’s belly and kissing him affectionately. “They’re supposed to be.”