Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tim Hetherington

Journalists tend to be cynical by nature. The work of reporting is about being there and doing that, about seeing the world naked, again and again. Particularly when violence is involved, it’s unrelenting and psychologically erosive work, which is why it helps to be driven, to have a healthy skepticism for authority, and, as often as not, to possess an oversized ego.

There are myriad potential dangers to such a line of work, beyond the physical ones. There are the risks of becoming jaded or self important, of looking askance at people who haven’t seen momentous episodes at close range, of falling prey to the tendency to reduce those you cover to subjects in a drama of your own orchestration, for which you will earn the accolades. Journalists matter immensely because they are the only way the world can truly know what’s going on, and fortunately, there are notable exceptions to the hard-bitten, self-serving paradigm – journalists who are in it for the right reasons and who happen to be generous, empathetic, affable guys who care very much about the people who inhabit their stories, books, films and photographs. Sebastian Junger is one of those, as was the brilliant and dedicated photojournalist whom I met through him, Tim Hetherington, who was killed yesterday as the result of a rocket-propelled grenade attack in Misrata, Libya. For many, many reasons, Tim’s death represents an irreconcilable loss not only to his friends but to the world.

Tim would do anything, take any risk, to reveal the humanity – or inhumanity -- of the people he photographed and filmed in the world’s war zones. He seemed to have everything: He was dashing, charming, intelligent, funny, thoughtful, brave, and something you don’t encounter much in the world today -- gallant. Yet none of that went to his head. What mattered most to him were the experiences of people under extreme duress -- that, and his professional skills as a photographer, which he used to great and lasting effect to illustrate those lives, and which ultimately cost him his own.

The individuals who populate Tim’s photos and films were his subjects only in the loosest sense of the word.
He was not there to mine the terrain of their lives for his own gain but to reveal the details of those lives to the world. Toward that aim, he had the courage to live and travel with warlords during the unimaginably violent Liberian civil war, yet had the sensitivity to create haunting images of unexpected scenes, such as sleeping soldiers in Afghanistan.

I'm a decidedly junior-level journalist, and when I met Tim I was struck by the fact that he seemed unaffected by the considerable difference in scale of our respective work in Liberia, which was always the focus of our conversations. What mattered to him was what I had learned about the people there, and how I had presented it to the world. I'd traveled to Liberia on my own, and because I was fearful and untested in a war zone, ultimately avoided entering rebel-held territory; Tim, by contrast, had traveled with those warlords, and survived having a bounty placed on his head by the insane, embattled government, which resulted in one of the most remarkable documentaries of any conflict I’ve seen -- Liberia: An Uncivil War, released in 2004 (

As evidence of his dedication, Tim remained in Liberia after the war ended, when most journalists departed, to investigate human rights violations for the U.N. Security Council’s Liberian Sanctions Committee. No one did more to tell the world the full story of what happened in Liberia than he did. You can hear him discuss his work in Liberia here:

Tim also compiled a stunning series of images of
people blinded by the fighting in neighboring Sierra Leone, and went on to work in Chad, Afghanistan and finally, Libya.

Tim was born in Liverpool, England, studied literature at Oxford University, later returned to college to study photojournalism, and eventually settled in New York City. Most recently he worked as a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair magazine. You can see some of his personal favorite photos on his website He published or contributed to three books: Healing Sport (Thames & Hudson, 2003, part of group project, Tales of a Globalizing World); Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold (Umbrage, 2009); and Infidel (Chris Boot Ltd., 2010), a stunning illustrated account of the experiences of a group of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan.

In film, Tim worked as both a cameraman and director/producer. In addition to his Liberian documentary, he shot The Devil Came on Horseback (2007), and filmed and made his co-directorial debut, with Sebastian,
of the film for which he will probably be best known, Restrepo, about a year in the life of a platoon of soldiers in Afghanistan, which was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival and made the short list for an Academy Award this year for best documentary.

Restrepo ( tells the story of the 2nd Platoon of Battle Company in the 173rd Airborne Combat Team on its deployment in Afghanistan in 2007 and 2008.
The title refers to the platoon outpost, named after a popular soldier, Juan Restrepo, who was killed early in the fighting. Tim also produced pieces for ABC News' "Nightline" and won the World Press Photo of the Year award for his coverage of those same U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley.
His last project was a highly personal, experimental short film called Diary. Next week he and Sebastian were to receive an inaugural award from the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, for Restrepo, which no doubt thrilled him more than all his other awards and accolades because it came from people who had personally experienced what the film was about.

If anyone was intimate with life and death, it was Tim. His own death would have been lamented at any time, but was particularly shocking now, when he was getting the attention he deserved, and because he had so much more to say and reveal about the conflicted world. At the time of his death, at 40, he was covering Libyan rebels under fire from government forces. Also killed was photojournalist Chris Hondros,
who worked for Getty Images. Two other journalists were injured but survived.

In an interview with the Associated Press before the Oscars, Tim said of Restrepo, “We wanted to bring the war into people's living room and put it into the movie theaters, and get people to connect with it. It's not necessarily about moral outrage. It's about trying to understand that we're at war and try to understand the emotional terrain of what being at war means.”

If anyone understood that emotional terrain it was Tim, and because of him, the rest of us have a far greater sense of it, as well.