Tim Hetherington, the award-winning war photographer who died in Libya in 2011 at the age of 40, understood his profession might lead to an early death. All journalists who decide to carry cameras into war zones for up-close photographs know the risks. Sometimes that understanding can be so emotionally paralyzing, the photographer retreats before it is too late. At the other extreme, some photographers are driven to take risks beyond the norm, believing that if they fail to capture the visual drama of war, nobody else will document the truth.
Hetherington, the subject of Alan Huffman’s admiring biography, “Here I Am,” was solidly in the latter group. Huffman writes that Hetherington was “propelled forward to the front lines of war by demons he never described, to illuminate the darkest corners of the world.”
Huffman’s account of Hetherington’s upbringing in England provides useful background for what would become his daring escapades. But no examination of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood can explain completely why certain individuals are drawn to war when they could earn a living in far less dangerous ways.
As a photographer, Hetherington did not exist in a void, and Huffman puts his work in context with a well-researched overview of war photography during the past century.
But though Hetherington was part of a long tradition of war photojournalism, Huffman says he was also unusual in his commitment to the stories he told, and in his compassion toward his subjects.
Hetherington’s coming-of-age as a skilled war photojournalist occurred in Liberia in 2003, during the beleaguered country’s second civil war in a decade. Unlike some photographers, Hetherington did not parachute in, snap a day of video, and depart forever. He returned again and again, tracking war criminals and winning the trust of those leading the rebellion against Charles Taylor’s government.
While in battle zones, Hetherington rarely relaxed during breaks in the gunfire. He kept shooting pictures. As he explained to a colleague, “You never get to see soldiers like this. You always see them in their gear with their weapons and they’re indomitable. . . . Look at them now. They’re like little boys. They’re asleep . . . . This is how their mothers see them.”
Because of his sunny nature, his good looks, his glibness and his technical skills, Hetherington talked his way into the midst of conflict for years without becoming a victim of bullets or bombs. He was also quick to set family, friends and professional colleagues at ease, although they could never completely erase their fears about the safety of the golden boy.
Those fears were realized on April 20, 2011, when Hetherington died after being hit by a mortar blast in Misrata, Libya. Later, Huffman traveled to Libya to grasp as best he could what occurred before, during, and after the mortar attack. The biographer wanted closure not only for himself and his book, but also for Hetherington’s loved ones — and especially for future war photojournalists who would look back and look up to Hetherington.
After Hetherington’s death, doctors said he might have been saved had anyone in the field known how to apply compression to his ruptured femoral artery, Huffman writes. Instead, he died slowly, of blood loss. In response, his friend (and, at times, fellow war correspondent) Sebastian Junger, the best-selling author, founded an organization called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues, a practical tribute to a fallen photojournalist.
Junger and Hetherington had collaborated on the Academy Award-nominated documentary “Restrepo,” about U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan. “Here I Am” serves as a companion book to another documentary, Junger’s second tribute to his friend. “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington,” airs on HBO beginning Thursday, April 18.
Huffman’s book can be counted as a tribute, too. Fortunately for readers, though, it is not undiluted hagiography. Though brave and kind, Hetherington was not perfect, and the biography is more credible for the inclusion of its subject’s shortcomings.
Steve Weinberg is a biographer and critic.