Appreciating Tim Hetherington: Q and A with Alan Huffman

Joanna Scutts, in Biographile, 30 April 2013 ….

Tim Hetherington, the British-born photographer, filmmaker, and writer who was killed by a mortar blast in Misrata, Libya, in April 2011, had worked in many of the world’s bloodiest and bleakest war zones. Driven by his desire to understand the people involved — especially the young men drawn irresistibly into violence — Hetherington created intimate portraits amid scenes of mayhem from Liberia to Afghanistan. We spoke with his biographer, Alan Huffman, author of Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, about Hetherington’s life, work, and legacy.


Biographile: The subtitle of your book calls Tim Hetherington a war photographer, but you suggest in the book that that label is inadequate. How would you describe him now, having been so deeply immersed in his life and work?

Alan Huffman: Tim was best known as a war photographer, and war obviously defined his work, but he didn’t consider himself a conventional photographer and certainly not a conventional war photographer. He didn’t see himself as part of the “bang-bang club.” He was more interested in the basic truths that images and stories of war can convey than in the temporary drama of combat.

That’s not to say he wasn’t attracted to conflict — he was, but he saw himself as an artist, a storyteller, and a humanitarian, and part of what attracted him was the fact that there’s no better place to understand human nature than in a time of war, when everyone is put to the test. He was interested in what conflict revealed about individuals, whether they were soldiers, rebels, or civilians caught in the crossfire, and he was as likely to photograph a sleeping soldier as he was someone firing a gun.

BIOG: Was it difficult as a writer to evoke the visual qualities of Hetherington’s photography, and the way that he and his fellow photographers saw the world? On the flip side, what do you think a book can achieve that photography or documentary film can’t?

AH: After I saw Sebastian Junger’s documentary film about Tim for the first time, I was a bit envious. Seeing Tim’s photos and videos – including images of him – projected onto a big screen created such a vivid impression. But when I told Sebastian that, he said his response after reading the book was that I was able to go more deeply into Tim’s story, as well as into the stories that unfolded around him. I think the book and the film complement each other in that way. Sebastian’s task was to tell Tim’s story very specifically and visually in ninety minutes or so, and it does so very powerfully, but that also meant that some compelling footage ended up on the cutting room floor, including scenes in Misrata, Libya, where Tim was killed, which were tangential to the film. With 250 or so pages to work with, I had more latitude. There are limitations in trying to tell the story of such an amazing life in 250 pages, but I could follow the sorts of tangents that Tim himself was following. I could explore the stories behind his images — his own, and those of his subjects.

There’s nothing like the power of images — that’s what Tim’s work was about, and we included a section of photographs in the book, for obvious reasons. But a written narrative provides context and telling details that aren’t evident on the surface. And fortunately, the scenes that Tim documented tended to be dramatic, and lent themselves to narrative very well.

BIOG: What was your connection with Hetherington before you began writing the book? What drew you to his story?

AH: I met him after we’d both been to Liberia during its civil war. Our reasons for being there were very different — I was there for a few weeks in 2001 researching a book called Mississippi in Africa, about the freed-slave immigrants who founded Liberia. I had very carefully avoided the fighting because I was looking for people who were themselves avoiding it. Tim, on the other hand, was embedded with a rebel army, and was thrust into a series of harrowing conflicts — his first time. After the war ended he returned to Liberia and lived there for three years, during which he also worked for the UN, helping track down war criminals. Our experiences, while related, hardly compared.

What struck me when Sebastian [Junger] introduced us was Tim’s keen interest in what I had personally seen in Liberia. That was Tim — he was most of all curious, and he understood that everyone knew something he didn’t know, and he wanted to find out what it was. That initial impression of him and his view of the world stuck with me. After he was killed, I was talking with Sebastian about the documentary film he was working on about Tim, and it just seemed obvious that there needed to be a book. I cared about Tim – everyone who met him did – but I wasn’t as close as Sebastian was, so I could see him as a character in a story. Otherwise it might have been much harder to write the book.

That’s not to say it wasn’t hard — it was a very intense experience. And I did feel an allegiance to him. But knowing he felt that everyone’s life was valid freed me as a writer to approach the book in a similar way, to also explore the stories that intersected with his. He became my guide as much as the subject of the book.

BIOG: Did your view of Hetherington and his work change over the course of writing the book? What was the most challenging aspect of telling his story?

AH: Before writing the book I thought of him as a very talented photographer who was also generous, funny, smart, and charming. I liked and admired him. That was a typical reaction. But after immersing myself in his story, I realized he was far more complicated and that he had ambitious goals, and greatly suffered for his work. He was determined to find beauty amid all this excruciating pathos, and he paid a price for it.

I did not set out to write a tribute to him. I think he deserved more than that. He would not, in my view, have wanted to gloss things over, or to push other people into the background to transform himself into a larger-than-life figure. Still, I don’t think I fully understood beforehand how committed he was to the idea of explaining the world to the world, as he put it, and to showing the true impact of war, on everyone. He was braver than I ever knew, not only because he put himself at physical risk, but because he had to face his own demons along the way. I also didn’t realize before how innovative he was, pushing the limits of every media available to him. He was searching for the front line in a variety of ways, including artistically.

The biggest challenge, for me, was to find out everything I could about him, and about what had happened in Misrata, which meant traveling there in the summer of 2012 to probe the painful, fresh memories of people who were there during the war. In the end, the trip was challenging, but brought its own revelations.

BIOG: Especially in the chapters on Afghanistan, you describe Hetherington’s fascination with young men at war, and with the “feedback loop” between the imagery of war and the way that soldiers end up acting out those movie or TV versions of what war is. But I wonder if there’s also a kind of feedback loop that war journalists — reporters and photographers alike — get sucked into. Do you think Hetherington got caught up in his own version of that feedback loop?

AH: In one way or another we’re all part of a feedback loop. We take cues from characters we admire, whether they’re real or fictitious. The danger, of course, is that we may mimic imagined behavior when faced with real situations. We may try to play someone else’s hand rather than the one we’ve been dealt, which can end in disaster. I don’t think Tim was prone to doing that. He was making his own way. He wasn’t trying to mimic anyone else. What he did do, and what all of us sometimes do, is play a role of our own making — mimicking an idea of ourselves that’s influenced by the ideas others have of us. In Tim’s case, the photographers with him in Misrata tended to defer to him because he was a very compelling figure: a tall, gregarious guy who had been around the block a few times, who knew his way around a war zone. If there was any feedback loop he was part of, that was it. He was Tim Hetherington, the seasoned war journalist, the guy who’d had a bounty on his head in Liberia, who’d walked all night on a broken leg in Afghanistan, who’d documented the genocide in Darfur. He might easily have been killed countless times, in numerous wars, but in Misrata the energy created within the group of photographers who were there was very powerful, and Tim was at the center of it, and it pushed them to places that they — and he — might not otherwise have gone.

BIOG: Hetherington emerges as a strikingly versatile storyteller, equally at home in film, old-fashioned still photography, and writing. Do you think that versatility made him unique — or do you think all modern war photographers need to be able to look beyond the single striking image, in order to tell a fuller story?

AH: I do think that combination is rare. Some still photographers are also very good videographers, and some — including Chris Hondros, who died alongside Tim in Misrata — are also very good writers. But it’s rare when someone moves so freely across different media. One of the tragedies of Tim’s death is that we’ve not only lost him, we’ve lost a remarkable experimentation in multimedia storytelling.

BIOG: What do you think will be his legacy?

AH: Tim’s legacy is incomplete, and unfortunately, always will be. But it points the way to deeper understanding and greater empathy for people in extremely difficult situations. Most of us watch passively as events of profound importance drift past on our social media timelines. Even if we choose to enter the fray as journalists, the tendency is to get what we need and move on. Tim’s work illustrates the importance of making a deeper commitment to understanding what truly matters, which is never more clear than in a time of violent conflict, for better or worse. I think he’ll be remembered for his willingness to go to the ends of the earth to understand how people deal with adversity, and what that reveals about all of us. Everything is documented today, in cell phone photos and videos, but Tim wanted to go far deeper than that. It’s easy to imagine people looking at his work decades from now and being inspired to do the same.

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