Alan Huffman reflects on the Life and Legacy of war photo journalist Tim Hetherington …… First published in Oxford Today, Volume 27 No 1. Reproduced with kind permission of the Chancellor, Masters and Scholars of the University of Oxford.
In Mohammed al-Zawwam’s memory of that day, there were so many badly injured people around him, crying out for help, bleeding onto the gurneys, that he almost didn’t want to film. Yet he did film. He didn’t stop until his battery died.
A dozen or so wounded people had arrived in the triage tent at al-Hekma hospital in Misrata, Libya, on 20 April 2011, following a mortar attack on the city’s embattled Tripoli Street. Some days had brought more injured to the tent during Misrata’s three- month siege, but 20 April was extraordinary in other ways, as is painfully clear in al-Zawwam’s almost unwatchable video.
A rebel photographer who spent much of the siege escorting foreign journalists through the conflict zone, al-Zawwam saw documenting the Libyan uprising as part of his job, though in reality it was almost everyone’s job. The Gaddafi forces busied themselves filming and photographing their assaults as well as episodes of torture and rape. Rebels and civilians snapped photos of the aftermath of bombs and of their friends and families juxtaposed against every kind of wartime backdrop. Professional photographers, most of them foreign, inserted themselves into the action with expensive cameras and iPhones, transmitting news and images of the war back home, and from there to the wider world; four of the Western journalists were now among the victims, which would be big news.
As al-Zawwam filmed, doctors, nurses and volunteers crowded around the gurneys upon which the injured writhed in agony or lay in telling silence. At times his camera was jostled, so that his footage veers wildly.
At one point he pauses on the body of a tall, handsome man who seems to be attracting more attention than the rest. Until then there has been no voiceover, only the chaotic noise of the tent, but as a group of doctors and nurses and volunteers pound their fists on the tallman’s chest, al-Zawwam is heard to say, ‘Tim!’ in surprise and recognition. His camera hovers on the scene for a moment, then zooms in on the man’s stubbled face, which appears to have been drained of blood.
At that moment, it becomes clear that Tim Hetherington (LMH, 1989, classics and English), the acclaimed war photographer who was in many ways a quintessential English explorer – intrepid, intellectually curious, intrigued by the lives of everyone he encountered, and especially those caught up in war – was dead. The doctors would continue to try to revive him for perhaps 15 minutes more, to no avail.
Hetherington’s death, and that of a fellow photographer, American Chris Hondros, as a result of the same mortar attack, put Misrata on the map for a global audience, momentarily trumping everything that was happening in Libya at the time – something that would have discomfited Hetherington, given that subsequent accounts made no mention of the local rebels who had also died, the very people he had come to document.
Soon after, Hetherington’s close friend and sometime collaborator, journalist Sebastian Junger, published what was essentially an open letter to him in Vanity Fair, in which he wrote, ‘I’ve never even heard of Misrata before, but for your whole life it was there on a map for you to find and ponder and finally go to. All of us in the profession – the war profession, for lack of a better name – know about that town. It’s there waiting for all of us. But you went to yours, and it claimed you.’
How Hetherington came to be in Misrata that day, after a decade spent chronicling war, would become the impetus for Junger’s second documentary film, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. During his career, Hetherington won three World Press Photo awards, including top honours in 2007 for his image of an exhausted US soldier in Afghanistan, and was nominated for an Academy Award for Restrepo, the documentary film he co-directed with Junger about US soldiers at a remote outpost in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Hetherington also published two books: Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, and Infidel, about soldiers at the US Army’s Outpost Restrepo.
Though war coverage defined Hetherington’s career, and cost him his life, he saw himself less a combat photographer than a storyteller and as a ‘maker of images’: a distinction that many of Hetherington’s friends and family members have stressed in the nearly four years since he died. Hetherington was as likely to photograph soldiers asleep in their cots as fighting. His efforts were rooted not in the adrenaline buzz of the bang-bang club nor the public’s appetite for blood, but in a desire to ‘explain the world, to the world’, as he once put it. To pigeonhole him as purely a war photographer would be to overlook his considerable involvement in humanitarian efforts in places such as Sierra Leone, Darfur and Sri Lanka.
Timothy Alistair Telemachus Hetherington was born in Merseyside in 1970 and began his creative sojourn shortly after graduation from Lady Margaret Hall, when he left England to travel in China, India and Tibet with the help of a £5,000 bequest from his grandmother’s estate. The trip, he later said, opened his eyes to the lives of people beyond his familiar realm, and fostered a desire to share what he saw. After returning to study photojournalism at Cardiff and to a series of small jobs in England, mostly as a photojournalist, he travelled to West Africa, to the war-torn nations of Sierra Leone and Liberia, where he haunted the perimeters of conflict, photographing and writing about its lingering effects on people there while becoming increasingly curious about its causes. Then, in 2003, he joined documentary filmmaker James Brabazon for a trial by fire as a war photographer and videographer during Liberia’s second civil war, taking still photographs and footage for Brabazon’s documentary, An Uncivil War. He continued to mine the vein, working across Africa and Southeast Asia on magazine and television assignments, interspersed with projects for humanitarian organisations such as
Human Rights Watch, including the documentary film The Devil Came on Horseback, about the Darfur genocide. In 2006, he took a break to work as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee – evidence of his investment in the lives of his subjects, which characterises his work to the end.
What set Hetherington apart from the prototypical English explorer, and from most war journalists, was his profound, sometimes rending empathy for the people he met in extremely trying circumstances – blind war orphans in Sierra Leone, survivors of the genocide in Darfur, tsunami victims in Sri Lanka, US soldiers within a Taliban stronghold, Libyan citizens trapped inside the besieged city of Misrata. For him, the spoils of war were photos, footage and written words highlighting human attributes that become most evident during extreme duress – courage, nobility, compassion, camaraderie, desperation and unimaginable cruelty. His aim, as is evident in his work, was to find beauty amid the pathos, and to connect his viewers and readers with the lives of people in the midst of struggle, about which they otherwise would not know.
His own sense of personal responsibility, and curiosity, is evident in his earliest work, such as his photographs of victims of street violence in London. Brabazon recalled that during that first foray into the Liberian civil war Hetherington exhibited remarkable courage, and though mindful of danger, frequently put himself in harm’s way to get a revealing photo or segment of film footage. Hetherington was injured numerous times during his career; later in Liberia, he suffered three fractured ribs while covering a riot, and in Afghanistan he walked all night on a broken ankle as he evacuated with American soldiers from a mountainside Taliban attack.
Junger noted that Hetherington never described the personal demons that he hinted had sparked his interest in war, other than to say that he had been troubled as a boy by the violent bullying and use of corporal punishment at the boarding school he attended. But in Long Story Bit by Bit, he describes an interview with a former warlord who recalled her own experiences with violence and seemed ‘excited by the memory, like a person who has been through combat or seen strange things and had their moral compass turned so much so that the springs inside have broken.’ In seeking to make sense of such things, he increasingly focused on what he saw as the curious relationship between young men and war. What prompted them to put their lives at risk, to kill, and often to die for each other? His work provides clues – both to why they did it, and to why the subject kept drawing him back. He was sometimes equivocal about his own role as a journalist, wondering whether he was part of the conscience of the world, or a vulture. Yet he never slowed down in the face of the physical and emotional toll, and he often joked about being the tall, mannerly Brit among crazed warlords or hard-bitten US soldiers.