Tim Hetherington: Photojournalist, Giant

 

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Tim Hetherington died April 20, 2011 covering the war in Libya. Michael Kamber, fellow photojournalist,  pays tribute to his fallen friend and offers an intimate glimpse into what made Hetherington such a remarkable man.

EDITORS’S NOTE: Today, April 20, 2013, is the one year anniversary of Tim Hetherington’s death. We are running this tribute to by Michael Kamber in honor of Tim’s life.

♦◊♦

On the afternoon of Wednesday, April 20, somewhere in the Libyan port city of Misurata, a soldier launched a mortar skyward. Hundreds of yards away, a photojournalist was living his last moments on this earth. The shell hit the ground where a group of photographers and rebel fighters stood. Shrapnel tore through Tim Hetherington’s body.

A giant in the field of journalism, a giant of a human being, Tim bled to death minutes later.

Along with Larry Burrows, the dean of Vietnam photojournalism, and Ernie Pyle, whose writing defined WWII, Tim was among the greatest war documentarians of our time. His books—Infidel and Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold—are genre-bending meditations on masculinity and violence. His revolutionary images communicate the horror, the banality, and the humanity of war with incomparable immediacy. His video installations—Diary and Sleeping Soldiers—transcend boundaries between journalism and art, engaging new audiences by portraying war with unprecedented intimacy. Restrepo, the acclaimed 2010 documentary Tim co-directed with Sebastian Junger, renewed long-dormant debates about the Afghan war and its effects on our soldiers.

Kamber, Shoshana Guy, Hetherington

I called Tim my best friend for many years. We covered the mad, terrible Liberian civil war in 2003. I was carrying a big, slow, completely impractical portrait camera with me on the quiet days, to take more contemplative shots than I could with a digital. I heard a far-fetched rumor that there was another photographer, on the other side of the lines, carrying a similar camera. It was Tim. He was photographing the launch of mortars that were falling around me and Chris Hondros, the photographer who was killed alongside Tim last week.

Chris and I photographed the rocket-propelled grenades being fired back at Tim and the rebel soldiers. All around us, civilians, huddled together in the besieged city of Monrovia, were dying in scores. At times only a few hundred meters separated us. When we finally met in 2004, after the war, we talked for hours in a steamy Monrovia bar about war, manhood, photojournalism, women. I felt like I’d been re-united with a long-lost brother. There was a kindness and an easy intimacy in Tim’s manner.

♦◊♦

Born and raised in and around Liverpool, Tim went to boarding school and eventually Oxford, where he studied literature and classics. Soon after graduation he disappeared into India, China, and Tibet for two years, spending months at a Buddhist monastery. When he returned to England at 23—with dreadlocks, a yak-hair coat, and a case of dysentery—he had an epiphany: “I realized I wanted to make images,” he said. He began studying photography at night school and eventually went back to Cardiff University, where he completed his training in 1997.

Photojournalists, at their worst, can be a preening, self-important bunch. But Tim, who won nearly every award a photojournalist could hope to win, was without pretense. He carried his six-foot-three-inch frame with the casual grace and humility of an old-school gentleman.

“He was such a goddamn stud,” recalled New York Times writer David Carr. “He met me in Central Park one time. It was like watching Hercules walk toward me as he approached. I’m surprised the shell that killed him didn’t just bounce off.”

Watch Tim in interviews and you will see a man of extraordinary intelligence and humility. He was self-deprecating, impish, even goofy; his sense of humor, his love of pure fun, was limitless. A memorable night of drunken revelry with friends Piers Dunn and Shoshana Guy resulted in Tim famously wrestling Shoshana to the ground and rolling her up in his carpet, laughing hysterically. During the filming of Restrepo, after grueling day-long marches in Afghanistan, Tim would sprint ahead of the troops as they climbed the last hundred meters to their hilltop base, clamber atop a barrier, and shout “I claim this for England!” at the fiercely patriotic American soldiers as they straggled by, exhausted but laughing.

During the filming of Restrepo, after grueling day-long marches in Afghanistan, Tim would sprint ahead of the troops as they climbed the last hundred meters to their hilltop base, clamber atop a barrier, and shout “I claim this for England!” at the fiercely patriotic American soldiers as they straggled by, exhausted but laughing.

His friends watched in amusement as Tim experimented with how to become a New Yorker, finally settling on “Yo” as his go-to greeting. Flinging open the door to his Brooklyn loft, he’d almost shout, in that booming British bass, “Yo, Mike!” Then Italian war photographer Franco Pagetti would arrive from down the hall. “Yo, Franco!”

Tim’s apartment was a place where journalists could find a meal, crash for the night, and talk for hours. I stayed on his couch after returning from Afghanistan earlier this year; each day he would unleash crazy ideas for new work, rambling discourses laced with references to history, journalism, and literature. “Tim, that’s fascinating,” I’d say, “but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”

“I’m going to mount an IMAX camera on the back of a Humvee,” he insisted. “I’m going to shoot a science-fiction film in Afghanistan during the war.”

It was the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard, but Tim wasn’t joking.

Several years ago I laughed when he described a project he’d thought up—something about soldiers’ dream states. A few weeks later he showed me a rough cut of his Sleeping Soldiers video installation, a piece of transformative power that took the 2009 New York Photo Festival by storm.

♦◊♦

Tim, a master of many mediums—audio, film, video, photography—was not interested in being labeled. He was neither a filmmaker nor a photographer. He was, as he often said, working at “transjournalism”—a term he used to describe his multidisciplinary approach.

“If you’re interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer,” he told me.

Hetherington, London, 2007.

“We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something, in terms of mass communication, that is past. I’m interested in reaching as many people as possible.” Labels and mediums were obstacles, boundaries to be smashed, on his way to capturing—and faithfully transmitting—war, personal relationships, and history.

His commitment to his craft ran deep, as did his desire to share his hard-won knowledge and insight with students. Tim conducted workshops in Europe, Africa, and the U.S. He focused on helping students develop the vocabulary to read and understand news images. Did the photographer have an agenda? What was the photo’s context? Was it intended as propaganda? Could it be used that way?

“Tim worked so fluently and fluidly across forms of communication—photography, film, journalism, art, activism,” said Lacy Austin of the International Center for Photography. “He told such essential stories of needed progress that are too often unseen and unheard.”

♦◊♦

Tim went to Liberia in 2003 to work on the documentary An Uncivil War, primarily as a videographer. When he had the opportunity to take stills, while others were banging away at the charnel and madness with motor-driven Canons and Nikons, Tim waded in, one frame at a time, slowly cranking his Hasselblad and capturing quiet, contemplative details.

When the war was over, he moved to the Liberian capital, Monrovia, deliberately digging into the war’s recent past, trying to get to its roots. Tim combed the countryside and interviewed politicians, civilians, and ex-combatants. His resultant book, Long Story Bit by Bit, is a complex masterpiece of long-form storytelling, melding words, testimonies, graffiti, and photojournalism.

Jones, Battle Company, KOP Firebase, Korengal

An assignment with Vanity Fair paired him with Sebastian Junger, beginning a partnership that eventually led Tim to Afghanistan, where he worked with Sebastian on a two-year project about a small platoon of American soldiers in a remote Korengal Valley outpost. The film that came out of it, Restrepo, is the most perceptive and moving documentary ever made about men and war. Out of the millions of photos and hours of film shot in Afghanistan by the press, Restrepo did more than any other document to convey the war’s reality to an American public emotionally divorced and intellectually disconnected from the carnage.

Devoted as he was to transjournalism, Tim’s work existed outside politics. The position he took on war was simple: total immersion. With Restrepo, he placed the Korengal Valley in movie theaters and living rooms across the world; he wanted his audience to feel and understand the Afghan war as it was experienced by the soldiers.

Restrepo shows the war you might see in other documentaries—the combat and adrenaline, the futility of the soldiers’ efforts—but, as always with Tim’s work, it achieves much more. It explores the interior lives of one intrepid, tragic fraternity, exposing their strengths and frailty.

The soldiers wrestle together, sing together, dance together. They die for one another. Animating it all is their love for one another. “Tim had the idea that war was one of few places men could show affection to one another without it being sexual,” Sebastian told me a few days ago as we planned Tim’s memorial here in New York City. “They hug, wrestle, kiss—none of it is misconstrued. … We always said Restrepo was not a war movie, it was a movie about young men.”

(Tim’s accompanying photo book, Infidel, expounds on the theme. It shows warriors laughing, playing, and sleeping—“as their mothers saw them.”)

Smiling, Tim once showed me a Facebook post from a military mother denouncing the book as “pornographic and un-American.” A soldier featured in the book posted a reply: “I love pornography, I love America, and I love this book.” Tim laughed uproariously.

Twenty-year-old American soldiers are a tough group to win over. Yet they adored and accepted Tim—British accent, intellectual theories, the whole package. He humped his pack as hard as the next guy, he slept on the ground, ate rations.

When one of the soldiers visited New York after his combat tour, a mutual friend asked, “What do you want to be when you finish college?” The soldier thought for a moment. “I want to be Tim.”

 

Next Page:  “He knew he was gonna die.

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About Michael Kamber

Michael Kamber is a photojournalist who has covered wars throughout the world. He has been nominated for three Pulitzer Prizes, twice for photography and once for writing.

Comments

  1. Michael, this piece was so well written. I found myself being transported to the events and now I feel like I’ve lost a friend too. Great job and sorry for your loss.
    Rup

  2. Holy shit. I mean…holy shit.

    Having known many photojournalists, some of them who have been in war zones, the one thing I know is you could not have done anything to stop him. That is who they are and what they do. And they only stop when/if they want to.

    I’m sorry for your loss, but thank you for writing this. It was truly incredible.

  3. Carla Smith says:

    Michael,

    Thank-you. I read and watched Restrepo, and watched “Sleeping Soldiers”, which, as a Mom, continues to haunt me today. It felt strangely personal and familiar, though I am personally ‘unrelated’ to war. Tim was onto something and when you get that close to the contradictions of war I guess it is often literally and eventually all-consuming. I think those of us watching from the sidelines vastly underestimate the real costs of war to not only family and friends but to what might have been. The loss of your friend is a loss for the world. Thank-you for letting us into your memories.

  4. Regine Alexandre says:

    Mike,

    This is such a wonderful piece and tribute! Thank you for sharing these pieces of life and difficult experiences.

    I am deeply sorry for your loss.

    Pls be safe!

    Regine

  5. Wonderful tribute Michael. Beautifully written. Hope our paths cross again sometime in the future. Stay safe.

  6. David Wise says:

    My condolences to his family and friends. God rest his soul.

  7. Lisa Hickey says:

    A truly amazing tribute. Michael Kamber, and now, through him, Tim Hetherington, changed me. They made me realize that instead of trying to ignore the realities of war, you can bear witness to the truth about it in a way that is meaningful.

    Beautiful, haunting, poignant and meaningful.

  8. I agree 100% with you LIsa. I couldn’t have articulated better words to attribute to the piece.

    I know for me, it’s a very personal look into the part of photojournalism I really don’t think about on a regular basis. We see the images but we don’t always see the people behind them or their own stories.

    I was not aware of Tim’s work until his death was reported but the first time I saw his image, I was captivated by a pair of soulful and passionate eyes. It’s clear that same soufulness and passion reads in his work through and through. As it does in your own piece Micheal. Thank you for giving us “civilians” such an intimate portrait into not just the inhumanity of war, but the humanity of the journalists that put themselves in physical and mental danger for the knowledge of truth in war.

  9. Leslee Schwartz says:

    Mike,
    A haunting and meaningful as your photos are, so to is this tribute. Everytime I hear of a journalist in peril, I say a silent prayer that it is not you. I can feel your pain and sorrow, thanks for sharing it and your insights with the rest of us! Be safe!

  10. Michael, What a wonderful article. You were so lucky to have been his friend for so long.
    We all have the similar thoughts. There’s not a soldier –or me, a military wife married to an active duty deployed Army surgeon, who hasn’t thought of a how it was “supposed” to turn out. There would have been intel, there would have been a medic, tourniquets, radios, air support, a medevac, and at the end of it, my husband would have been at an FST waiting to save his life. That’s how it runs in my mind –and other soldiers I have spoken to. And that’s what just makes us so very sad. With the soldiers, he might have been safe. But life doesn’t work out the way we think it will. So I’ve been focusing on the fact that he was a brother to many, that we shared some laughs and good talks and heartfelt wishes. It’s also good to know he found the love of a wonderful woman and was able to love Idil back. Tim’s life was blessed and complete. And so are we for having known him. Best, Kanani (PR Team, Restrepo)

  11. beautiful piece mike, thanks…

  12. thank you for sharing this. Thank you for sharing your thoughts as to why tim was and had to be where he was… thank you for sharing what was going on in his mind… I hadn’t seen him in a while. and thank you for sharing these lovely photos.

    I’ve struggled with my own ghosts around tim, they’re here, in case they help bring some closure

    http://onmotherhoodandsanity.blogspot.com/2011/05/more-on-tim-and-things-worth-dying-for.html

    and a lovely picture of his rackous laugh
    http://onmotherhoodandsanity.blogspot.com/2011/04/on-tim-aid-work-and-dying.html

  13. Kamber, this was such a touching tribute to Tim. Men like you and Tim are often misconstrued as the enemy by soldiers and families. I’ve made that mistake myself as a younger soldier. You both are heroes and patriots in helping everyone visualize and feel the humanistic truths about war and revealing also its terror and destructive capabilities on ones soul. I wish I had the chance to meet Tim. My heart goes out to his loved ones. Keep fighting the good fight, Mike.

  14. Brown Moses says:

    This video has Dr Tameem, a doctor who worked at an aid station on the Dafniyah front talking about his encounter with Tim Hetherington after he had been mortally wounded
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=tFnxAbD6oc4#t=88s

  15. Hey. I tried to follow Tim’s story while I was in Libya and I had a lot of luck. I met the doctor who drove him back while he was dying. I learned why he died. It was a stupid reason. Lack of a chest needle. He should have had one in an IO kit.

    http://youtu.be/vlQELJnc_5U
    http://youtu.be/QQwcK0JswkA
    http://youtu.be/tFnxAbD6oc4
    http://youtu.be/8q5biOaKFB8

Trackbacks

  1. [...] have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer” David White posted this on May 4th, 2011 “We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interest… Spread the [...]

  2. [...] May 2011)Interviews – Sebastian Junger (Globe and Mail: May 2011)Articles – Michael Kamber: Tim Hetherington: Photojournalist, Giant (goodmenproject.com: May 2011)Interviews and Talks – Chris Hondros’ 2006 ICP visiting artist talk [...]

  3. [...] top physical shape—like Tim Hetherington (see Times war photographer Michael Kamber’s tribute to Hetherington, which ran here at GMPM last week), who was killed by shrapnel from a mortar in Libya last [...]

  4. [...] impulse which brought down the Presidency during Watergate and just killed photo-journalist Timothy Hetherington, who did more than any Army press conference to show Americans the truth of what has been happening [...]

  5. [...] impulse which brought down the Presidency during Watergate and just killed photo-journalist Timothy Hetherington, who did more than any Army press conference to show Americans the truth of what has been happening [...]

  6. [...] impulse which brought down the Presidency during Watergate and just killed photo-journalist Timothy Hetherington, who did more than any Army press conference to show Americans the truth of what has been happening [...]

  7. [...] are just bad in a consistent way that women are not.  I tried to the stories of  Julio Medina and Michael Kamber but that only seemed to convince them so [...]

  8. [...] even beyond the numbers, how about the human cost of these wars? I personally went from cheering the amazing courage of the guys dropping into a Parkistan [...]

  9. [...] ran a story by Michael Kamber, the Pulitzer Prize nominated author and photojournalist, about his best f… after Tim was killed on assignment Libya. The penis map still gets more views than the story about [...]

  10. [...] My most vivid memory of Michael was the day that Tim Hetherington was killed after taking a boat to get into Libya to attempt to shoot the conflict there well before Muammar Gaddafi was overthrown. The first day there was nothing but raw emotion, but by the second day I suggested that Michael and I work together on a piece that would allow him to capture what it was that he admired so much about Tim. Michael, the GMP team, and I pulled together one of the pieces in our history of which I am most proud: “Tim Hetherington: Photojournalist, Giant.” [...]

  11. [...] Next Page:  “He knew he was gonna die.“ [...]

  12. [...] Michael reported many horrific stories and shot pictures that captured the intense physical and emotional pain of the combatants. But it was the death of his best friend, Tim Hetherington, which hit him the hardest, and therefore me too. [...]

  13. [...] story in Buzzfeed also reflects upon the death of their friend Tim Hetherington who was killed on assignment in Libya: My anxiety definitely went through the roof when my dad [...]

  14. [...] Tim Heatherington: Photojournalist, Giant – Photojournalist Michael Kamber’s tribute to his friend and colleague who died on assignment in Libya. [...]

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