[Photo Gallery | Kamber-Hetherington Interview (Audio)]
A decade in war zones took a physical and emotional toll. In 2007, Tim snapped his leg trying to evade a Taliban ambush in the Afghan mountains late one night. He walked on the broken limb for several excruciating hours to reach safety, sometimes crawling on his hands and knees.
“Tim was wiped out after Afghanistan,” his friend Shoshana Guy told me. “It drained him emotionally, physically, spiritually. He knew he was losing something he would never get back.”
Jeremiah Zagar, a filmmaker and close friend, points to Tim’s conceptual video Diary as evidence of his exhaustion.
“Someone said, ‘Diary is so beautiful.’ No, it’s not, it’s the opposite of beautiful. Diary is about Tim trying to express that he is completely sucked dry by war—a shell of a human being. The end is a dude on the phone with the press, he can’t explain anything of what he’s seen. He’s like, You have no fucking idea.”
When he returned from one trip to Afghanistan, Tim told me he couldn’t sleep. He was disturbed by violent dreams and waking thoughts of death. I told him that violence corrupted our souls, that there was no way we could photograph thousands of dead and suffering people and not have that corruption seep into our conscience. He got a prescription for sleeping pills and went back to Afghanistan to finish Restrepo.
“He believed that this would kill him, he knew it,” Jeremiah told me last week. “I felt for a really long time that he was telling me he did not want to go back to war, he knew he was gonna die. He didn’t think it would happen this fast. But he knew he was gonna die.”
Tim and I talked often about family and relationships. He was torn between wanting to start a family and the desire to continue his work. Late into the night, between tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, we would debate whether it was possible to cover war—to have a true commitment to war journalism—and maintain a commitment to family. I argued that it wasn’t. Done correctly, the work took everything we had. Many of our colleagues suffered from drug and alcohol addictions; a few had become emotionally unbalanced. (One well-known war correspondent, a neighbor of ours, papered over his Brooklyn windows to protect himself from the ghosts of rooftop snipers.) Under such circumstances, stable relationships were practically impossible—certainly unfair.
Coming home was always brutal: the trembling fear and constant vigilance was replaced, a 24-hour plane ride later, by a surreal return to neighbors discussing plans for brunch and “reality” TV. When we were home, we hung out with other journalists, fellow “war dogs.” Enfolded in this familiar cocoon, we had no need to explain ourselves; we were understood. Still, Tim wanted a family.
“Tim, more than anyone I know, was a pathetic romantic looking for love,” Jeremiah said. “Tim would say to me, ‘I need tenderness.’ It was like he was saying, ‘I need someone to touch me, hold me, tell me I’m going to be OK.'”
He met a beautiful Somali-American woman named Idil Ibrahim. Soon after, he began fitful attempts to settle down. “You can get out while you’re ahead,” I advised. “You’ve got a hit movie, successful books; you have galleries and Hollywood directors courting you.”
But, like me, Tim struggled with the pull of violence, the fascination with war. After spending the better part of a decade in war zones, Tim’s entire career, his psyche—even his daily musings—revolved around the intersection of violence, media imagery, and the relationships war created between men.
There was no brass ring in the suburbs. There was no such thing as being “ahead.”
Tim eventually finished Restrepo. At the 2011 Oscars, he walked down the red carpet with soldiers from the 173rd Airborne. He was ready to get back in the field. He still had a Vanity Fair contract to fulfill, and he and Sebastian decided on Libya. Tim made an initial trip in late March, but photographically it was a disaster.
Tim returned to New York in early April and invited me for dinner on April 4. He talked about the danger of the shoot and the lack of direction in his pictures. He talked of mortars and rockets falling, of being caught in a vicious ambush in a small village.
“Jesus, these look like outtakes from a wire service,” I said when he showed me the photos. They were unfocused thematically—the worst photos I’d ever seen from him.
We talked for hours. He made me dinner and we scrolled through his pictures. Two things emerged. First, he came across a photo of an extremely fat man in civilian clothes parading an ammunition belt through the streets. The photo was absurdist theater, farce. Tim was mesmerized by its implications—men playing at war, trying to live out something they had seen in a movie.
He talked about the role of the media in the war machine, how some images quickly became propaganda for one side or another. It was this fascination that led him back to Libya, to his death. He envisioned his next big project in Libya, in the the Arab spring: a series of photos inspired by the fat man. Maybe I’ll call it “Theater of War,” he said.
And then he said these fateful words: “I’ve been out of it for a while, and when I went back, I found that what I’m really interested in is war. This is what I want to do.”
He asked me to come with him.
When I got the news, I was at the bedside of New York Times photographer Joao Silva, the most hardcore son of a bitch I’ve ever met. He was terribly wounded by an IED in Afghanistan in October; at the time of this writing, he is still hospitalized. Idil, Tim’s girlfriend, called me first. She’d heard a house with some journalists had been hit in Misurata. Joao made some calls, confirmed it, then held me as I cried.
Tim, with my friend and colleague Chris Hondros at his side, had spent the morning of April 20 shooting some of the most close-quarters combat imaginable. Tim filmed inside a cramped, bombed out office building, shoulder to shoulder with rebels, as they tried to kill loyalists in the next room. As a stairwell blazed with flames beneath him, Tim shot footage of the rebels firing blindly around corners. Bullets struck just feet away. There was shouting as the rebels tried to roll burning tires into the rooms, in an attempt to burn the loyalists out. Tim filmed with the calm professionalism that was his trademark, capturing small details among the chaos.
Reports say that Tim, Chris Hondros, and two other photographers piled into two pickup trucks and headed into Misurata’s open town square with militiamen, who fired a mortar in the general direction of Qaddafi’s forces.
The response was immediate: incoming fire, probably more mortars. A French journalist nearby saw an explosion where Tim and the others had been standing. A rebel ran out of the cloud of smoke shouting “Sahafi” (“journalist” in Arabic), miming a wound. Tim and Chris were loaded into a pickup truck and rushed to a hospital.
It seemed some bizarre, cruel joke: after Liberia, Côte d’Ivoire, and a dozen trips to Afghanistan, for Tim’s road to end in Misurata, Libya. He didn’t even have an assignment. But maybe that was the point: he was there because that’s where he wanted to be.
Sebastian believes Tim was calling out for help, that he was conscious and knew he’d been wounded.
During the early years of the Iraq war, he and I would drive for hours over the heavily mined roads and I’d fight off sleep. If the explosion came, I wanted to be awake, to feel my own death. Tim was awake. He experienced his own death. It must have been excruciating, frightening.
What did he think as he was lying in the back of that truck?
Tim, I imagine, would have wanted to experience his wounding, his slow bleeding out. It was the ultimate experience for an unceasingly curious man who devoted his life to exploring violence. Maybe I am callous in this, maybe I tell myself this because I need to take comfort in it. The truth is, I’ll never know.
I don’t know why the universe chose that moment in time, that confluence of events—the trajectory of a mortar tube, Tim’s decision to run down that street, the perfect spray of shrapnel. Any degree of change and his life would have been spared. Of course, any degree of change—in the angle of a gun in Liberia or Afghanistan—and we could have lost Tim long ago. The first rule of war is chaos. Tim knew that rule well.
I respect Tim’s work and the life he built; I have to respect Tim’s choice to take a boat to Misurata, a small besieged port town where artillery was falling, a place where his life was not in his hands.
Tim spent years in Liberia. Fighters there had a saying: “Bullet knows no name.”
I know there is no “they” who took Tim’s life. Someone a mile away dropped a mortar into a tube. A few seconds later a small piece of shrapnel ripped through Tim’s flesh. This is how it happens.
Now I lay awake at night replaying scenarios. I could have done things differently: I could have insisted Tim not go, gone with him and stopped the bleeding, turned him down a different street at a different hour. I know many of our friends are having the same tortured thoughts.
We are left with memories of a man who was changing our world—teaching his friends about intimacy and communication, translating history’s deeds for an international audience, leading a generation of image makers down new roads.
Tim Hetherington was a giant of a man.