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Few people knew Tim Hetherington—who died April 20 covering the war in Libya—as well as fellow photojournalist Michael Kamber. Here, Kamber pays tribute to his fallen friend and offers an intimate glimpse into what made Hetherington such a remarkable man.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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