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Which Way is the Front Line From Here?: a documentary tribute to Tim Hetherington

Two years after his death, Tim Hetherington is the subject of a new HBO documentary, Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, which sheds light on his motivations as a photojournalist and filmmaker, and his untimely death

“I don’t really care about photography. I’m interested in engaging people with ideas and views of the world,” Tim Hetherington once said. This sentence has defined the journalist’s career and is now the focus of Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, an HBO documentary directed by Sebastian Junger.

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On 20 April 2011, Hetherington and his colleagues – Guy Martin, Chris Hondros and Michael Christopher Brown – came under attack in Misrata, Libya. Suffering from shrapnel wounds, the award-winning photographer and filmmaker bled out and died on the way to a makeshift hospital. While Junger’s documentary opens and closes on that fateful day, the filmmaker, with whom Hetherington worked on the Oscar-nominated Restrepo, attempts to explain, via interviews with his colleagues, friends and family, what made Hetherington a different kind of journalist. Using footage shot by Hetherington and his colleagues, the documentary takes us from Sri Lanka to Liberia and Afghanistan – countries that have influenced the way Hetherington approached the photographic medium.

“Photography liberated me from the workplace,” he said at the beginning of his career. “It made me free. It [enabled] me to express myself, it channelled me. It made me free from a kind of destructive tendency that I guessed I had inside.” Yet photography became almost secondary in his work. His goal, he said, wasn’t to create moral outrage about war, because “it doesn’t achieve anything”. Instead, he used media to build bridges between people. “He wanted to understand how war happened in the first place,” says journalist James Brabazon, who worked with Hetherington in Liberia in 2003. “Tim’s work was not about war,” adds photographer Christopher Anderson in the documentary. “Tim’s work was about human nature.”

“Photography is about engaging with people,” adds Daniel Meadows, a photography lecturer at Cardiff University, where Hetherington studied. “And Tim engaged with people.” At university, Hetherington set himself apart from the rest, embracing multimedia to tell stories. “I think of him as, probably, my first genuinely modern student,” says Meadows. “Right from the word go he saw that the future wasn’t going to be just about print. The future is about learning to work across many platforms, for many audiences, in many different ways.”

Brabazon had the opportunity to see it in Liberia. “Tim had this ability to do very surprising things,” he says, recalling when Hetherington stepped in to stop the execution of a doctor by rebel forces. “[There was no] division between being a photographer, a videographer, a journalist, a humanitarian or a participant. He was just Tim.”

In early 2010, Hetherington felt compelled to document the theatre of war in Libya. For him, says Junger in Which Way is the Front Line From Here?, Liberia, Afghanistan and Libya formed part of the same narrative, with the same question: why are men drawn to the frontline? A question that now applies to Hetherington himself.

While Which Way is the Front Line From Here? attempts to provide an answer to that question by presenting a strong and moving portrait of who Hetherington was and how he connected with the people he was photographing and filming, the documentary only starts to addess Hetherington’s real legacy – the way he challenged the standards of photography and searched for and proposed new ways of not only portraying conflicts, but also of presenting them to his audiences. This is what Hetherington will be remembered for in years to come, and this is what HBO’s viewers should know.

Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetheringtonpremieres on HBO in the US on 18 April and will be distributed in the UK later this year.