He was one of the brightest photojournalists of his generation. But, on 20 April 2011, a month after attending the Oscars with co-director Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington was killed while working on a story in Libya. Junger tells Tom Seymour about his admiration for Hetherington, and the enduring complexities of covering war.
The film begins with Tim Hetherington trying to describe why he risks his life to tell stories from some of the world’s most dangerous regions. Eventually, he finds the right words: “I want to connect with real people, to document them in real circumstances, where there aren’t any neat solutions.”
We then cut to footage he filmed in Misrata, Libya, on the morning of 20 April 2011. The country is in the midst of civil war, and the city is under siege by troops loyal to Colonel Gaddafi. The Bee Gees’ How Deep is Your Love plays on the radio as we’re driven through the city by a rebel fighter in his early twenties, coolly smoking at the wheel, an AK-47 nestled by the gearstick and a grenade hanging from the dashboard.
“Which way is the frontline from here?” Hetherington asks him, and he points straight forward. Hetherington and his photographer colleagues, Guy Martin, Chris Hondros and Guillermo Cervera, laugh at the sight of a high-rise building decimated by mortar fire.
Later that afternoon, the group would congregate by the building and Hetherington would take his last photograph; a soldier’s helmet pierced by a bullet among a pile of jettisoned government uniforms. Then a single mortar would whistle through the air and engulf the group in smoke. Hetherington would be hit by shrapnel and bleed out in the back of a truck with Cervera holding his hand. Later that day, Hondros would also die, and Martin would be left gravely wounded.
Which Way is the Front Line From Here? is directed by Sebastian Junger, the American journalist who, a month before that fatal day, had walked with Hetherington down the red carpet of the Academy Awards for their Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo.
He’d been due to go to Misrata with Hetherington but had decided against it for personal reasons. “Quite apart from the friendship I had with Tim, I think his work is extraordinary,” says Junger.
“Tragically, he’s not around to bring his work to the world any more. He was in the process of becoming a very influential artist, and he died. I think people close to him have a duty to take the work he did and keep it in the public mind, and to hope people are inspired by the way he lived his life.”
Hetherington was born in 1970 ago in Birkenhead, across the Mersey from Liverpool. His family were well off, but his father Alastair had a nomadic career, and Hetherington, his brother Guy and sister Victoria moved to a different part of Britain every few years. “I never had a community,” he says in the film.
At the age of 10, his parents enrolled him at Lancashire Benedictine in Stonyhurst College, a private boarding school set up by Jesuits. There he was privy and victim to the almost institutionalised bullying that forms part of public school education, and may have given rise to a deep ambivalence about English culture and society. “He found England to be stultifying and repressive” is how former Newsweek photography editor James Wellford, a friend and colleague, surmises it. Although Hetherington never talked publicly of his religious beliefs, he was later christened, when he added the middle name Telemachus. Telemachus was the son of Greek God Odysseus, who journeys far from home for word of his father, yet to return from the Trojan War.
Hetherington read English literature and classics at Oxford, before using a £5000 inheritance from his grandmother to travel through India, China and Tibet. “We couldn’t get him back,” his father Alastair says in the film. “I think we received three faxes from him in two years, each from odd places. He was someone who seldom became a tourist. He had an impulse that led him to immerse himself in wherever he was.” When he eventually returned to London, it was to attend the London School of Tropical Medicine as a patient; he’d managed to contract a host of diseases.
His experiences as a young traveller seemed to foster the fiercely independent ethos that motivated much of his work. Image-making, beginning with photography, became a serious passion – a way of “liberating me from the workplace, of making me free from a destructive tendency inside myself”.
His hair in dreadlocks and wearing clothes that looked as if he had found them in a skip, he enrolled in the respected photojournalism course at Cardiff Journalism School; his projects included spending 24 hours in A&E, documenting Valley lads drunkenly recovering from fights on Queen Street.
“He was my first genuinely modern, multimedia student,” his tutor Daniel Meadows recalls. “He understood very quickly that the future of photography is about working across many different platforms, engaging with many different audiences, in many different ways.”
At 27, Hetherington moved to London, lived in squats and worked as a freelance photographer, predominantly for The Big Issue. His then colleague Xan Brooks, now an editor at The Guardian newspaper, says: “The Big Issue was full of people finding their feet – trying, failing and screwing up. He looked very different from how he looked in his prime. His clothes seemed to rot on his body and fall off him.
“I have to confess that almost put me off him. I thought he was a posh boy who had studied a bit of Marxist theory and was now slumming it. I thought he would do it for a while, settle down and get a job as a corporate barrister, and I got it spectacularly wrong. I mistook his conviction, iron-clad purpose and deep levels of seriousness for youthful earnestness.”
Hetherington never felt sated by twenty-something life in London. In 1999 he got the opportunity to hit the road again when a football team from Liberia toured England. Under the despotic rule of Charles Taylor, the West African state had lurched from one civil conflict to another, and each of the footballers Hetherington photographed had grown up among war.
Sensing a story of “worlds colliding” Hetherington managed to get himself on their tour bus, photographing young men from one of the world’s poorest countries as they contemplated the casual affluence of British life. Gaining a commission with The Independent newspaper, Hetherington accepted an invite to travel with the team when they returned home to Liberia, where he composed his first major, long-form story.
“Healing Sport was the first coherent project I’d ever made as a photographer,” he said. “I’d made it based on the idea of the Trojan Horses, asking, ‘Can we talk about things that people are reluctant to talk about by disguising them in other vehicles?’ It was war disguised as sport.”
The project was the first spark for Hetherington’s ongoing fascination with conflict. He cold-called the war reporter James Brabazon, a veteran of the region, and over a coffee in west London asked if he could accompany him to the Liberian frontline.
Any understanding of Hetherington’s body of work must start with these first experiences of combat. The rebels who took on one of the world’s most notorious despots – who were “utterly enamoured with the theatrics of war” – were predominantly 10, 15, even 20 years younger than Hetherington, who was only 33 at the time. It led him to later comment: “Photography is great at representing the hardware of the war machine, but the truth is the war machine is the software as much as the hardware. The software runs it, and the software is young men.”
The experience led Hetherington to coin the term “the feedback loop”, describing how mass media – news, movies, photography, even action figurines – can inform young men in war, who in turn inform the media.
“Tim tried to visually explain the idea that young men are influenced by commercial imagery of war and then re-enact that imagery when they find themselves in war,” Brabazon says. “That’s something, I think, that came out of his work in West Africa and – as far as I understand – specifically the assault on Monrovia [Liberia’s capital, which fell to rebel forces in 2003].”
Hetherington became fascinated by how men’s appearance in war can shape the way they behave: “But the fact that young men re-enact the imagery of war, and that in turn generates more war imagery, is actually obvious,” Brabazon says. “Anyone who has been to war will see that spiral. But Tim was able to see it, and then demonstrate it, and then weave it into a wider narrative about men at war.”
New York Times reporter Michael Kamber first met Hetherington in Monrovia in 2004. They became close and ended up sharing an apartment in Brooklyn: “Tim talked of unit commanders in the rebel armies who would show their troops Rambo films to amp them up before a fight,” he says. “These kids were attempting to act out scenes they had seen in Hollywood movies. I spent the evening with Tim before he left for Libya and he talked about it then; of the way normal people can suddenly act out things they see in popular culture, and who can seem suddenly capable of playing at war.”
The conflict Hetherington found in Liberia deeply disturbed him, not least because he had endangered his own life by wilfully subjecting himself to a war. “You wanted this and now it’s gone too far,” he would later say in an interview, referring to himself after he’d come under fire while working there, adding: “You’ve really fucked it now, and you’re going to end up dead. You’ve let everyone down, and for what? A picture?”
But Hetherington’s work in Liberia was not predominantly about the iconography of violence; it was about giving a face – and a voice – to the people caught in such a horrific conflict.
“Tim was almost immeasurably affected by what he had seen,” his father says in the film. “It sat on his shoulders and reinforced his attitude to the world. He once said to me, ‘You are very rich and very privileged, because you can control and determine your own life, and avoid the absolute devastation that I have seen overwhelm people.’”
Hetherington’s photographs of the Liberian civil war told a wider story than the images put out by news wires. In one picture he showed an anti-aircraft soldier parting with his girlfriend as he left for the frontline. In another, he captured the graffiti left on the walls of an overrun outpost.
His concerns as a communicator extended beyond his own artistic and journalistic prerogatives. The friends and colleagues interviewed for this article each talk of an almost uncanny ability to engage, charm and connect with anyone, from any culture, even in the most extreme circumstances, and the footage Hetherington took in Liberia is evidence of such a talent.
He’s talking to Black Diamond, a young woman who joined the rebels at 17 after Taylor’s troops had killed her parents and gang raped her, and who had gained an almost mythical status for her relentless, brutal abilities as a fighter. She was rumoured to routinely castrate her captured enemies. Yet Hetherington is teasing, playful, almost flirtatious in his interactions with her. “You’re not going to the Bahamas for a holiday?” he asks her as she prepares the assault on Monrovia. “No!” she says, baffled.
“I thought, ‘What a strange guy,’” she tells Junger. “What is this handsome young man doing in the lion’s den?” In every photograph Hetherington took of her she carries an AK-47, but her demeanour is always warm, welcoming, compassionate. They became some of the defining images of African warfare in the 21st century.
In 2007, Hetherington arrived in the Korengal Valley, a key supply line linking the Taliban’s bases in the tribal regions of northern Pakistan, with their lethal operations along the Pech River and on to Kabul. He and Junger – his new creative partner – were to spend 15 months in circulation with the soldiers at Outpost Restrepo.
Built in the middle of the night under attack from all angles, Restrepo was named after a medic who died after being shot in the neck. Until they tactically withdrew, Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne held the most advanced position of any American unit – “a great big middle finger to the Taliban”. “Beliefs are a way to avoid looking at reality,” Hetherington and Junger wrote in their press material. “This is reality.”
In his introduction to Infidel, his series of photographs of the soldiers at Outpost Restrepo that acts as a partner piece to the film, Hetherington writes: “As anyone who has experienced it will know, war is many contradictory things. There is brutality and heroism, comedy and tragedy, friendship, love, hate and boredom. War is absurd yet fundamental, despicable yet beguiling, unfair yet with its own strange logic. Rarely are people ‘back home’ exposed to these contradictions – society tends only to highlight those qualities it needs, to construct its own particular narrative.”
What society fails to properly acknowledge, and Hetherington seems to argue through his work, is how emotionally significant the bonds of warfare can be, and how difficult it is to leave those bonds behind: “Civilians balk at recognising that one of the most traumatic things about combat is having to give it up,” Junger writes in War, his literary account of Restrepo.
“War is so obviously evil and wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels like a profanity. And yet throughout history men have come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been the worst experience of their lives.”
Hetherington wasn’t immune to such feelings. In our interview, Junger recalls an afternoon spent with him while he composed his acceptance speech for the World Press Photo award he’d won in 2008 for a picture he took of an exhausted soldier in the Korengal. His first draft was so full of theoretical jargon and high-concept musings that Junger – his co-director – couldn’t understand it.
“I’m sure it’s brilliant,” the American told him, “but why don’t you try to express what it felt like to be in the Korengal, to become so close with those soldiers, to become one of their brothers.” Hetherington wrote for half an hour, tried to read what he’d written back, and then burst into inconsolable tears.
At his memorial in New York, the men from Outpost Restrepo presented his family with an American flag sent from Senator John McCain.
Junger continues in War: “When men say they miss combat, it’s not that they actually miss getting shot at, it’s that they miss being in a world where everything is important and nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human relations are governed by whether you can trust the other person with your life.”
A year before he died in Misrata, and in the lull before Restrepo was released in cinemas, on the back of winning the Grand Jury Prize for Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival, Hetherington made a 20-minute film called Diary. He writes in the film’s title sequence of an attempt to “link our Western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media”. Despite this lofty justification, Diary is primarily a personal film, capturing Hetherington’s feelings of alienation, and his attempts to reconcile his compelling, conflicting experiences of third-world warfare with the comparatively mundane life back in his native London and adopted home of New York.
The film starts in a low-fi hotel room in a foreign city; we see the slow rhythm of a ceiling fan through an undulating mosquito net that morphs, slowly, into the whirring groan of a helicopter’s rotor blades as it primes for lift-off; then we hear a warped voicemail message – a woman’s voice telling Hetherington how much she misses him. Later in the film, the black smog from an exploding bomb turns into the swirling smoke of a cigarette. An argument with a woman, and then the wrapped bed sheets as he tries in vain to explain to an interviewer that his photos are all about hope. A car speeding from the booming rattle of machine guns becomes the slow crawl of a cab ride through central New York. A shimmery, overexposed scene of a summer’s stroll through the English countryside becomes the chaos-fuelled streets of Charles Taylor’s Liberia. Diary’s slow, pensive dissolves and subtle shifts in grade and tone demonstrate the highly expressive filmmaker Hetherington was in the process of becoming at the time of his death.
“Tim was brilliant because he was interested in what was the most meaningful, not just the most dramatic,” Junger says. “He made a living documenting other people’s suffering, but he was good about it because he was doing a fair amount of suffering himself, and he found a way of communicating that honestly and emphatically.”
Hetherington was the author of some of the most fluent war reportage of the 21st century, the modern heir to Stephen Crane, Wilfred Owen, Ernest Hemingway and Bao Ninh. He died at 41, still reconciling himself with his work, still discovering himself as an artist, still understanding himself as a reporter, and still deeply, fervently committed to bringing warfare into our living rooms. Now what do we do with the work he left us?
“My great concern is that Tim died thinking he had done something stupid,” Junger says. “If I could say something to him now, I would tell him his life wasn’t worth the photos he was taking at that moment. But all of us who do this job understand that losing your life is worth all the photos we take and all the stories we write. He didn’t do anything stupid, he was doing something important. He lived his life very bravely and very honestly, and by doing so he helped a lot of people.”
“Tim’s work is an unfinished project,” Brabazon says. “There was an important period after his death when we remembered his work; now we need to interpret his work. We need to engage with it, discuss it, and then we need to turn it towards the future. If we can do that, we will be able to build on the conversation Tim started.”
Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? is available now.
The Tim Hetherington Trust, set up in memory of Tim, and to preserve his working legacy, provides funding opportunities to emerging photographers.