News & Politics

Tim Hetherington: A Life Remembered

Promising filmmaker and photojournalist dies in Libya

Tim Hetherington. Photo courtesy Outpost Films.

I first met Tim Hetherington, who died Wednesday alongside Pulitzer Prize-winning Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros in Libya, in the fall of 2007, at a New York event hosted by the Frontline Club, a British society for journalists covering conflict overseas. Hetherington had just won the World Press Photo competition for his Vanity Fair photograph of an American soldier in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, and he was on crutches following a fall down a mountain in the middle of the night, which had resulted in a broken ankle. Hetherington and his Vanity Fair collaborator, author Sebastian Junger, screened footage the pair had captured from Afghanistan for ABC News—images of graphic conflict that were seen by over 22 million Americans. “I don’t want to preach to the converted,” Hetherington said later about the project. “I don’t want to reach intellectuals who already know what the story is. I want to reach the road sweeper who has ABC News on in the morning, or the mom who’s taking her kids to school. In some ways I think that has much more utility.”

Hetherington agreed to talk to me for a class project, and we met in a brunch place on the Upper West Side where he told me about his life. He was born in Liverpool, England, and had what he called “an unusual upbringing,” living in 12 different cities with his family before he was sent to Stoneyhurst, a Jesuit boarding school. “It was a strange place,” he said, “a real Jesuit prison camp. Hard weather, and they used to beat you in that private schoolboy tradition.” He studied English, Latin, and Greek at university, and worked for a while publishing and editing children’s books. After his grandmother died and left him a few thousand pounds, Hetherington took two years off and traveled alone to China, India, and Pakistan, staying mostly out of contact with family and friends. When he returned to England, he felt dissatisfied with writing as a medium. “I’d had a lot of experiences, and I was suffering from culture shock,” he said. “I had a lot of things inside me that I needed to express, and I was having difficulty expressing them with words. I said to myself there and then that I wanted to get involved in more visual culture.”

Hetherington saw a film by French artist Chris Marker and was inspired by the fusion of travel, film, visual elements, and narrative. But he was put off by the collaborative nature of filmmaking, which required a team effort. “I suddenly got the idea of being a photographer, because at the time I didn’t really want to be a team player. Photography seemed a way to get a camera and go off and do your own thing.” He enlisted in night photography classes in London, and then a friend suggested a photojournalism course at Cardiff University. “I didn’t really know what photojournalism was, or what its function was in the world, but I made a snap decision. It was 1996, and I had some nice holiday snaps from China, so I put them together, wrote a story proposal, and got accepted. And suddenly I was a photojournalist."

Hetherington was intrigued by the filmmaking equipment at Cardiff, and got up every day at 6 AM to experiment with the Commodore 64 media programs before class. A project he worked on at Cardiff called “House of Pain,” capturing images of alcohol-related violence, got him a job at the Big Issue, a London publication sold by the homeless. “What I do now and what I did then—I had no idea that this kind of world existed,” he said. “I thought that being a photographer on this homeless newspaper would lead to being a photographer on a national newspaper, and that would be it. Mission accomplished.” He worked as a photographer at the Independent, but grew frustrated when he showed a digital piece to an editor, who couldn’t understand why Hetherington was pitching video to a newspaper. “What I learned from that is that if you’re five years ahead of the curve, it’s no good,” Hetherington said. “I had to wait for technology to catch up.”

A three-year fellowship from the National Endowment of Technology and Arts in the UK let him experiment with photojournalism and television, and a charity provided him with a ticket to Liberia, which led to his first experience of conflict reporting. “It blew me away,” he said. “I’d traveled before a lot, but I found it very difficult to believe that this place was on the same planet as the one I lived in. I got so curious about it.” He spent four years in Liberia during the civil war, living behind rebel lines with another photographer. “We were the only journalists there, and the photos ran everywhere,” he said. “That kind of intense experience, being in combat and a psychologically difficult place, living in the bush without access to electricity and not being able to get out of there—it was pretty nuts. But we also started to understand how to make things happen in terms of the journalistic experience. I struggle to define what I am. Am I a journalist? I do a variety of different things, and one name isn’t always adequate to describe what I do. But getting access is the all-important thing. If you do everything else but don’t get access, you’re wasting your time and energy.”

Vanity Fair wanted a photographer to accompany Junger on an assignment to Afghanistan, so they asked Hetherington. “They found Tim for me, and we just hit it off,” said Junger at the time. “I couldn’t have asked for a better companion, a better photographer, a better videographer, a better everything. Some photographers are just technological wizards, and their job doesn’t necessarily demand that they care very deeply about their subject. Tim is absolutely not that way. One of the reasons he’s such a great photographer is that he really has a ferocious intellect, and a really inquiring, active mind, and he applies both of those to his subject. He’s not just framing beautiful photographs with his camera—he’s really involved in the story at the very deepest intellectual and emotional levels. You don’t always see that with photographers, so we fed off each other a lot.”

Hetherington found his reporting in Afghanistan to be a revelatory experience. “I suddenly realized that we’re doing a story about men at war,” he said. “About what actually happens in these places, the mechanics of what happens to the men who fight in Afghanistan, and how they physically find it, without all the politics. Not a lot of people really get to see that. The project for me is as much about America as it is about Afghanistan. It’s about these soldiers, their families, their homes, where they’ve come from, and where they are now. They’re not hanging out in tea shops in Kabul talking about politics. They’re talking about the women they sleep with and the cars they drive. It’s American culture, and I found that pretty interesting. And the conflict was much more intense than I thought it would be, and that’s pretty interesting, too.”

Hetherington went on to direct, with Junger, the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, which details life in the Korengal Valley. At the time of his death Wednesday, he was reporting on the conflict in Libya with rebel forces in Misrata.

“There’s a personal thing inside it all,” he said at the end of our 2007 interview, talking about his work. “It’s like a de
sire to explore that part of you, and certain people want to do it, and certain people have no desire to do it. There’s a sense of testing yourself. I was interviewed once, and someone tried to portray me as being on a moral quest. It’s not that I need to show people the horror of the war. I’m being selfish, and I’m doing it for my own good, my own reasons. In some ways it will do very little for a lot of people, but it’s as much a personal journey as it is a mass communication journey. I’d be lying if I said otherwise.”

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