I met war photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington two years ago in New York. I was working at The New York Times and, one evening, went to the Umbrage Gallery in Brooklyn to the launch of a retrospective of Tim’s work from Liberia. Amid the pale walls and bottled beers, in the center of the room, a tall, dark-haired man held court in an understated manner. Later, I emailed Tim—explaining my own more modest photographic work—and asked to meet him for a drink. To my surprise, he accepted.
After that evening in the Meatpacking District, we corresponded. There was an overlap in our backgrounds—we both read English literature at Oxford University, 15 years apart—but he was more experienced, connected, and well-known than I. Nonetheless, Tim showed an admirable willingness to advise a younger man. I asked him where I should go when I decided to head abroad for work, where to place magazine stories. (He gently explained why Vanity Fair, where he was a regular contributor, wouldn’t take certain pieces.) I know, too, that I am not the only aspirant he and his longtime collaborator, Sebastian Junger, have helped. Now, Tim is dead, killed Wednesday in Libya, and I, like so many, mourn him.
Tim’s work is what the world knows, and, to my mind, the most important aspect of it was his willingness to stick with a story over the long haul. I remember asking him about embedding—the oft criticized practice by which journalists accompany soldiers and live with them. Tim said that those who attack it have simply not embedded for long enough. That charge could certainly not be leveled at him. Tim and Junger spent an entire year visiting an isolated group of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, where some of that conflict’s heaviest fighting was underway. The resulting work—including the documentary Restrepo and Junger’s book War—is not about the politics of the conflict. It is about the dynamic of young men and fire. It is moving, and true.
Oscar-nominated Restrepo may become Tim’s epitaph, but his willingness to go long on a story was evident well before that. In the Liberian Civil War, he and filmmaker James Brabazon accompanied a group of rebels known by the unlikely moniker LURD, or Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy. LURD opposed the rule of Liberian President Charles Taylor, now in the dock for war crimes and crimes against humanity in The Hague. Accompanying an African rebel group in a dirty jungle war takes not only enormous courage, but also a determination to fill in the gaps in our perceptions of that part of the world. West African wars are covered sparsely by the international press at the best of times, and often from capital cities with reporter-compliant hotels. In this environment, simplifications and clichés can become received wisdom, particularly when any element of black magic or cannibalism is at play, as both were in Liberia. Tim’s work with Brabazon out in the bush crucially provided another view. Fittingly, his book on Liberia is called Long Story Bit by Bit.
Tim also worked in Liberia’s neighbor Sierra Leone, where I am based now. In the muggy capital Freetown, he is fondly remembered. Indeed, two days ago, just before Tim’s death, I gave a lift to a British woman who works at a school for the blind and has been in Sierra Leone since the dark days of the country’s civil war. Freetown traffic is atrocious, so we had some time to talk. When I explained I am a journalist, she reeled off a list of the correspondents she had known in the war here. There were some big names. But Tim was top of the list.
Yesterday, the same woman called me to ask if I had heard the news about his death. I had; the woman who was my girlfriend in New York—who once classified Hetherington and Junger as “two very good-looking men” who travel the world going to wars—had e-mailed me. Later, I heard the news again on the BBC World Service as I drove back from running on the beach. I snapped at the small African boys crammed onto my back seat, their lift in the Land Rover a treat for accompanying me on my jog, to be quiet. For once, I did not want to hear their banter.
To make sense of a death like Tim’s is profoundly difficult. He took substantial and sustained risks repeatedly, and he was a man intelligent enough to know what he was doing. My immediate thought was that it seemed the wrong time for such a thing to happen to him. Tim had done the young freelance hustle—he had completed that dubious but nonetheless time-honored transaction in which young men (and it is mostly, though not exclusively, men) take risks far away from home with little backing in order to make their name as journalists. But that stage was over for Tim. He was established, Oscar-nominated, his photographs in glossy books and galleries, not trafficked to a wire service for $50 a frame.
Of course, what his death shows is that the narrative I have just outlined above is just that: a story that we tell ourselves. He had a great deal of experience, and experience can reduce some risk. But not entirely, and there are other risks experience can do nothing about. Indeed, the idea that once your name is made you are safe is specious. As long as you continue to go to these places, the threat of dying remains.
For me, Tim’s death unseats another narrative, too. War reportage, both written and photographic, is part of a broader genre, perhaps best termed “risk memoir.” Such work—that can take war as well as mountaineering or a thousand other hazardous projects for its subject matter—projects a sly falsehood. Because the creator of such work has to survive in order to produce it, risk memoir can imply that death happens to other people. Such a message is a dangerous one for young men to imbibe. And it has proven false for me now. Tim told stories about awful situations and was a master at it. But today, he is dead.
When I heard of Tim’s death, another New York experience that touched on the same theme came to mind. It was an awards luncheon two years ago, organized by the Overseas Press Club. I had won a prize for a story I wrote about Egypt. Superannuated correspondents were in attendance, fossilized men who had covered the Korean and perhaps earlier wars. Across gleaming white table cotton, one elderly lady told me her husband had worked for Life magazine, the now deceased periodical that once moved millions of copies each week and revolutionized photojournalism. I asked her if she had known Robert Capa, the celebrated war photographer and Life contributor who was killed by a landmine in the First Indochina War in 1954. (Capa once quipped, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”) She replied, “Sure, I knew Bob. All the women loved him.”
Hetherington was not Capa, and Capa not Hetherington. Tim would not, I think, have invented a new name and identity for himself as Capa did when he decided to become a photographer. But there are similarities between the two that extend beyond their untimely deaths: courage, dedication, reputation, talent. I hope, and imagine, that, in five decades time, those who had the privilege to have met Tim will still regale young men vulnerable to the thrill of it all with what they knew of him. Because, while he might be gone, Tim will never grow old.
Simon Akam is Reuters’ correspondent in Sierra Leone. You can find him at www.simonakam.com.
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