Under Fire: Tim Hetherington

The name Tim Hetherington has been heard quite often recently and, unfortunately, it is not because of his photographs or his Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo. Tim Hetherington was killed April 20, 2011 while covering the Libyan civil war. He and photographers Chris Hondros, Michael Christopher Brown and Guy Martin were traveling with rebel fighters when they were attacked. Chris Hondros was killed as well and Martin and Brown were seriously wounded. This attack brought to light the danger many photojournalists face everyday while we watch from the safety of our living rooms.

Tim Hetherington was only 40 years old when he was killed, but the body of work he left behind is extraordinary and unforgettable. His photography is nothing less than powerful. When you look at it you are held captive by the emotion of the moment. You can, if only for an instant, know what it was like to be there. The terror, the exhaustion, and the pride are all evident. You can’t look at these photographs and feel the same about war. It brings it all home, which, I think, is the point of photojournalism. He doesn’t give us answers, but instead raises questions. Does war, any war, truly justify the cost; not in dollars or euro, but in blood and the collateral damage left in its wake. We can no longer turn away from the harsh reality of the world. His photographs, at least visceral and and at most graphic, force us face what is so often out of our sight. Hetherington said, when interviewed about his Oscar-nominated film, Restrepo, “Our job is to go out and bring back those stories that act as a kind of a portal, a doorway for the audience, for the general public to kind of enter into the discussion – the political discussion – the kind of complexities that we are faced with when we think about things like Afghanistan.”

Born in Birkenhead on December 5th, 1970, Timothy Alistair Telemachus Hetherington decided he wanted to pursue photography after spending a few years traveling after college. His focus changed, however, while working for a local paper, when he was sent to Liberia to photograph a local football team. That experience changed his life. He said, “I didn’t realize what was happening on the same planet. My understanding that in the world everything is interconnected really grew – to go to one of the poorest countries from one of the richest countries in the world. It was two worlds apart.” His intent was to bring those worlds together, not only for himself, but for the rest of us. He wanted us to see how small our world really is.

Trying to sum up a life and a career in a few paragraphs is almost impossible to do for anyone and, for a life like Hetherington’s, feels almost disrespectful. Yes, he was a Vanity Fair staff member, a news photographer, a videographer, a documentary filmmaker, an artist, a writer and an author. Yes, he won the 2007 World Press Photo competition with his image of an exhausted American soldier in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. But, titles and awards were not what drove him. He didn’t necessarily want to be known as a photographer. His goal was to reach as wide an audience as possible, by whatever means possible. He wanted other people to see what he saw and to understand our world is a lot bigger than the neighborhoods we live in. Hetherington wanted to understand his place in the world and, through that, bring the world to others. Sebastian Junger, co-director of Restrepo, said, “He loved his work. And he loved his subjects. And for him working wasn’t just about collecting images. It really was a way of existing in the world – a way of relating to people, a way of understanding the world and maybe improving it.”

His images speak to us. We hear the harsh yell of the commanding officer screaming orders at his men, smell the smoke of the explosions going off in the distance, and feel the exhaustion of the soldiers after days of fighting. His film, Restrepo, does the same thing as his still images. He tells the story of a group of soldiers, but tells it through their eyes. There is no narration, only them. We see them as they try to live their lives in the hell-hole they call Restrepo (named for a fallen member of their unit), as they try to make things as normal as they can. The often horrific realities of war are not hidden or romanticized, rather we are given a small glimpse into these lives and are left to deal with the questions it raises on our own. Hetherington shows us exactly what is happening, without commentary or censorship. The film is just as honest as his still photographs. He doesn’t try to force an opinion or an agenda but rather, as observers, wants us to look at ourselves and the world around us, to question our part in it.

A podcaster I listen to says “Life is short, but it should be long enough.” Tim Hetherington’s life was short, but perhaps it was long enough. He left the world an amazing legacy, not only the power and emotion of his photographs, but also the context in which he hoped people would see them. He accomplished what he set out to do, which was to show the world that we are merely a smaller part of the greater whole.

View images by Tim Hetherington on Pinterest

Meet The Artists: Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger


Recommended Reading

Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer
Tim Hetherington: Infidel
F&B Bookshelf

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