Revisiting Memory and Preserving Legacy: Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros

Nearly two years ago, photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed in Misrata, Libya. Tim had just taken a photo of a helmet punctured by a bullet hole when the mortar blast took him. Like much of his work, Hetherington’s last photo is ominous without being overtly brutal — suggesting violence rather than graphically showing it. In the wake of the explosion he was conscious but bleeding heavily. The wound probably could have been treated successfully if the rebels and journalists that accompanied him knew first aid. Meanwhile, Chris lay a few feet away, unresponsive and dying from his own grievous injuries. In video filmed by Libyan rebels and posted on YouTube, doctors frantically try to resuscitate the photographers in Misrata’s hospital. Both Tim and Chris died shortly after.

In the wake of their deaths, tributes poured in from friends, acquaintances and luminaries, and the close knit community of war correspondents were left to reckon with what had happened. Some walked away from war and haven’t been back. Some swore to finally give it up, then quietly returned months later. Most kept on going.

This spring, on the second anniversary of his death, two new works celebrate Tim Hetherington’s life. ‘Which Way Is the Frontline from Here?‘ is a new documentary directed by Sebastian Junger and produced by James Brabazon — two of Hetherington’s close friends and collaborators. And from writer Alan Huffman comes ‘Here I Am,’ a biography. The documentary and the book cover similar terrain, focusing on Tim’s relationship with his work more than on his personal life and early years. Both recount his last days in Libya in excruciating detail.

LIBYA. Misurata. Tim's Last Photograph. April 20. 2011.

Tim Hetherington—Magnum

Tim Hetherington's last photograph. Taken April 20, 2011, in Misrata, Libya.

Many journalists die in combat but few become canonized; Tim’s story was ripe for this ritual. Intelligent, warm and handsome, he was both well-respected and well-loved. He was firmly committed, eschewing “parachute journalism” to work rigorously on the subjects he cared about. He used photography and video with equal skill, and when they weren’t enough, he served a stint as a Human Rights investigator for the United Nations in Liberia.

Junger’s film is deeply powerful, combining interviews with Tim, reminiscences by his friends, and footage and photographs largely shot in Liberia and Afghanistan. While the documentary dives into some of his doubts and uncertainties, it is essentially a tribute made by grieving friends. In that role, it is invaluable.

Journalism needs heroes to serve as symbols of its values and worth. Although I was friendly with Tim, the movie made me feel the magnitude of the loss in a way I had only understood in bits and pieces before. It’s likely that the story of his life and death will serve as inspiration to those in the next generation of war journalists.  I wonder how he would feel about that.

Tim’s story is extraordinary, but there are real dangers in myth-making. The war journalist is often romanticized but poorly understood. While we talk sincerely (and in public, predominately) about affecting public policy and creating a record for history, many of us — perhaps most of us — are driven by darker desires as well. I asked Sebastian what he thought attracted Tim to conflict.

“War gives you meaning,” he said, “an appreciation of life, and a chemical rush.  That’s good. If anything else gave you all that, I’d be doing it every day. War is giving you these things that everyone seeks and presents it in a package. You never get those three things together in anything else. You can go skydiving but that’s not meaningful, it’s just an indulgence. War is everything.”

Like many journalists covering conflict, Tim was from a well-off background. After university at Oxford, several years of travel sensitized him to how most of the world lives, and he decided to commit himself to telling some of the stories he found. As Sebastian put it, “Tim felt burdened by the privileges of his background. War is a good place to shed that and remake yourself.” For many people, especially men, war is a seductive crucible. In my conversation with Sebastian, he reflected on the identify that war can provide.

“I think there is an identity crisis for men in this society in terms of demonstrating to themselves and others that they are men. You can grow up in certain circumstances and not really feel tested as a man. You can feel like you didn’t really pass through that gateway from adolescence into manhood. I went to war because I felt like it would turn me into a man. It didn’t at first — but eventually it did.”

This identity is something that’s rarely discussed. It’s a primally powerful force but it’s also shameful and immature. I know that I’ve felt it, but it took years of covering war for me to fully acknowledge it within myself.

Rebels Engage Gaddafi Forces in Close Combat in Libyan City Of Misrata Struggles Against Gaddafi's Forces

Chris Hondros—Getty Images

A Libyan rebel fighter runs up a burning stairwell during an effort to dislodge some ensconced government loyalist troops who were firing on them from an upstairs room during house-to-house fighting on Tripoli Street in downtown Misrata, April 20, 2011.

With the success of his work in Liberia and Afghanistan, and as he began to approach middle age, Tim began to think about leaving war behind. In some ways he felt trapped in the identity he had created for himself. The more success he had, the harder it was to leave conflict behind. In their last conversation before he went to Libya, Tim talked with his close friend, photographer Christopher Anderson, about his relationship with war. He felt guilty for seeking out conflict — for enjoying it — and for the burden his vocation placed on his loved ones. But the high he’d felt from the success of Restrepo had begun to fade, and he hadn’t worked on a new project in the time he’d been making and promoting his documentary. Libya offered a powerful story at a pivotal moment.  While he didn’t yet feel passionate about it, he thought that it would fit well into his work about the theatrics of young men at war.

For war journalists, the fascination with war is largely defined by a powerful curiosity about death. This obsession is murky and confusing for those that find themselves under its sway. Why risk death to try and make peace with it? The notion seems contradictory.  In ‘WWTTFLFH,’ Tim explained that photography made him “free from a destructive tendency I had inside myself.” Yet he continued to seek the edge. Christopher told me that “Tim had a fascination with death. He wrote and talked about it, and spent a lot of time trying to get very close to it. I think that’s what ultimately killed him.” There is a specific and addictive delirium that can overtake many people when violence gets close, a cool detachment from body and existence that combines with a kind of reckless mania. As Christopher tells it, Tim referred to this phenomenon as “getting sucked into the death.”

The portrait of the journalist as hero is at-once seductive and misleading; after all, as journalists, we’re trained to probe beyond the societal and self-created narratives. In the wake of a colleague’s death, objectivity can feel like an impossibility. As time passes, a more complex and nuanced reality can find space to slide into focus. As Christopher Anderson explained: “Tim was really smart and really talented but he was a real human being too. He was so opposed to this idea of photographer as myth. It was kind of an obsession with him. To know he was being made into a myth was totally contrary to who he was. Part of him would be appalled, part would be silently flattered, and as the professional story teller it would make sense to him.”

Indeed, that has been one of the most troubling parts of the deaths of Tim and Chris Hondros. Chris has somehow dropped from public view. He was a consummate professional and classical photojournalist; quietly, consistently and diligently covering all the major conflicts since the late 90’s in an even-handed style. Amidst his steady approach are two icons of war photography from Liberia and Iraq. He was also popular and highly respected by his peers. Yet his name is often mentioned as an afterthought, if at all.  Paradoxically, it was this kind of elevation of the individual to the exclusion of the bigger ideas that Tim was trying to reject with his work.

Yet perhaps in death Tim and Chris will ensure life to many others. War journalists, especially freelancers, are often unprepared to treat wounds on the battlefield.  Training courses are mostly cost-prohibitive without the backing of a major media organization or grant. After Tim’s death, Sebastian Junger created RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), a combat trauma and survival class for freelancers offered free of charge several times a year.

Ultimately, Which Way is the Frontline From Here? and Here I Am are first drafts of history. They ensure that the essence of the man is preserved along with his pictures. But they also suggest that there is far more to tell.


Which Way is the Frontline From Here? premieres on HBO on April 18th at 8pm EST.

Peter van Agtmael is a photographer represented by Magnum. In 2012, van Agtmael received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography.


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