On the frontlines of humanity with Tim Hetherington

by Edward Rackley

The occasion to commemorate Tim Hetherington's life and work is now upon us; let it not pass in silence. He died on April 20, 2011 from a Libyan mortar on the streets of Misrata. I didn't know him personally, as did many friends and colleagues, but followed his work from the early 2000s in Liberia through the Oscar-nominated Restrepo in 2010. Even in his earliest published work, a new creative force was clearly behind the lens.

Tim-hetherington-2An uncanny talent for capturing the grace of strangers amidst the peril of explosive circumstances, he framed them not as cannon fodder or cardboard victims but as dignified members of a forlorn species. “Often we see scenes of disaster and forget that the people imaged are individuals with individual stories and lives,” Tim explained in this clip on his working process. The moral complexity of his subjects matched my own experiences in crumbling dictatorships and nations rent asunder by grievance and the promises of insurrection. From Liberia to Darfur and Afghanistan, Hetherington's different media projects untapped their own turgid fount of memories sweet and sour.

His early Liberia photos were memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen. Others miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image–a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. Child soldiers lording over diamond diggers sprawled in open mud flats, sifting for riverbed gems to fund campaigns of mass amputation, beheading and rape. Portraits of human industry absent any social or political aim beyond self-serving blood and lucre.

This was early Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do, after all. Anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century.

Hondros liberia

Tim registered Liberia's victors and vanquished with an immediacy matched only by Chris Hondros, the Newsweek photojournalist who died with him in Misrata. Both worked to electrify Robert Bresson's humble counsel: “Make visible what, without you, might perhaps never have been seen.” Yet a growing sense of constraint with still photography chafed at him. Doubts about its ability to articulate war's most elusive trait, its humanity, grew. The world wants its news in clearly-marked packages of savages and innocents, and editors know what sells.

Classic Hondros image — loyalist fighter, Monrovia, 2003

Beyond the tokens and testimony from backwater battlegrounds — cargo cults and sundry warlords, split-second emotions and solemn devastation — Hetherington saw he needed to upset the traditional interface of journalist and protagonist if he wanted to explode such simple dichotomies. Liberia's civil war offered clues: its cruel, bombastic pageantry revealed that “young men play a role when they fight; they don't just fight.”

Even in remote inland forests, the dress and behavior of young fighters clearly referenced local shamans and Hollywood action figures, a cultural mash-up resulting in the outrageous dress and practices for which Liberian fighters became famous. With the shock of a new visual language, this savagery was paraded, photographed and analyzed in detail . Here the anarchic histrionics were instead an explicit rewriting of social hierarchies, a decree of new powers now held by the aggrieved. “If it looks like anarchy,” a noted analyst of the day told me, “you don't understand what you're seeing.”

Mask of anarchyBut mask or no mask, to the casual observer conflict imagery from Liberia proved little had changed since Conrad's 'heart of darkness'. Tim saw the perverse effects of the 'new savagery': visually exciting but reinforcing our dismissive misanthropy all the same.

Following a series of acclaimed portraits of civilian victims in Liberia—innovations on images common to any disaster tourist, aid worker or rights advocate — his eye turned to young combatants as they sought validation in the pervasive warlord culture. In this 2009 collage of dialog and still footage, we watch the effervescence of youth crumble under the lethal regard of militarized masculinity, a mental colonization of sorts documented in graffiti left on abandoned shelters.

War footage will always seek the visceral and concussive, framed such that viewers feel a superior remove from the horrific, like spectators around a boxing ring. The stage is set for voyeuristic ‘war porn', numb to the nuance of human experience in wartime yet highly effective at feeding our dismissal of ‘failed states' and the ‘failed people who live there'. When so naive to its naked gaze, Sontag argues in On Photography, war imagery can freeze, distance and ultimately alienate the misery of strangers even as it bears witness to atrocity. Hetherington's emerging talent lay in exposing the subtleties of remote contexts to confront viewers with their ingrained assumptions.


LURD fighter—Bomi county, Liberia, 2003

In a world of Flickr and Instagram, he explained in 2010, exceptional single images become pervasive, even iconic, while shorn of their narrative and context. Digitized and replicated like Warhol's Brillo boxes they depreciate into the purely aesthetic, sensationalist or gleefully banal. Che Guevara's face on a t-shirt: what greater insult to minority political struggle can there be? Tim began to envision character-based, documentary style projects that would resist our eroding attention spans by exploring subjects' capacity for connection and empathy over time in combat. Shadowing combatants and civilians as they navigated the duality of hunter and prey could better track this vitality amid the pressure and release of realtime conflict.

Empty quarter

Entering the Empty Quarter of the Arabian peninsula in the early 1940s, colonial explorer Wilfred Thesiger was an arrogant interloper, an object of ridicule and mistrust. To survive the desert and map its unknown reaches he needed local Bedouin warriors, who would not be coerced or bought. Early in his acclamation he stumbled on the insight that solidarity could be built “by helping them kill things.” Hetherington understood the implicit latitude of this truism, and applied it toward new thematic horizons where unlike Liberia his white skin and pedigree could not protect him. Afghanistan would be his next stop, for the making of Restrepo, an unprecedented journalistic experiment.

Arabian Sands, 1959

With the award-winning Restrepo, Hetherington's lens came full circle. Too well known to recount here, the film unpacks the mystery of why young men are drawn to the combat experience. It's an attraction shared in degrees by aid workers and war journalists. War is the only opportunity we have in society to love each other unconditionally, to die for each other.

In the vice grip of total exposure and the drive to survive, wartime sees ersatz families incubate and thrive among soldiers who are complete strangers. Combatant battalions satisfy the social and physiological need for acceptance that war cannot erase. New peer groups and hierarchies are tried and tested, lifelong debts incurred, just as long-standing, pre-war alliances erupt in blood.

This psychic architecture holds for other vocations operating in conflict, particularly photojournalists and aid workers. Sebastian Junger digs into these questions in the HBO memorial biopic of Hetherington's life, Which Way is the Frontline from Here? A core reality of war is not, as our gut tells us, that you could very well die. It's that “you're certain to lose your brothers,” Junger announces in a Which Way voice over. The deeper trauma comes not from my physical wounds but from the pain of downed comrades, colleagues, even bystanders. In the end, “the hard part is not going to war, but coming back home.” Many things are lost in war, including our reasons for being there, yet we stay all the same.

Films like Restrepo can hit a nerve so deep that our own experiences of war begin replaying in our mind as the projection moves across the screen. Watching this US platoon survive the Korengal Valley, I found myself comparing, contrasting, reevaluating and processing my reactions to similar threats, day in day out, over months.

A long-erased memory resurfaced: my first encounter with a Marine in southern Somalia during ‘Operation Restore Hope' in 1992. As an aid worker, I instinctively doubted the American invasion. Security had deteriorated horribly since the US deployment; they had disbanded our 100-strong force of well-armed bodyguards, Somalis who had saved my life many times. A dear Irish colleague had just been murdered in daylight days before. I was now a target; all my team were targets. It was obvious US forces weren't up to the task.

Noticing my US passport at a roadblock, a Marine pulled me aside. His casual air betrayed a faintly pleading tone. “Hey man,” he looked me in the eye, “who're the good guys and who're the bad guys?” In that moment, I did not judge. This too was the humanity of war.

World press 2007

World Press Photo award, 2007

We cannot know what artistic direction Tim Hetherington would have taken, although doubtless he'd be pursuing ISIS in Syria and the Houthis in Yemen. Portraits of the new caliphate and its humanity, which must exist in some form besides the beheadings we see, remain invisible to us. For those of us who continue to work at the frontlines, Hetherington's humanist challenge to traditional war portrayal, particularly his subtle critique of our mind-closing voyeurism, must not be forgotten.