You talked about his wanting to pursue that idea in the piece you wrote for Vanity Fair immediately after his death. Did he articulate it to you any further?

He was sort of explaining why he was going back out there without an assignment. He said, “Look, I’ve got this idea.” And he had taken some photo—it was a rebel fighter, a middle aged rebel fighter, and he had sort of dressed himself up in a way that was so self conscious and self aware and it just triggered this idea in Tim’s mind like “Oh, they’re dressing up for this. They’re playing a role.”

In Libya specifically?

In Libya, but everywhere. They’re playing a role. Young men play a role when they fight; they don’t just fight. The light bulb went off, so he went back over there.

So he told you that he was going to Libya to pursue that project.

Yeah. That’s right.

Near the end of Hetherington’s film Diary, which he described as “an attempt to locate myself after ten years of [war] reporting” there’s this image of him in a bed with clean white sheets. His back is to the camera and he’s on the phone, trying to explain his work to someone. He says, “There’s a political situation or a war or a catastrophe and I make pictures to try to understand what is happening there for myself. If you think by looking at the pictures that there’s no hope than I’m, I’m, you know…” And he just trails off and the scene ends. Do you remember the moment I’m talking about?

I remember it very well. I thought it was an interesting editing choice.

Yeah, really interesting.

Let’s think about how he could have finished that sentence. That wasn’t the end of the sentence, that’s just where they edited in the movie. I remember thinking, “I wonder what he said? Actually said?” Because he made an artistic choice about ending the sentence there, but I know he had thoughts. He just didn’t put them in Diary.

So what might he have said? He might have said, “If you think there’s no hope, that says a lot about you.” He could have said, “If you think there’s no hope, well, you’re right. There is no hope. Mankind, we wage war. We’ll always wage war, but maybe we can help some of these people in some of these places.” He could have said that. Or he could have said, “You think there’s no hope then you’re blind. There’s hope everywhere.”
I don’t know what he said but it’s an interesting game to imagine what he could have said in that empty space that he left.

Tim was fascinated by using art to hold a mirror up to people, and what really ultimately is reflected is themselves [the viewer]. And so in that little bit in Diary, what you hear in that empty space after he says that is a reflection of yourself. He didn’t want to do something that reflected on him. If he had finished that sentence, then you learn about Tim’s brain. But for Tim, Tim’s brain didn’t matter. What he was interested in was in doing something where you had to self reflect. He wanted to use art to get us to understand ourselves.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again because I think Tim would have appreciated this sentiment and agreed with it, and been pleased by it.

Last year on book tour I met a Vietnam vet who really liked the movie and liked my book. And we stayed in touch a little bit, and the day Tim was killed, I got an e-mail from him. He said, “I’m so sorry. And I hope this doesn’t sound callous but I do want to tell you this.” He said, “You guys with your book and your movie, you got really close to understanding war. You got very close, but you didn’t get all the way.” And then he said, “The ultimate truth about war isn’t that you might die. The ultimate truth about war is that you are guaranteed to lose your brothers. In some ways, until today, you didn’t have the first idea about war. You didn’t know the first thing about it until today. And you’ve lost a brother. And now you understand.”

It was such a profound insight. I think Tim and I were brothers in that context, in that kind of battlefield context. We relied on each other, we depended on each other. And, yeah, now I know what I’m talking about—about war.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm.