You mean his project? I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. I think he just had an instinct for what he wanted to focus on. He was interested in this sort of weird self awareness that young men have in combat. The way they are in combat is not just a function of circumstances on the ground, it’s also a function of their thinking about themselves. They’re aware that they’re supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way and be a certain thing, like, “If I tie a bandana around my head, I’m going to look like a guy in Vietnam and that’s cool.” And they do. So there’s this feedback loop between the media and the soldiers that the media are reporting on, and Hollywood of course. There’s this weird feedback loop where each thing effects the other. That’s what Tim was interested in as far as I understood it. He’s such a complex guy and that’s about as far as I could grasp it.

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.

Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer.