In recent years, as the American public has grown exhausted by news of war, it has become ever more fascinated by war photographers. When the photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in a mortar attack by Qaddafi forces two years ago this April, for instance, it was one of the biggest news events of the Libyan civil war. This was, of course, partly because many in the media knew Hetherington and Hondros, but it also had something to do with how they fit the profession’s romantic image. Take it from David Carr: “Hetherington was a war photographer in every regard. Tall, brutally handsome and modest, he had a British accent plucked from a Graham Greene novel and the body fat of a Diet Coke.”
As Emily Nussbaum noted in her recent New Yorker review of HBO’s documentary series Witness, which focuses on conflict photographers like France’s Véronique de Viguerie, “It’s no surprise that viewers may find it easier to watch a profile of a brave and beautiful French photojournalist than a gruesome documentary about child soldiers in Africa.” Unfiltered images of violence are as distressing as theatrical violence is popular. The media are always coming up with new ways to dilute the horrors of war for the casual news consumer.
Understanding this inevitable dilution puts the job of a war photographer in an interesting light. Their images must get as close as possible to the reality of extreme, horrifying situations, and somehow manage to compel the viewer to move deeper into them rather than turn away. Photographs can inure us to violence, but they can also serve as moral touchstones, reminders not only of an event itself but of the need to feel something about that event. The best pictures close the gap between distant images and our own emotional reality.
No photographer thought more deeply about that dividing line than Tim Hetherington. As Hetherington’s friend and collaborator Sebastian Junger told me recently, “Tim was particularly interested in how the media shapes the society that then uses the media. That sort of circle.” In fact, Hetherington had gone to Libya to document a similar phenomenon: the idea that Libyan rebels, plunged suddenly into war without prior experience, were looking to media and popular culture to discover how a rebel soldier should look and act.
During an initial brief trip to Libya in March 2011, he had been disturbed by the posed nature of the conflict: journalists taking heroic photos of rebels who were in fact merely untested civilians mugging for the camera with guns. His new project was an attempt to confront, and transcend, this dynamic. “We have to fight making propaganda,” he told a friend, the New York Times photographer Michael Kamber, just before heading back to the front line. “The media have become such a part of the war machine now that we all have to be conscious of it more than ever before.”
Hetherington died only a few months after Restrepo, the documentary about American soldiers in Afghanistan he co-directed with Junger, was nominated for an Academy Award. While he will probably remain best known for Restrepo, many who knew Hetherington are working to preserve his larger sensibility and mission—topics that hint at the work he might have gone on to do. Last fall, Kamber assembled an exhibition of Hetherington’s final photographs at the Bronx Documentary Center. A biographical documentary, Which Way is the Front Line from Here?, directed by Junger, will premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2013. And a print biography, Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, by Alan Huffman, will be published by Grove this March.
Huffman recounts Hetherington’s career in chapters that expand on the many conflicts the photographer covered: the Liberian civil war; the genocide in Sudan and its spillover into Chad; the American occupation of Afghanistan. His point, though not stated explicitly, seems to be that you can’t understand Hetherington without understanding the violence he was drawn to document. Huffman succeeds in immersing us in Hetherington’s daily reality while in conflict zones, and many excellent interviews with friends and colleagues add a personal dimension to the photographer’s extraordinary life. But the best biographies also explore the minds of their subjects, a task at which Huffman is less effective. Though Hetherington was intensely interested in how images of conflict were disseminated, contextualized, and viewed by the public, his biography is not, for the most part, a book of ideas.