Hetherington’s first experience of war was as one of only two Western journalists working behind rebel lines in Liberia in 2003, photographing a conflict characterized by elaborate, theatrically absurd brutality. Huffman quotes the filmmaker James Brabazon, with whom Hetherington collaborated on the documentary An Uncivil War, as saying of Liberia, “It wasn’t just two armies facing each other off; it was two groups of young men who were absolutely enamored with theatrics of war—wearing dresses, eating each other, hacking off each other’s limbs.”
But Hetherington was able to document this violence without allowing it to distract him from the Liberian people’s humanity. His photographs—a moment of intimacy between a rebel and his wife before he heads to battle; a portrait of a contemplative man in fatigues sitting beside a grenade—challenged the notion that Liberia could be entirely defined by its atrocities. And unlike most of the press corps, Hetherington stayed in Liberia long after the war ended. The book he eventually produced, Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, is proof that one can simultaneously document violence and beauty in a way that feels authentic and accessible rather than counterintuitive.
Huffman argues that “Hetherington saw very little distinction between being a journalist, a humanitarian, an observer, a witness, or a participant.” Though Huffman fails to parse the implications of that claim, he does work to convey its importance, noting that “Hetherington felt it wasn’t enough merely to show what had happened, that photography could convey a deeper narrative and influence the direction that narrative would afterward take.”
The most literal proof of Hetherington’s belief in the power of photography to influence events was his work for Human Rights Watch in Sudan. The images he took home—including portraits of survivors who had been shot or hacked by machete, which served as the first visual evidence that the Darfur conflict was bleeding into Chad—were in large part responsible for bringing international attention to the crisis. But this belief in the power of images also showed in the way he approached his work.
One product of Hetherington’s time in Afghanistan was an installation piece that intercut softly lit still photographs of sleeping soldiers with the sounds and images of combat, representing their dreams. The piece is incredibly subtle, particularly by the standards of war photography, but Hetherington felt it was the closest he’d ever come to “expressing what it’s like to be in a chaotic war situation.” His thoughts on the piece reveal the extent to which he considered the ultimate impact of his work, and also get at the quiet subversiveness of many of his images. “I like this idea that the project challenges what we think we know war is about,” he said. “I’m interested to reveal parts of conflict outside of the mass media dialogue.”
Nearly half of Huffman’s book is devoted to reconstructing Hetherington’s final days in Libya. Whereas in Liberia it was largely the responsibility of Western journalists to make a record of what was occurring, by the time Hetherington arrived in Libya, cameras, wielded by both civilians and soldiers, had become an inescapable part of the war effort. The Brazilian photographer André Liohn noted that the Libyans “went to war with almost as many cameras as weapons.”
This, too, was a concept Hetherington was trying to understand. He realized that the modern media environment was such that there was nothing particularly novel about images of combat, and that journalists had to do more to distinguish their work both aesthetically and intellectually. While in Libya, Hetherington had an idea for a new installation piece. He would collect hundreds of cell phones from Libyans who had used them to take pictures of the war, and then arrange them to form the image of the painting Guernica, which depicts civilian casualties of war in Picasso’s native Spain.
Writing in the Times about the exhibit he put together of Hetherington’s last photos, Michael Kamber said, “More than any journalist I know, Tim was conceptual in his work. He thought about the big ideas behind an event, the dynamics, history and driving forces. He then tailored his photography and multimedia work accordingly, trying to dig through and expose these forces. His methods stood in stark contrast to many of us who photograph what fate and others present to us, unwittingly allowing the narrative to be shaped through our acquiescence.”