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.”
Hetherington went to Libya without an assignment from a news agency, and, notably, without digital photographic equipment that would even allow him to sell his Libya photos for use in real-time coverage of the conflict. He went in pursuit of ideas he was still only beginning to develop, and as part of an ongoing attempt to better understand the nature of conflict and the methods with which it could be documented in the 21st century. He was once again attempting, as he said of his film Diary, “to link our Western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media.”
Near the end of that film, there’s a scene of Hetherington in a bed. 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, then I’m, I’m, you know. . .” He trails off and the scene ends.
When I asked Junger about this soon after Hetherington’s death, he noted that the sentence didn’t end there. Instead, Hetherington chose to cut away. “I don’t know what he said,” Junger told me. “But it’s an interesting game to imagine what he could have said in that empty space that he left.” And now that’s the task left to all of us.