Remembering Tim Hetherington

Two years after his death, his legacy continues

Saturday marks the second anniversary of the deaths of the photojournalists Tim Hetheringon and Chris Hondros, friends and colleagues who were killed in a mortar attack by Qaddafi forces while covering the Libyan civil war. Both photographers left behind remarkable legacies—a look at either of their catalogs provides an intimate, humane view of virtually every major conflict of the 21st century—and, two years after their deaths became international news, each man’s work continues to be not only remembered but discussed, analyzed, critiqued.

Hetherington, in particular, was something of a model for how those who risked their lives to cover conflict could reinvent their craft for a jaded, image saturated, and war weary digital audience. He thought deeply not only about the images he made but about how they would be contextualized and disseminated—the work they would do in the world. And perhaps this is why the images he left behind have remained in an ongoing, living engagement with a profession that he felt was in desperate need of an intellectual revival.

As Hetherington himself put it, “It’s necessary, I think, in raising consciousness of serious political or social events to create something that works on a more imaginative level. Something that will allow the viewer to engage creatively with the subject.”

That quote comes from Which Way is the Front Line from Here, a biographical documentary directed by Hetherington’s friend and Restrepo collaborator Sebastian Junger. Which Way premiered last night on HBO and is the latest and most noteworthy effort on the part of those who knew Hetherington to secure his legacy. Also notable among those efforts is Here I Am, a print biography by Alan Huffman, which I reviewed for CJR in January. Hetherington’s friend Michael Kamber, a New York Times photographer, has written a number of moving tributes since Hetherington’s death, and also put together an exhibition of Hetherington’s final photographs for the Bronx Documentary Center.

The photographer Chris Wise left a thoughtful comment on my review of Huffman’s book, arguing that many of the people “making films or writing after Tim’s death only see him through the trope of war reporting, which Tim rejected completely. Tim created amazing images and projects on Creole architecture in Sierra Leone, neon-lit gas stations in the Emirates and post-2004 tsunami devastation and rebirth (among others).”

Indeed, Hetherington not only refused to define himself as a war photographer, he even balked at the idea of being called a photographer. This was partly in reference to his work in myriad formats (photography, videography, installation pieces) but, more than anything, it was a reference to the fact that the people presented in his images were more important to him than any considerations of craft. He very deliberately left a body of work that is open to debate and interpretation—a fact that explains the challenge faced by those working to preserve his legacy. As Junger told me shortly after Hetherington’s death, “For Tim, Tim’s brain didn’t matter. What he was interested in was in doing something where you had to self reflect.”

A beautiful clip from Which Way is the Front Line from Here provided to the Times shows not the action hero version of Hetherington but a gentle man engaging in playful banter with children as he takes their portraits.

“For me, it’s all about personalization,” Hetherington says in a voiceover. “Often we see scenes of disaster and we forget that the people imaged are individuals with individual stories and lives.”

I think Hetherington would have appreciated the irony that journalists other than himself now control his legacy, just as he once held great power over the people whose images he shared with a global audience. Two years after his death, those images continue to do work in the world.

Further Reading:

Unfinished business: A new biography of photojournalist Tim Hetherington reflects on a too-short career

Q&A: Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington

How he got that picture: Chris Hondros on the making of one of his most famous images

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