On Wednesday afternoon, I was deeply troubled to find out that photojournalist Tim Hetherington had died in Libya covering a battle in the city of Misrata. He was apparently hit by a rocket propelled grenade (RPG) during a firefight between the rebels and forces loyal to Muammar Gaddafi.
I barely knew Mr. Hetherington (I'd feel like a phony if I called him "Tim"), but it was hard not to be impressed with or like the 40-year-old native of Liverpool. Initially, I thought it might be best to let others share their memories of him, but all afternoon I felt shaken by the loss of someone I had only dealt with by e-mail and phone conversations. It was oddly difficult to concentrate on, much less write, the other stuff I had due. If his loss was gnawing on me that much, I'd probably better discuss it.
On a professional level, it's hard to think of anyone who was better at what he did. His 2007 photo of a tired soldier in Afghanistan won the World Press Photo of the Year, and he and writer Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm, A Death in Belmont) earned the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary for their film Restrepo, which later earned both men Oscar nominations.
You can spot his photography in the documentaries Liberia: An Uncivil War and The Devil Came on Horseback, and his pictures can be found everywhere from Vanity Fair to ABC News' Nightline. While Brian Ross' deep, authoritative voice may be describing the footage, Hetherington conducted all the interviews and did the actual reporting.
I became familiar with Hetherington and his work when I profiled Mr. Junger and him for Cineaste magazine. In February of last year, I caught Restrepo at the True/False Festival in Columbia, Mo. and was instantly taken with it. For nearly 90 minutes, viewers feel like they are sharing the experience of soldiers in combat and at rest as they complete their 15-month deployment in the Korengal Valley, which has been called "The Afghanistan of Afghanistan" because the fighting there can be so intense.
Both the men and their experiences become real in a way that most combat reporting hasn't been able to do because both Mr. Junger and Mr. Hetherington, together and apart, covered the deployment from its star to its finish. The men freely share their thoughts on the experience in a way they probably wouldn't with less committed reporters.
Hetherington was supposed to be in Columbia that day, but a storm kept him grounded in his Brooklyn home. Thanks to the magic of Skype, he was still able to take part in the Q&A that followed the screening with some of the soldiers in the film, including Santana "Rudy" Rueda.
His face, as projected on the screen, dominated the huge Missouri Theatre, but he and the soldiers had such an easy rapport that he roared with laughter when one admitted to the audience what he initially thought of two journalists following him wherever he went. He bluntly replied, "It was kind of annoying."
Hetherington obviously loved those guys. In a later interview with NPR, he lost his composure and started crying when he recalled his experiences in Afghanistan from 2007 to 2008.
We journalists are often told that we're supposed to be separated from the events we cover, but the honesty and the power of Hetherington's work emerged because he genuinely cared about the individuals and events he documented. People died around him, and he'd have had to be a psychopath not to feel something about it.
Despite what he had accomplished, he was unfailingly polite and accommodating to a hack writer from Kansas City who wanted to write about his movie. His gift for empathy was on display when he replied to my interview request by tactfully letting me know that his surname was misspelled. Instead of giving me grief for my lack of diligence, he dutifully set up a time for our interview and also told me how to contact Mr. Junger, who was also pleasant and cooperative, and the publicist who was handling Restrepo.
When I needed confirmation for a quote, Hetherington, despite his insanely busy schedule, was lightning fast with corrections or confirmations. I'm proud to say that both men had their names spelled correctly in the final piece. It's hard to think of any other time that I enjoyed earning a check so much.
Despite the toll his profession took on him, Mr. Hetherington refused to rest on his laurels. He had used a lot of his reporting to help human rights groups. For example, in his recent coverage of Libya, he photographed numerous government documents in order to help record atrocities Gaddafi's regime has committed. Mr. Hetherington also covered dangerous beats like Liberia and Darfur years before people here in the States understood how important they were.
It didn't hurt that he was also multitalented. Because he could write and shoot both video and still images with equal ease, he could work for several different outlets. Few news organizations can afford to send out people like him for long term commitments, so the multitasking has became essential. His final book, Infidel, which I purchased today, features not only his stunning photos, but blunt testimony from the soldiers and candid recollections from both Mr. Junger and Mr. Hetherington. Junger's book War is also essential reading.
In a passage I didn't use in the Cineaste article, he explained:
Nowadays, there are a lot freelancers out there, and you have to have your shit together -- as we say, pardon my French and pardon my English -- to operate as a freelancer. We can interview, and we can film, and modern reporting is becoming increasingly like that. That's what's great about working across the media. That story that Sebastian and I have been doing together has been cross-pollinating in all sorts of ways.
In the end, I think I got choked up by his passing not simply because he was pleasant to deal with but because he set an inspiring, if intimidating, example.