Remembering Tim Hetherington
Before I ever met Tim Hetherington, the renowned photojournalist and filmmaker who died today in Misrata, Libya, he had already offered to help me. It was June 30, 2006, and I was on my way to Liberia, a country just settling back into a degree of normalcy and peace after decades of on-off civil war. ...
Before I ever met Tim Hetherington, the renowned photojournalist and filmmaker who died today in Misrata, Libya, he had already offered to help me. It was June 30, 2006, and I was on my way to Liberia, a country just settling back into a degree of normalcy and peace after decades of on-off civil war. I was an intern in Dakar, working for the New York Times West Africa bureau chief, Lydia Polgreen, who had put me in touch with Tim as a helpful contact on the ground. But I wanted to take a one-week trip to Monrovia to write a story about military reform. I wrote to Tim a few days earlier, and he quickly replied. "Beth, I can get you a driver. Let me know what time you’ll arrive and he’ll be there," he offered in an email. "Are you coming in with a photographer…perhaps we can do this [project] together if it suits you?"
Over the next week, Tim became a mentor and a friend. I tried to hide my age from his noticing — attempting to look and act as professional as I could, but I’m sure he knew right away that I was barely 20-something. But without making me feel anything less than his peer, he never forgot to check in during that week I was in Monrovia. He was concerned for my safety, without being patronizing at all. He didn’t have any stake in my story; it certainly wasn’t going to make the pages of the Times. But he still helped out at every turn. That was Tim. He didn’t have to care. He just did.
I distinctly remember the first face-to-face conversation we had once I landed in Monrovia. It was a Tuesday in July, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan had come into town for the day to visit the newly elected (but not yet inaugurated) President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. That morning, I’d made my way across town from a friend of a friend’s house toward the meeting point where the press would begin the whirlwind day of diplomatic convoy-chasing. Despite Tim’s offer to arrange a car, I was on a budget of essentially nothing, and so I walked.
When I arrived, Tim was seated on a ledge outside a tall, old building that had no windows and looked like a Manhattan skyscraper hollowed out by fire. Ominous-looking gold letters on the side of the building described it as the Ministry of Justice, but no one had worked there for years. Tim was well dressed for a foreign correspondent, in nice slacks and collared, light-colored suit shirt, his cameras strewn across various shoulders.
We began with the conversation that two journalists inevitably seem to have in the field: What are you covering, where were you last…. Oh, so you must know my friend so-and-so? Tim told me about the book he was working on at the time, Long Story Bit by Bit, about Liberia’s long civil war. I remember the excitement in his eyes as he told me the details. Many photographers and journalists follow stories for the rush, the chance to be in the thick of things, before they move elsewhere. Tim certainly did that; he captured the most brutal stages of the war in vivid detail — from the rebels’ organization in the bush to their assault on the capital. But Tim was not only piqued by war; he was interested in the fate of Liberia — in seeing this country recover. In short, he was there because he gave a damn. And his mere presence proved his commitment: Now that things were calming down in Liberia, most other journalists were gone.
The day’s events then began, and we caravanned back and forth, from the presidential palace to the congressional chambers and back again, attending all of Annan’s and Johnson-Sirleaf’s meetings amid the mob of local reporters who swarmed every meeting with their microphones and cameras. Throughout the next few days, I ran about the city reporting and didn’t get the opportunity to sit down with him again. But he called several times to make sure I had met the contacts I needed.
From Liberia, Tim went on to document other war-torn regions. He authored another book, Infidel, from Afghanistan. He worked on the award-winning film The Devil Came on Horseback about Darfur, and directed Restrepo. It wasn’t just that his photography was stellar. It also made you feel something visceral inside — a connection to the story that was some filtered bit of Tim’s own experience. "My work is about trying to get us to understand that we are connected and trying to build bridges and understanding between people," Tim tweeted on August 27, 2010.
But if Tim had become a giant in his field, he was more down to earth than most anyone. If he noticed how young I looked, back then, Tim never let on. He treated me like a colleague. That’s the best tribute I can give him today, amid the terrible news of his passing. He was one of my first colleagues as a journalist working in Africa, and I’ll always remember his kindness as an exemplar of what it means to be a compassionate human being in a place that demands the most from journalists.