Remembering Tim Hetherington
The gentleman behind the lens.
The first words that were used to describe Tim Hetherington by almost anybody who knew him were “humble” and “modest.”
Yet, Tim was a guy of great talents — a photojournalist whose photographs were at a very high level of artistry, who had released this past fall an art photography book titled Infidel, consisting of portraits he had taken of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Afghanistan war. The title Infidel was a wry bit of Hetherington humor; a number of the soldiers he photographed had tattooed the word “Infidel” on themselves as they deployed to Afghanistan.
He was also someone who would, and did, take the grittiest pictures of combat. For one of those photographs he won the World Press Photo of the Year award in 2007. The photo showed an exhausted, battle-weary GI resting in a bunker in northern Afghanistan, an apt metaphor for what was then fast becoming the longest war in American history.
Tim had also gone to Oxford to study literature, something he never mentioned in the long days we spent talking to each other about our lives when we were both embedded with a group of Marines in southern Afghanistan in September 2009, while working together on stories for CNN.
The Marine base in Nawa in Helmand province where we spent several days had no water or electricity, and large barrels of human feces were burned off on a daily basis. But Tim loved it; each morning he would uncomplainingly trek out on foot patrols across fields laced with homemade bombs. Tim and his enthusiasm for the Marines and for Afghanistan in general were infectious.
Tim was a lot of fun to be around; a mensch, that not-completely-translatable Yiddish word that means someone whom people find to be an admirable man; someone they want to be around. He was a man who was at home in the world, whether that was a hellhole in Helmand or at a dinner party in Manhattan.
Then there was Restrepo, the film Tim co-directed and co-produced with author Sebastian Junger. Tim worked for more than a year shooting the film, flying back and forth from his apartment in Brooklyn to spend months in the Korengal Valley, then pretty much the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.
At one point during an intense firefight, Tim fell and broke his leg and had to be medevaced out. Yet he soldiered on to complete the film.
Restrepo was a labor of love for Tim. He had a great deal of empathy for the young soldiers he documented. The resulting film is not only the best documentary about war I have ever seen; it is simply one of the greatest of all war films, sharing the epic quality of movies like Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket. It is also very beautifully shot, revealing Tim’s great sense of picture composition.
Restrepo took no strong position on the Afghanistan war, and when Tim screened the film for audiences around the country he made it clear that he did not want the film to be seen as either an indictment or a celebration of war, but more about what war does to small units of men. And he wanted American audiences to have a more informed discussion of what this particular war was doing to its soldiers. That is what made Restrepo so universal; it could have been made in Vietnam or during World War II or in any another conflict where men kill other men, some die, some are wounded, and others survive.
When Tim was nominated for an Oscar for Restrepo earlier this year he was “completely delighted,” as he put it in an email to me.
Although Tim didn’t win the Oscar, he wrote to me afterward to say something that says a lot about Tim Hetherington: “While we didn’t get to take home the little gold man, going down the red carpet with those soldiers [from the film] was one of the highlights of my life so far … and a real finale to an incredible journey. And although this particular journey may be over, the film lives on!”
Tim lived and worked in the toughest environments in the world, from Liberia to Afghanistan to Libya. But he was never jaded by those experiences, nor was he ever a showboat about his many years on the front lines.
He was a very gentle man. A gentleman.