Tim Hetherington: War Hero Who Shot With a Camera

The Restrepo director was both a soldier among frontline photographers and a missionary with no dogma but to give people the look and feel of the wars their governments wage in their name

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Eddy Risch / EPA

Oscar-nominated filmmaker and photographer Tim Hetherington was killed in Lybia April 20, 2011

If any man pursued a life of value without valuing his own life, it was Tim Hetherington. Wars in Liberia, Nigeria, Afghanistan and Libya — the world’s open wounds — were vocation destinations for this English photojournalist, whose pictures had the impact of stark truth stripped of political attitudinizing. His masterwork was Restrepo, the Oscar-nominated documentary he made with journalist-adventurer Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm). Detailing a year the two men spent with an Army unit in Afghanistan, Restrepo recorded life and death on the front lines of America’s nearly anonymous “other war.”

Hetherington just had to be where the action was; hooking up last week with Libya’s rebel forces in the besieged city of Misrata was as natural to him as going to Disney World would be to any American family. The news of his death at 40 on Wednesday, in mortar fire that also killed Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer Chris Hondros and injured two other journalists, was thus a shock but not a surprise. Like so many of the subjects of he caught in his camera, Hetherington died on the battlefield.

(See a photo tribute to Tim Hetherington.)

He was both a soldier among frontline photographers and a missionary with no dogma but to give people the look and feel of the wars their governments wage in their name. “I don’t want to preach to the converted,” Hetherington said of his and Junger’s reporting from Afghanistan for the ABC network in 2007. (They were also on assignment for Vanity Fair.) “I want to reach the road sweeper who has ABC News on in the morning, or the mom who’s taking her kids to school. In some ways I think that has much more utility.”

The Liverpool-born Hetherington was, in a way, a roving correspondent from birth: he lived with his family in 12 different cities before being sent to Stonyhurst boarding school. The place, as he told The Washingtonian‘s Sophie Gilbert, was “a real Jesuit prison camp. Hard weather, and they used to beat you in that private schoolboy tradition.” After reading literature at Oxford, he traveled on his own to China, India and Pakistan. Inspired by the imaginative documentaries of the French filmmaker Chris Marker, he took a photojournalism course at Cardiff University and landed a job as staff photographer at The Big Issue, a London newspaper sold by the homeless. A grant led him to Liberia, covering the Second Civil War behind the lines with TV journalist James Brabazon; that earned the two an execution order from Liberian President Charles Taylor. Hetherington helped film Brabazon’s Liberia: An Uncivil War and, a decade later, the Darfur documentary exposé The Devil Came on Horseback.

This Oxonian shot with a camera, not a Walther PPK; yet one Vanity Fair staffer said that Hetherington had the air of someone “on assignment for Her Majesty’s Secret Service — just like James Bond. I could imagine him taking off a flak jacket to reveal a tuxedo, on the way to a cocktail party. There was a lightness to him, along with the seriousness.” Those reserves of bluff charm were the photographer’s passport into war zones. He had the diplomatic skill to get people — people who were busy killing other people, people who might want to kill him — to give him the one thing a journalist needs: access. Of course, that access often put him in the line of fire.

That’s where he and Junger were for a year at Afghanistan’s Camp Restrepo (which the soldiers had named for Juan Restrepo, the company medic, killed in 2007). There, the old Army slogan “Hurry up and wait” is replaced by “Wait and shoot,” as the GIs pass the time talking about their job, their anxieties and the folks back home, then return fire from the neighboring Taliban. Without narration or ostensible political agenda, Restrepo got under the thin skin of a military siege. “It’s a very slippery thing to try to get out any truisms about war,” he said in an interview about the film. “War is hell, but it’s more than that. And rather than lay down any kind of definitiveness, I just wanted to show the texture of it. And that meant not just photographing just the combat, but … the guys, their time off, when war is often very boring. And it’s boredom punctuated by sheer terror. And I wanted to capture all of that.”

As tersely revealing as the film are the photos Hetherington shot for Vanity Fair, and which are available for perusal on the magazine’s website. One shows Sgt. Tanner Stichter stripped to the waist, and on his stomach a tattoo of the word INFIDEL; that was the title of Hetherington’s book of photographs about the Restrepo team. Another has Specialist Kyle Steiner pointing to the mark a Taliban bullet made when it struck his helmet during a firefight. (To illustrate the guardian angels that saved his life, Steiner later had two winged bullets tattooed on his chest.) One man has marked his grenades like charms on a bracelet: “Mom,” “Taryn,” “Doug,” “9/11” and “NY” (the New York Yankees logo). The shot of a Restrepo soldier during a shelling — one hand on his forehead, the other cradling his helmet — earned Hetherington the 2007 award for World Press Photo of the Year.

Hetherington compiled many awards and war wounds — he broke a leg during the filming of Restrepo — but these were incidental to his larger campaign of showing the world the face of conflict. On Tuesday he reported from his last battle, in a Tweet that carried the epigrammatic eloquence, and the mortal threat, of his photojournalism: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.” He died the next day.