Photographer Tim Hetherington during an assignment for Vanity Fair Magazine at 'Restrepo' outpost. Battle Company, 2nd Battalion Airborne of the 503rd US Infantry are currently undergoing a 15 month deployment in the Korengal Valley in the eastern province of Kunar in Afghanistan. The valley is an epicentre of the US fight against militant Islam in Afghanistan, and was previously held by the 10th Mountain Division. The Korengal valley is infamous as the site of the downing of a US helicopter. The valley has the highest concentration of fighting in Afghanistan and has the most munitions used than any other area of operation.
Courtesy HBO
By Peter van Agtmael
April 18, 2013

Nearly two years ago, photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed in Misrata, Libya. Tim had just taken a photo of a helmet punctured by a bullet hole when the mortar blast took him. Like much of his work, Hetherington’s last photo is ominous without being overtly brutal — suggesting violence rather than graphically showing it. In the wake of the explosion he was conscious but bleeding heavily. The wound probably could have been treated successfully if the rebels and journalists that accompanied him knew first aid. Meanwhile, Chris lay a few feet away, unresponsive and dying from his own grievous injuries. In video filmed by Libyan rebels and posted on YouTube, doctors frantically try to resuscitate the photographers in Misrata’s hospital. Both Tim and Chris died shortly after.

In the wake of their deaths, tributes poured in from friends, acquaintances and luminaries, and the close knit community of war correspondents were left to reckon with what had happened. Some walked away from war and haven’t been back. Some swore to finally give it up, then quietly returned months later. Most kept on going.

This spring, on the second anniversary of his death, two new works celebrate Tim Hetherington’s life. ‘Which Way Is the Frontline from Here?‘ is a new documentary directed by Sebastian Junger and produced by James Brabazon — two of Hetherington’s close friends and collaborators. And from writer Alan Huffman comes ‘Here I Am,’ a biography. The documentary and the book cover similar terrain, focusing on Tim’s relationship with his work more than on his personal life and early years. Both recount his last days in Libya in excruciating detail.

South Korea wants answers. Five days after a ferry sank off the country's southern coast, the nation is waiting for information about the fate of those on board, and the cause of the disaster. A transcript of the ship’s communication with the shore, released Sunday, provides a partial glimpse into what transpired after the Sewol took a sharp turn, listed, then sank last Wednesday morning. Though much is still unclear, the exchange suggests a chaotic scene as crew members weighed whether or not to evacuate the ship. The 6,825-ton ferry set off April 15 from the port city of Incheon, near Seoul, making its twice-weekly overnight journey to the resort island of Jeju. The Japan-made vessel was carrying 476 people, including 350 high school students on a class trip. Just before 8:55 a.m. on April 16, the ship sent a distress signal. "Our ship is in danger," a crew member said. Two hours later, it was nearly submerged. One hundred and seventy four people survived. As of Monday evening, local time, 64 are confirmed dead and 240 remain missing. At some point after the ship began to list, survivors say, passengers were told to stay below deck. Captain Lee Jun-seok told South Korean media he worried that the cold water and swift currents made evacuating the ferry too risky. A crew member told controllers that people were unable to move and that the boat's internal broadcast system was down. But they also repeatedly asked traffic controllers on shore if passengers who abandoned ship would be rescued immediately. “The coast guard will arrive in 15 minutes; please tell your passengers to wear life jackets,” emergency dispatchers told the ferry about 30 minutes after the initial call. “We have lost our ability to broadcast our messages,” the ship responded. “Even if you can’t use your speaker, do your best to go out and ensure that your passengers wear life jackets or thick clothes,” dispatchers said. “If our passengers evacuate, will they be immediately rescued?” the ship asked. “Let them float even with life rings. Hurry!” urged the dispatcher, adding that "the captain should make a final decision." Lee survived, as did most of his crew. Lee faces jail time for abandoning ship; several crew members have also been detained. [time-brightcove videoid=3491847774001] On Monday, President Park Geun-hye lashed out at the ferry's crew, calling their actions "unforgivable" and "murderous." They "told the passengers to stay put but they themselves became the first to escape, after deserting the passengers," she said at a Cabinet meeting. "Legally and ethically, this is an unimaginable act." Chosun Ilbo, a South Korean newspaper, echoed the sentiment, saying the transcripts revealed "negligence" on the part of the coast guard and Sewol’s crew. Some family members, meanwhile, put the blame on Park's government, accusing officials of giving parents inaccurate information and botching the search-and-rescue effort. Last week angry relatives threw water bottles at the Prime Minister and shouted at Park. On Sunday about 100 people vowed to march from South Korea's southern coast, where they have gathered to wait for news, to the President's official residence in Seoul, reports the Associated Press. They were eventually stopped by police officers. As they pushed against the barricade, some yelled "The government is the real killer!" In the cold water off the country's southern coast, divers spent the weekend and Monday trying to get inside the vessel. Bodies pulled from the water were ferried to Jindo island, where family members huddled near at the shoreline, eyes fixed to the sea. They are desperate to know what happened. But five days in, with no sign of survivors, they are bracing for bad news.
Tim Hetherington—Magnum

Many journalists die in combat but few become canonized; Tim’s story was ripe for this ritual. Intelligent, warm and handsome, he was both well-respected and well-loved. He was firmly committed, eschewing “parachute journalism” to work rigorously on the subjects he cared about. He used photography and video with equal skill, and when they weren’t enough, he served a stint as a Human Rights investigator for the United Nations in Liberia.

Junger’s film is deeply powerful, combining interviews with Tim, reminiscences by his friends, and footage and photographs largely shot in Liberia and Afghanistan. While the documentary dives into some of his doubts and uncertainties, it is essentially a tribute made by grieving friends. In that role, it is invaluable.

Journalism needs heroes to serve as symbols of its values and worth. Although I was friendly with Tim, the movie made me feel the magnitude of the loss in a way I had only understood in bits and pieces before. It’s likely that the story of his life and death will serve as inspiration to those in the next generation of war journalists. I wonder how he would feel about that.

Tim’s story is extraordinary, but there are real dangers in myth-making. The war journalist is often romanticized but poorly understood. While we talk sincerely (and in public, predominately) about affecting public policy and creating a record for history, many of us — perhaps most of us — are driven by darker desires as well. I asked Sebastian what he thought attracted Tim to conflict.

“War gives you meaning,” he said, “an appreciation of life, and a chemical rush. That’s good. If anything else gave you all that, I’d be doing it every day. War is giving you these things that everyone seeks and presents it in a package. You never get those three things together in anything else. You can go skydiving but that’s not meaningful, it’s just an indulgence. War is everything.”

Like many journalists covering conflict, Tim was from a well-off background. After university at Oxford, several years of travel sensitized him to how most of the world lives, and he decided to commit himself to telling some of the stories he found. As Sebastian put it, “Tim felt burdened by the privileges of his background. War is a good place to shed that and remake yourself.” For many people, especially men, war is a seductive crucible. In my conversation with Sebastian, he reflected on the identify that war can provide.

“I think there is an identity crisis for men in this society in terms of demonstrating to themselves and others that they are men. You can grow up in certain circumstances and not really feel tested as a man. You can feel like you didn’t really pass through that gateway from adolescence into manhood. I went to war because I felt like it would turn me into a man. It didn’t at first — but eventually it did.”

This identity is something that’s rarely discussed. It’s a primally powerful force but it’s also shameful and immature. I know that I’ve felt it, but it took years of covering war for me to fully acknowledge it within myself.

https://twitter.com/PaulaEbbenWBZ/status/458286026717659136   https://twitter.com/PaulaEbbenWBZ/status/458288104869494784  
Chris Hondros—Getty Images

With the success of his work in Liberia and Afghanistan, and as he began to approach middle age, Tim began to think about leaving war behind. In some ways he felt trapped in the identity he had created for himself. The more success he had, the harder it was to leave conflict behind. In their last conversation before he went to Libya, Tim talked with his close friend, photographer Christopher Anderson, about his relationship with war. He felt guilty for seeking out conflict — for enjoying it — and for the burden his vocation placed on his loved ones. But the high he’d felt from the success of Restrepo had begun to fade, and he hadn’t worked on a new project in the time he’d been making and promoting his documentary. Libya offered a powerful story at a pivotal moment. While he didn’t yet feel passionate about it, he thought that it would fit well into his work about the theatrics of young men at war.

For war journalists, the fascination with war is largely defined by a powerful curiosity about death. This obsession is murky and confusing for those that find themselves under its sway. Why risk death to try and make peace with it? The notion seems contradictory. In ‘WWTTFLFH,’ Tim explained that photography made him “free from a destructive tendency I had inside myself.” Yet he continued to seek the edge. Christopher told me that “Tim had a fascination with death. He wrote and talked about it, and spent a lot of time trying to get very close to it. I think that’s what ultimately killed him.” There is a specific and addictive delirium that can overtake many people when violence gets close, a cool detachment from body and existence that combines with a kind of reckless mania. As Christopher tells it, Tim referred to this phenomenon as “getting sucked into the death.”

The portrait of the journalist as hero is at-once seductive and misleading; after all, as journalists, we’re trained to probe beyond the societal and self-created narratives. In the wake of a colleague’s death, objectivity can feel like an impossibility. As time passes, a more complex and nuanced reality can find space to slide into focus. As Christopher Anderson explained: “Tim was really smart and really talented but he was a real human being too. He was so opposed to this idea of photographer as myth. It was kind of an obsession with him. To know he was being made into a myth was totally contrary to who he was. Part of him would be appalled, part would be silently flattered, and as the professional story teller it would make sense to him.”

Indeed, that has been one of the most troubling parts of the deaths of Tim and Chris Hondros. Chris has somehow dropped from public view. He was a consummate professional and classical photojournalist; quietly, consistently and diligently covering all the major conflicts since the late 90’s in an even-handed style. Amidst his steady approach are two icons of war photography from Liberia and Iraq. He was also popular and highly respected by his peers. Yet his name is often mentioned as an afterthought, if at all. Paradoxically, it was this kind of elevation of the individual to the exclusion of the bigger ideas that Tim was trying to reject with his work.

Yet perhaps in death Tim and Chris will ensure life to many others. War journalists, especially freelancers, are often unprepared to treat wounds on the battlefield. Training courses are mostly cost-prohibitive without the backing of a major media organization or grant. After Tim’s death, Sebastian Junger created RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues), a combat trauma and survival class for freelancers offered free of charge several times a year.

Ultimately, Which Way is the Frontline From Here? and Here I Am are first drafts of history. They ensure that the essence of the man is preserved along with his pictures. But they also suggest that there is far more to tell.


Which Way is the Frontline From Here? premieres on HBO on April 18th at 8pm EST.

Peter van Agtmael is a photographer represented by Magnum. In 2012, van Agtmael received the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography.


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