“At the root of my work is really this whole idea of intimacy.” As Tim Hetherington speaks, Which Way is the Frontline From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington complicates his story. You see that he’s at work, photographing schoolchildren, who appear first as a group, almost a herd, with the photographer standing among them and towering above them, their arms outstretched and their faces turned up. In a next shot, they pass before the film camera, and in a third, they appear as blurred, brightly colored background for a closeup of his clicking camera, a Rolleiflex cupped in his hands. As the shot pans up to show the photographer, his voiceover goes on, “I become deeply embedded emotionally in all the work I do.”
What can it mean, you might wonder, that this tall, white, broad-shouldered Brit might claim to become embedded in this work, with subjects so utterly different from him? The film cuts to longer shot of an interior, Hetherington bent over his Rollei, now mounted on a tripod across the room from a chair, where he poses children one by one for portraits: a nine-year-old girl with eyes wide, then changing places with a little boy, who looks through the camera at Hetherington before he agrees to sit for a picture. “Ask him,” Hetherington asks his interpreter, if It was painful. The boy keeps his face turned away from the photographer and the cameras directed his way. Yes, it was painful. Hetherington laughs, “That’s the sad truth about photography.”
As suggested by this brief sequence, photography was something of a life’s mission for Hetherington. Best known as a war zone correspondent, he was dedicated, thoughtful, and very good at what he did. Killed by shrapnel in April 2011 in Misrata, Libya, Hetherington is here commemorated by Sebastian Junger, his partner on the Oscar-nominated documentary, Restrepo. The film — airing this month on HBO and screening at Stranger Than Fiction on 23 April, with Junger on hand for a Q&A — offers basic exposition, via family photos and interviews with Hetherington’s parents, a teacher, and schoolmates, as well as the expected guesses as to Hetherington’s methods and motivations. That none of these descriptions quite seems enough may be the film’s greatest insight.
Hetherington was, says his mother Judith, “always very comfortable and communicative with people.” His teacher Daniel Meadows remembers him as “my first genuinely modern student,” as he embraced digital photography and multiple platforms. Hetherington provides his own sorts of explanation, though the film makes clear immediately that such interviews are their own mix of truth and fiction: the opening sequence has him starting and stopping a self-description (“I think the important part for me is to make work that is connected to people,” he proposes, then regroups (“Blah, blah, blah”), before he goes at it again, “I think the important thing for me is to connect with real people, you know, to document them in these extreme circumstances,” at which point his off screen camera operator reassures him that the performance is “strong, yeah.”
Other journalists, primarily James Brabazon and Junger himself, present the most sustained efforts to articulate what it means to go to war as a reporter. Brabazon remembers their work in Liberia in 2003, “Tim had never been in war before,” he says, but he was “totally unfazed,” taking pictures amid mayhem, even as guns were pointed at his camera. Here, the outsiders found not organized troops, but “two groups of young men absolutely enamored of the theatrics of war,” an experience revealed here in hectic footage of skinny kids wielding large weapons. “They used it to give them selves courage,” Brabazon adds, “The effect that has on you is terrifying.” The film includes as well a brief bit with a young woman identified as a “former LURD fighter” (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy), whom you see in the original footage and then again, now, wonders how Hetherington came to “the lion’s den,” leaving behind his family, comfort, and privilege.
That he never quite left these behind forms a tension in Hetherington’s story. He notes that he embodies otherness in most places he visits (“It’s really obvious I’m there I’m a big white guy, I’m in your country”) and he devises strategies for showing what he thinks he wants to show (he calls these “Trojan horses,” ways to “talk about things people don’t really want to talk about, when they’re in other guises,” say, Liberian kids playing football in 1999 or an essay on graffiti, also in Liberia, 2004.
He begins his career as a war journalist, Hetherington says, following his experience in Sierra Leone, seeking to know “who was perpetrating these acts of violence and why.” But war is both less specific and more pervasive than such questions can indicate, and so his photos express something else. It’s not that war might be “in the hard wiring of young men,” as Brabazon suggests, but more elusively and more horribly, in the culture that produces and exploits them, that sees in them reflections of strength and self-identity.
Junger offers a couple of his own explanations concerning war, and its appeal, for fighters and reporters. “War is very confusing to soldiers, it’s so terrible when it’s happening and then you miss it so terribly when its over” or, the intimacy of war is “not reproducible in society,” but also utterly reflective of it. This reflection is visible in Hetherington’s photos, as these convey the difficulty of such intimacy. The photos of soldiers and the photos of children or victims of war reveal a similar relationship between subject and artist, often less intimate than mutually respectful.
The film wrestles with this relationship, unable to explain it but plainly, deeply affected by it. On one level, Junger jokes, Hetherington was creating and thinking beyond the obvious (“Don’t you get it?” he remembers Hetherington asking him at one point in Afghanistan, summing up, “Of course, I didn’t, often, with Tim”). But on another level, the film is caught up by memorial-portrait conventions, asserting its subject’s compassion and intelligence, as well as the tragedy of his loss, an effort sometimes overwhelmed by undermined by plinky piano and lingering shots of interviews overcome by sadness.
That so much of this sadness is a function of war, its presumed measures of character, provides another sort of tension in Hetherington’s story. It may be that Hetherington found a kind of too perfect, allusive and tragic name for war, the title of a photo essay he did on the troops in Korengal Valley they filmed for Restrepo, “Man Eden.” Still, he and others struggle to name it, again and again. In an interview about Restrepo, included here: “The war machine isn’t just technology, and bombs and missiles and systems and this kind of CNN- TV-mediated world. The war machine is put a group of men together in extreme circumstances, get them to bond together, and they will kill and be killed for each other.”
It’s hard to say how Hetherington became part of this machine, even as he insists that the apparatus of war includes media, his work and his life. His photos — including his last, from Libya — remarkably and regularly achieve a shared experience, linking artist, subjects, and viewers. You see this see in his Liberian photos, or “Inner Light: Portraits of the Blind,” photos taken at the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown, Sierra Leone, from 1999-2003, or “Sleeping Soldiers,” taken in the Korengal Valley while he was filming Restrepo with Junger. That shared experience is framed in the photos as, in his words, what he tried to bring, “a quieter kind of reflection to images of conflict.”
When you hear the words, you see what he means. And, as he points out, this quieter kind of reflection is of a piece with his preferred camera, the medium format Rollei. “It’s a square based format that is suited to portraiture,” he explains. “I look down into the camera toward them,” rather than through a lens at them, he says, “I changed the way that I looked at them and the way that I talked to them. I’ve got to talk to people.”