Last week, between watching Sebastian Junger‘s beautiful film homage to his friend, Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? and reading Alan Huffman’s Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, I feel like I knew this remarkable man. And I mourn his loss.
I’ve thought about why I was so affected by this man, this story of Tim Hetherington. It doesn’t hurt that besides being extremely smart, charming, kind, and of excellent character, Tim was also handsome. With all of this, how could one not fall a little in love with him? Clearly everyone – women and men – did. But there’s something else about him that got under my skin, something sad and familiar.
In Junger’s film, there is footage of Tim during his first experience of war in Liberia. Visibly buzzing from shock and adrenaline after a very close-call, he says something about feeling stupid for taking the risk – ‘all for a fucking photograph’. Yet he kept at it, making his way to war-zone after war-zone, with his clunky, old-style camera. He took the risks repeatedly, although his images were primarily faces, portraits of intimacy, capturing something internal, not typical war-action shots.
At a weirdly prescient talk in Moscow given not long before he was killed by mortar shrapnel in Libya, he tells his audience that the odds of staying safe the longer one kept at it, were not good. He knew. He knew early on in his career and yet, compelled, he continued, going closer and closer to the edge. Huffman writes that Tim recognized a pattern of behavior among soldiers and “He also saw the same patterns of behavior in himself. They were all looking for a sense of purpose, which the extremes of war gave them…”
In the film, one of the scenes that moved me the most was Tim with his family. The room brims with love as Tim kisses his mother, embraces, and holds his father. This footage was as affecting for me as the images of violence. He was so loved by family, friends, his stunning, smart girlfriend. Why did he leave them to knowingly move towards death? What did he seek? Yes, he left a powerful body of work behind — but it cannot outweigh the tremendous sense of loss that this fine man is no longer with us — too young. Read Huffman’s book and see Junger’s film and you will feel it too.
Something infects those who go to war – a kind of madness with no apparent cure. An essence of human nature is laid bare only out in those fields, amidst the mortared rubble. The weird and compelling intensity is like no other and impossible to adequately describe to one who has not experienced it. But Junger and Huffman have each done as brilliant a job as their subject did, in their loving, honest portrayals of the remarkable life of Tim Hetherington.