Tim Hetherington, 1970–2011

The photographer who captured war’s terror

During combat “you don’t really have time to start examining your emotions,” Tim Hetherington said. But he couldn’t always maintain his detachment. Once, while he was covering the civil war in Liberia, a rebel commander threatened to shoot a doctor he suspected of espionage. After pleading for the man’s life, Hetherington grabbed the pistol from the commander’s grasp. The doctor survived.

Hetherington and his friend and fellow photographer Chris Hondros were killed last week by an exploding mortar shell in the Libyan town of Misurata, the scene of heavy fighting in recent weeks, said the London Telegraph. An accomplished photojournalist, he had covered fighting in Sudan, Sri Lanka, and Afghanistan, among other places. He and his co-director, writer Sebastian Junger, were nominated for an Oscar this year for Restrepo, a documentary chronicling the lives of an isolated platoon of American soldiers in Afghanistan’s deadly Korengal Valley. His work—including still photographs, film, and multimedia presentations—charted “not only the terror of war but also the silent suffering of its pathetic by-products—victims of landmine injuries and blind children.”

Born into a working-class family in Liverpool, England, Hetherington graduated, dead broke, from Oxford in 1992, said the London Guardian. A gift of 5,000 pounds from his grandmother enabled him to escape England and travel for two years in India, China, and Tibet, “feeding his curiosity for the lives of others in unfamiliar circumstances.” Upon his return to England, he went to work for The Big Issue, a magazine produced and sold by London’s homeless community, where he won notice for his photographs of a church service for blind and deaf people, whose participants communicated by signing into one another’s hands.

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Good-looking and seemingly fearless, Hetherington cut a dashing figure on the battlefield, said the Associated Press. “I could imagine him taking off a flak jacket to reveal a tuxedo, on his way to a cocktail party,” said Vanity Fair photography editor Susan White. But there was nothing glamorous about his work. Sleeping Soldiers, a 2009 multimedia piece, juxtaposes still pictures of slumbering troops with movie imagery of “huge explosions, the chaos of troops in the field trying to figure out their next move, and, heartbreakingly, a soldier dissolving in tears after learning his buddy has just died.”

Friends say Hetherington had talked lately of slowing down. He’d recently moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., and planned to start a family with his Somali girlfriend, Idil Ibrahim.

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