In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.
That was Tim Hetherington's last tweet. The photojournalist died Wednesday in Misrata, Libya covering the conflict between the government and the rebels. We should also note that Getty photographer Chris Hondros, whose photos have run in the Globe, died in the same battle. Here's a piece on their deaths.
As a journalist, there are times you realize there are people like you and there are people like them. Like Hetherington. I had one of those moments last year, at the Full Frame Documentary Festival. We were there for our Kinks film. Hetherington was there to present "Restrepo," a film co-directed with Sebastian ("The Perfect Storm") Junger about a group of US soldiers in Afghanistan. It's funny. When you're at a film festival and you've got a movie to push, it's easy to get caught up in that very small pond of self-promotion. I confess, I spent the moments before "Restrepo" rubber-necking the audience to see which doc-world programmers had ignored our movie but were sitting there as attentively as school children. How could they! At the end, I watched the litany of names roll by in the credits and thought, 'boy, if we only had their budget.' And it was hard not to wonder where the direcing line split with Junger, all sucked-in-cheeks and blustery confidence. (He's always struck me as our generation's Norman Mailer, capable of great writing but also so self-confident he can sometimes be hard to take.)
And then this Tim Hetherington began to speak. He had come to Full Frame as part of the screening and to answer questions. He was soft-spoken and gracious and while there's no video from the event as far as I can tell, what I remember most is how pleased he seemed that some of the soldiers in the film were on hand. "Restrepo," for me, had been a frustrating film. Good but not great. There was tension and humor and sadness. I liked the fact that the filmmakers didn't use the movie to launch into a political argument, either for or against the war. They believed in the power of straight reporting. But my expectation for the documentary took root in its title. I expected the soldier who tragically died, Juan Sebastian Restrepo, to be more fully explored. Instead, through a few slo-mo shots of him to create drama and some very surface level comments from his fellow soldiers, we were given just the slightest hint of a character. Then a lot of time with a group of young soldiers in a confusing and dangerous place.
But when I heard Hetherington speak and saw the soldiers on hand - all of whom were applauded - I realized the ridiculous pettiness of amateur film criticism within the safe confines of a festival. I mean, these guys actually backed up their ambitious plans by going there. Hetherington didn't strap cameras to the soldiers. He went, into a war zone, and gathered his material. (As did Junger.) I certainly didn't.
That's because Hetherington was one of them. He documented war to show people like me the sadness, futility and disarray in a world so far from ours.
After his death, I saw this 19-minute video, "Diary," that Hetherington presented at Full Frame this year. I like it better than "Restrepo." It feels deeply personal, impressionistic and you get the feeling that, at 40, the photojournalist was both searching for a way to explain his life and also to help us understand what these flashes and geographic leaps must feel like.