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I was brought up on grainy black and white stills of the Vietnam War, then the Biafran conflict and the civil war in Northern Ireland. Some of the best images of this period were shot by a British war photographer, Don McCullin, who hailed from a working class background in London. His autobiography Unreasonable Behaviour, is an interesting chronicle – I must return to it.

 

A more than worthy bearer of his mantle was Tim Hetherington – like McCullin a rangy Brit, who many women found irresistible. Hetherington’s name first came to my attention three years ago when the film of which he was co-director, Restrepo, was released. Like nothing else available at the time, it was a warts and all narrative of his sojourn with a US platoon in one of Afghan’s most dangerous areas, the Korengal Valley.  I arranged one of the many screenings of this epic film, which won an award at the Sundance Festival, and was later nominated for an Oscar.

 

Here I Am is the tale of (most of) Hetherington’s career and his death. Often inspiring, almost always moving, it pays testament to a remarkable man. He is portrayed as a man of immense humanity: much of this derives from his early experiences. The book starts with Hetherington’s work in Liberia and Monrovia, where we are introduced to characters such as Black Diamond (a female rebel leader) and General Butt Naked. It is soon apparent that Hetherington has a rare talent to strike up a relationship with people from the most diverse backgrounds. It can be no coincidence that the bulk of his photography, even in a war zone, is of portraits rather than simplistic combat footage. He is unaffected by the harsh living conditions near or at the front line, however there are times when he struggles to retain an emotional distance from his subjects. Early on his addiction to being in warzones, and his burning desire to tell the story of usually the rebel side, become very apparent.

Here I Am

The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer

Alan Huffman, Atlantic, 2 May 2013

Fighting at Restrepo: NB flip flops and Hesco

The Restrepo period is described at length, partly because Restrepo’s co-director, Sebastian Junger, chronicled it comprehensively in his own book, War. It is notable that Hetherington soon strikes up a close bond with this diverse bunch of US soldiers. He earns their respect when he struggles down the mountain unaided after breaking his ankle when their patrol endures a particularly gruesome contact. The reasons for why the outpost was named Restrepo are fully explained. There the troops “came under daily fire, sometimes three or four times a day, from distances as close as fifty yards, inside a small fortification delineated by  Hesco containers and sandbags that the soldiers filled with rocks that they’d laboriously broken with pickaxes in 100-degree heat.”  

It was obvious from his later writings that Hetherington was profoundly moved by his Restrepo experiences. By the book’s halfway stage, the Arab Spring has started, and this throws up a plethora of opportunities for Hetherington and his ilk. Libya attracts him like a bee to a honeypot – obviously to tell the story of those trying to bring down the Gaddafi regime. The reader is left in no doubt about the inhumanity and depravity of that regime as it tries to cling on to power. That two years later a similar story is unfolding in Syria is deeply depressing, but, if nothing else (and there is much else) HIA is a potent reminder of the cost of ensuring that the images of that struggle reach our TV screens and papers.

One of the attractions of Libya was that the rebels were largely civilians who had taken up arms to defend their families. Their training was limited, and their ideas of how to wage war (and pose for cameras) hugely influenced by the films they had seen. The most exciting – and high risk – place to work was Misrata, where Hetherington and others headed. There is a telling passage where at least two teams of TV crews hop off the boat in the harbour, shoot some hurried footage, and hop back on the boat before it returns to Benghazi. The real cameramen stay behind.

Much of the last third of the book is scene-setting in Misrata, and not directly about Hetherington. But by then the reader has the measure of the man, and it provides useful insight into the life of a war journalist. As the town is blown apart, as government forces try to encircle and bomb the rebels, it is notable how almost all the core journalists in their communications with relatives and partners play down, or ignore completely, the danger of their situation.

We know the outcome of the story - there can be no suspense; nonetheless the circumstances of Hetherington’s death still leave the reader gasping for air, and lamenting that such a gifted and human man was taken from us. Junger’s testimonial, posted online within 48 hours of his death, is very moving, and concludes “… what you died for: the decision to live a life that was thrown open to all the beauty and misery and ugliness and joy in the world.”

If there is a weakness in this book it is the single-minded focus on his professional career. We never learn how he became the man he was. The reader would not know for example, that after an education at Stoneyhurst (a prominent Catholic public school), Hetherington read English Literature at Oxford, and later media studies at Cardiff. We do not know that he enjoyed a comfortable middle-class childhood. Nor that his third Christian name was Telemachus -  a hero of Homer’s Odyssey (surely some resonance there?). Possibly it is that Huffman’s being American that causes him to overlook these issues. The title Here I Am is misleading – the book is not an expose of Hetherington. In his work he does not seek to tell a story about himself. I would been happier with a different title.

And a map of the spider’s web that downtown Misrata became for Hetherington and many fallen rebels would also have been aided the final hectic chapters. But overall the book should spur you to look at the work of this remarkable man.

 

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