British photojournalist Tim Hetherington devoted his life to documenting war and the people most affected by it. He spent his days traveling the world and getting to know individuals and communities so that he could amplify their voices and share their experiences with the widest audience possible. Shortly after he and his collaborator, Sebastian Junger, attended the Academy Awards to represent their documentary Restrepo, Hetherington traveled to Misrata, Libya to document the ongoing civil war. While in Libya, he was killed by a mortar attack, as was fellow photographer Chris Hondros.
In the wake of this tragic loss, Junger directed Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. The film contains interviews with Hetherington’s loved ones and colleagues, as well as videos and photos spanning his career. It is a tribute to Hetherington’s life and work, providing deep insight into his decisions to document war and its effects.
Which Way is the Front Line From Here? screened at STF on Tuesday. After the screening, James Brabazon, the film’s producer and a close friend of Hetherington’s, and Alan Huffman, author of Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer, joined STF’s Thom Powers for a conversation about Hetherington’s life and legacy.
Stranger Than Fiction: James, let me start with you. This film makes such rich use of footage of Tim’s life from over the years. Someone said to me, “It’s almost as if someone had been following Tim around, trying to make a film about him all these years.” Can you talk about the process when you and Sebastian embarked on this film, and what it was like gathering all this footage?
James Brabazon: Yeah. I mean, in a sense, we were extremely fortunate to have such a wealth of archival material of Tim. Actually, the process of collecting the archive and looking at what we would want to include in the film – how Tim would help us tell his story – was, as filmmakers, really vital and illuminating. But also, on a personal level, as really close friends of Tim’s, we began to realize the breadth and depth of his interactions in the world that were far beyond what we had initially imagined. One of the interesting things about making the film, about reaching out to people and receiving material from them, was that there were so many people who knew Tim. He had touched so many people, who were both enamored and inspired by him. So it was a very enlightening process, as his friend, as well as a vital process as a filmmaker.
STF: Alan, can you talk about how you knew Tim and what drew you into the project of writing a book about him?
Alan Huffman: Well, I met Tim through Sebastian, because I was working on a book in the early 2000s that took me to Liberia, so Tim and I had that in common, and every conversation that we had was basically about Liberia, because there weren’t a lot of people that had been there during that time period. And after Tim was killed in Misrata, Libya, it seemed to me that there was a story beyond just the tragedy of Tim’s death. Initially, it was all of the people who intersected in the hospital that day, and so I began to delve into that story, and the more we talked about it, it was obvious that the story was really about Tim. But not in the conventional sense of a biography, because I felt like Tim probably would not want that. You see in the film that Tim was focused, literally, on the subjects of his photography and their stories, and he never put himself out in front of the story. So the way I ended up approaching the book was to follow Tim through all of these war zones and to also document the lives of these people whose paths intersected with his. Not only in the hospital in Libya, but along the way throughout his career. And it just sort of dovetailed with the film in that sense. The difference between me and Sebastian and someone like James is that they were very, very close to Tim. Tim and I were friends, but I could still sort of see him as a character in a story, and I think that gives a little different cast to the book than to the film.
STF: James, when you set out to make this film, what was your goal, and through the process of it, did the project change in any way?
Brabazon: The film originated with Sebastian. At the time of Tim’s memorial service in New York, there were a lot of people coming to New York who had been affected by Tim’s death, some of whom were with Tim at the time, and I think it was the beginning of the process of Sebastian trying to understand what had happened. He conducted a series of very early interviews with those people to try to understand better both physically, actually what had happened on the day, and also the impulses that had driven Tim and the others into that situation. And that project widened into a film, which HBO very wonderfully came in on very quickly and supported us.
So in a sense, the film developed from a kind of personal desire to understand what had happened into a look at Tim’s trajectory in war. You know, when he first encountered war in Syria, he saw the affect of war on people and followed that through into looking at how young men at war see themselves and why. That trajectory is clear, but the work is unfinished. Tim was interested in showing the world to the world. I think that part of the purpose of making the film was to try to show the world how Tim was seeing and showing the world.
I think that the purpose of this film was never to be a final statement. It’s not a final reckoning or a definitive statement. If it achieves anything at all, it’s the beginning of a process. If the least that this film does is keep the way in which Tim saw the world alive, and then people are inspired by that; if it becomes in any way a call for action of some kind, rather than just retrospectively looking back at Tim’s work but looking forward to how that journey might be continued, then that would be a success.
Audience: I liked the perspective of the woman rebel soldier. Can you explain the back-story behind why she was chosen as a voice in the film?
Brabazon: Black Diamond is a very complicated figure, to say the very least. One of the reasons why she was chosen as a figure in the film is because we have a lot of material of her. She was an interesting example of someone that we encountered in Liberia, who we formed quite a close bond with in combat. Tim then maintained a relationship with her long after the fighting had finished. I saw her on a couple of trips back to Monrovia, and Tim spent quite a lot of time with her over the years and kind of followed her transition from a rebel commander through to a housewife in Monrovia. So I think that her thrust. We knew how significant Black Diamond was to Tim, and vice versa, so she seemed to be an appropriate voice. While we’d been in Liberia, she’d shown us a lot of kindness, which was obviously, as usual, deeply, morally complicated, because she was responsible for the deaths of a large number of people, and if she wasn’t personally involved, she certainly oversaw troops that carried out multiple executions.
Audience: Tim describes himself in the film as having a “destructive tendency.” Can you say what that was in reference to?
Huffman: I can’t speak directly to the treatment of that concept in the film, but it is something that came up many times as I was researching the book, and I think the best answer that I can come up with is this: a friend of Tim’s once told me that Tim had said that he felt as if he had essentially made a Faustian bargain. That he had made a deal with the Devil to try to understand the world. The way Sebastian described it was that Tim was a bright spirit drawn to dark places.
Tim realized that there was a darkness that he found attractive, because it was illuminating. I know that’s contradictory, but it’s true. You learn about what people are really about in very trying situations. What Tim carried with him that made him interested in that never really elucidated. All we know is that he had a fascination with it, and that going into these places and bringing back something positive from there was sort of a therapeutic process for him. That’s the best answer I can give. I don’t know if James would agree or not.
Brabazon: Yeah. I mean, look: Tim was interested in young men at war, and how young men at war see themselves. And Tim was also a young man at war, so he was interested in how he saw himself in conflict. Tim affected the world with his work, but he was affected by the world as well, and the way in which he was affected then caused him to affect the world differently in turn, in this sort of feedback loop. That interested him as well. If you work in conflict, if you work in war, it’s inherently destructive, but there are different ways in which being at war can be destructive. So the destructive, corrosive quality of working in war can have, perhaps, unforeseen consequences.
The opening scenes from the beginning of the film in Misrata really emphasized that the fighting that Tim was documenting in that house is not common. They’re extraordinary scenes, in which Tim had actually got himself in front of the rebels. So, that sort of magnetic force exerted by conflict is compelling but also destructive. And to have been in Misrata, the fulcrum of the war at that time, and then to get into that building, to be in front of the rebels during that fighting, you can’t get any closer to it than that, and it’s inherently destructive.
STF: James, you’re still very much in this line of work. You were in Syria not long ago, reporting on a show that’s going to be on Channel 4 in a week or so in the UK. I wonder how Tim and Chris’ deaths affected you and your approach to your work?
Brabazon: I normally pay someone to talk about this. (laughter)
STF: Well, this is a free one. (laughter)
Brabazon: Well, thank you. Do you mind if I lie down? (laughter) Sebastian and I arrived at somewhat diametrically opposed conclusions for the same reasons. Within an hour of Sebastian finding out about Tim’s death, he decided that was it. He no longer wanted to work in war. And I felt very strongly, very quickly, that I wanted to continue working in war. In fact, I decided that, whenever possible, if I had the choice, I would elect to do that. I volunteered to go to Syria. No one forces you to go; no one sends you. You are not a solider.
The reason why I want to remain working at war is complicated. On a personal, emotional level – which is really, totally irrelevant to this film – I just feel that it would almost, in some way, be a betrayal of my relationship with Tim to stop. We could spend hours unpacking that, but I just feel like this is what I do. I’m good at it, and it feels wrong somehow to stop now.
I think that when you work in conflict, there is this sort of bizarre moral compulsion to do it. There are people who live in areas that are affected by conflict, and their voices are just not heard loudly or clearly enough, and if you have the capacity to listen to that voice and broadcast it, and you can, and you’re good at it, and you enjoy it, then I think that you have an obligation to do it. The problem is understanding the nature of why you want to do it, and this is the thing that fascinated Tim as well. On the one hand, there is a sense that you are the conscience of the world, showing the world to the world; on the other hand, there is the inescapable conclusion that you are a vulture.
STF: It strikes me that Chris and Tim were of a generation that started out in the wars in Yugoslavia and came up through this series of conflicts, culminating in Iraq and Afghanistan. It felt to me, as I talked to people of that generation, that it was a defining moment, two years ago. And it’s also a time of transition in the media business in general. What is the lasting effect of their deaths?
Huffman: I don’t want to put too fine a point on it, because when you look at James’ film about Liberia, you see that there were moments there that were every bit as dangerous as what was happening in Libya, and Tim and James could have been killed in the firefights there. You’re just taking risks; you have no choice if you’re going to follow the fighting. So I don’t want to make too much of the fact that they put themselves in danger to an extraordinary extent by being in Libya in the first place. Although, as James pointed out, that morning there was a firefight in a furniture store on Tripoli Street, and in the interior of the building, people were using hot weapons, long-range weapons, grenades; things that are used for outdoor combat were being used from room to room. There were moments when the photographers were actually ahead of the rebels in that building, but that’s not when Tim was killed. It was later in the afternoon, when they were just sort of hanging out on Tripoli Street, and this random mortar came in when everyone was just hanging out.
So I can’t really say that his death was directly linked to having put himself in a situation that was fool-hearty or reckless anymore than any of the other places he had been while he was in Libya. However, there was at work, I think, a different sort of dynamic in that you had a group of photographers, and that immediately changes everyone’s judgment, because everyone is taking their cues from the people around them. I spoke with Guy Martin, who was one of the photographers who was there. He was severely injured in the mortar attack. I was looking at some of Tim’s footage from that firefight in the furniture store, and Guy is just beaming. It’s the most terrifying, horrific scene imaginable, and he’s beaming. So I asked him, “Why? Why do you look happy?” And he said, “I don’t know. When we went back to the safe house, I felt ashamed.” There was something he got caught up in that morning. It was partly the group dynamic of the photographers, it was partly the excitement that the rebels had for what was going on, but he realized that he had overstepped a boundary, and he was really reluctant to go back to Tripoli Street that afternoon. But he did, because he was taking his cues from Tim. He saw Tim as an experienced photographer, who had been in a lot of combat situations, and that if Tim was willing to go back, he was, too. I think that inevitably comes into play. When there are other people around, you don’t want to be afraid. You don’t want to miss out. I mean, they’re coming back with these incredible photographs and footage, and if you weren’t there, if you were just sitting back and eating a sandwich at the safe house, what are you gonna do?
I do think there are a lot of photographers out there, just because of the changing dynamics of the media, who don’t have a lot of experience. They show up in these places basically with just a plane ticket and an iPhone that they’re documenting everything with and uploading images, and they don’t have the level of experience that Tim had. So they’re taking their cues from people who may or may not be exercising good judgment. James can talk about this better than I, because I’m not a war journalist, but there are changes in the chemistry of your brain, in moments like that. And sometimes that may work to your advantage, and sometimes it may work to your detriment. So I think the danger is that now you have a lot more people out there who really don’t have any experience, and they don’t really know what they’re getting into.
STF: James, there are certain conflicts that, in the West, take on a certain kind of romanticism. The war in Bosnia would be an example, where it felt like there were good guys and bad guys; even if the reality was more complex, that was the perception. There was an element of that in the Arab Spring, too. People are drawn to those moments, because it feels like it’s going to be a lasting moment of history. And there are other conflicts that don’t have that same resonance here, and I would say Liberia is an example of a conflict that, if you asked the average person about it, it would be hard for them to tell you what was going on there. Libya is another one that I don’t think had the same kind of resonance here. I wonder if, as a practitioner who puts your life on the line in these places, you can put into perspective what draws you to a conflict that some people on the other side of the world could give a shit about? (laughter)
Brabazon: Well. Okay. Another one. (laughter) I’ll try to be coherent. I mean, look: war rapportage by numbers of viewers is never going to work. I mean, if I were interested in ratings, I’d be working in light entertainment. It’s about telling good stories and telling them well. The fact that a conflict is unknown or obscure is all the more reason to go there and report on it, in my opinion. If there is a very well known conflict, like the conflict in Afghanistan, then go and make a film like Restrepo, which, whatever you think about the war in Afghanistan, shows you a different side of that conflict, and it might make you feel differently about it, which I think is really valuable. So it’s not simply about reporting unknown conflicts, it’s also about the way in which you report conflict that may seem very familiar.
You don’t sit around thinking, “I’m not going to go to the Central African Republic because nobody’s going to watch it, and I’d actually rather get killed in Syria, because that’s quite sexy at the moment.” (laughter) It’s a product of expertise and experience and contact and context. The reason why I work in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East is because I’ve gone there for the last 20 years. It becomes self-perpetuating, in a way. You don’t ask your plumber to change your light bulb. There is a craft to this. It’s not about picking random hotspots because of the fighting.
The context in which they occur is also extremely important. The thing is, wherever there is conflict, wherever you scratch the surface of conflict, it turns out that it will not be difficult to uncover US tax dollars or British tax pounds. So, although a conflict may seem very remote, your connection to it is actually much closer than you may think. Now, whether we can get that message to people so that they will watch the material is another matter. But I’d urge people to remember that, as well as being a photographer and filmmaker, Tim also worked as an investigator for the United Nations. He worked for the UN Security Council panel in Liberia, helping to track down war criminals and local mercenaries in the West African region. So his pursuits were not merely about the beauty and voracity of image making. There was a very strong desire to hold people accountable, and I think that’s something that runs very strongly throughout his work.
STF: Part of the context of doing this work is having a place to get it out to an audience, and we’re at a time of transition where the older, bigger models of media are receding and yet there are new opportunities with other kinds of digital media. I’m curious, from both of your perspectives, is this a glass half-full or half-empty moment?
Brabazon: The industry is just unrecognizable in many key respects, and, very briefly, what I would say is that the revolution in the means of both collecting imagery and disseminating imagery in the last decade, and specifically in the last five years, has created not a difference of degree but a difference of kind. What that means is that, although we see this withering on the vine of the traditional print media, there is an exponential growth in other means of disseminating the maximum number of stories to the maximum number of people. If you’re a storyteller, then you’re interested in telling your stories to the widest number of people, and then, in some meaningful way, we are living in a golden age of journalism.
Now, the question is how you monetize that, how you then use that and develop it and make it sustainable, and do it in a way which is credible and authentic. One of the issues with the shrinking and demise of the mainstream media and the rise of disseminating material on the web is that those traditional filters, which have shaped and analyzed and editorialized content, are going, failing. A lot of those filters are in place to protect people, to protect subjects. One of Tim’s big things that he used to talk about a lot is the idea that it’s not enough just to be a witness. You have to understand what your responsibilities are as well.
Huffman: It’s sort of hard for me to get my arms around the idea of this being the golden age. We’re in a major transition, and good things are definitely going to come of that, and the whole idea of citizen journalists is fascinating. Tim was fascinated by that, in Libya, and he talked about wanting to do a project based on all of the cell phone photos and videos that were being taken by people on the streets. If you have your iPhone, you can document anything at any time.
So everything is accessible now, but I think the danger of the collapse of conventional media is that there were a lot of checks and balances in terms of making sure that what you see is real and true. And those things are evaporating. That’s the risk that we’re in right now. You see a photograph, and you have no way of knowing whether it’s staged, because there’s no framework or structural support that will tell you, “Yeah, I can rely on this.” It’s not that the New York Times or CNN are without fail, but a lot of things are just scrolling by on your timeline on social media, and it just gets forwarded, and because you forwarded it, you endorsed it as true, and someone else sees it as true because you endorsed it. I think that’s the scary part of where we are right now. It’s also exciting, because there are so many possibilities, but I think when you don’t have that framework there that you can trust, it both opens new opportunities and creates new risks.