Last Wednesday, according to doctors at Hikma hospital in the beleaguered Libyan port city of Misrata, 10 people were killed in the fighting; 120 others were injured. One of the dead was a Ukrainian doctor; two of the others were the photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Two of their colleagues, Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown also were injured. According to a Washington Post story, they were with a group of rebels in an intense firefight:
“I told them not to gather,” one rebel outside the tent recalled advising the photographers about the dangers of sticking too close together. “They hit groups. I told them not to [stick together].”
Initial reports were that the four had been struck in a mortar attack, an arbitrary target. Later, it was corrected; they had been pin-pointed by a rocket-propelled grenade.
The following morning, three more men died and were carried from the hospital. Mourners cried out as the covered bodies passed by, “The martyr is the love of God.”
Although this plaintive cry is one that we Westerners often hear from the Muslim world, its religious cadence has been very much on my mind as I have considered the sacrificial aspect of those engaged in conflict photography. To what extent are they secular martyrs to the Moloch of Media, to our relentless compulsion to be in the ever present world of "breaking news?" Recently, I have written a number of pieces reflecting on photojournalists' work as witnesses for the rest of us who are safely ensconced in our privileged lives: those men and women whose work transcends any concept of “job” imaginable to us. Some critics suggest that they have a death wish or that they are “conflict junkies.” I know better; I have become friends with many of them. Like those of us who make movies, they are intense, single-minded---focused on creating stories about the human condition. Unlike those of us who make entertainment movies, their stories are all too real, and they place their lives on the line every day for what they believe.
This past Monday afternoon, Carol and I sat at the old Mexican table under the patio ramada of our home in the Hollywood Hills, talking with NY Times photojournalist Lynsey Addario and her husband, Paul De Bendern, Reuters bureau chief in Delhi. Lynsey had contacted me about a correction in my recently posted essay about her work. She was visiting her three sisters in nearby Silverlake. We discussed our mutual friend, photojournalist Jehad Nga; he had been interred in Libya several weeks before Lynsey and Tyler Hicks, also a Times photojournalist, and two other NY Times print journalists, had been captured by forces loyal to Ghadafy. The four were held for six days even as UN sponsored air attacks had begun, the goal being to protect threatened civilians from indiscriminate killing by the Libyan Army.
I knew that Lynsey and journalist Elizabeth Rubin, six months pregnant at the time, had been in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan several years before, embedded with American soldiers. I was curious whether she had been there at the same time as Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington who were then filming their Oscar nominated documentary feature, Restrepo. They were. What I quickly discovered is just how close knit this confraternity of journalists and photographers is. Many of them know each other; they work side by side and cover each other’s asses under fire. Last May, I had written an essay about how Dexter Filkins and Ashley Gilbertson had been embedded with an American infantry company during the Battle of Fallujah in 2005:
I have discussed Hetherington’s work alongside Junger in the Korengal Valley in the second section of an essay from last Thanksgiving:
The intimacy and mutual interdependence in the working relationship between print journalist and photographer is not often discussed in interviews, as if print and image exist in parallel, not overlapping, worlds. Lynsey spoke passionately about her years-long relationship with Rubin. Here is what she says about the day when she and Tim Hetherington were under fire in 2007:
“We were ambushed from both sides,” she recalled. “It was a terrifying situation. I was trying to find a place to hide, to shield myself. And I remember looking over and there was Tim — just calmly sitting up, filming the whole ambush on a video camera. And I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I want to be a photographer like him.’ ”
Though most noted as a photojournalist, Hetherington also was a gifted cinematographer. He was one of the cameramen on the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, an intense examination of the genocide in Darfur. Hetherington often carried a Canon 5D hanging from the left side of his body so (being right-handed) he could reach over and grab and shoot both stills and video with a single camera when his left hand was occupied, carrying support equipment or body armor. Often, still images were turned into videos, as here, working with his studio, a short essay on Liberian War graffiti images:
Hetherington made more ambitious personal videos as well, including this 19-minute video essay titled simply, Diary, made with his collaborator Magali Charrier. It records the disparate sounds and images collected over a ten-year career, traveling and working in far-flung hotspots. Its transitions between first world luxe, pastoral tranquility, and third world urban chaos and arbitrary death are both hauntingly beautiful and disquieting. Its brilliant mash-up of 60s experimentation, verité journalism and metaphoric scene transitions is unlike anything you have seen—an impressionistic window into the daily routine as well as the dangers faced by the contemporary photojournalist:
In February, documentary and indie film publicist Fredell Pogodin invited me to a reception at the DGA to meet Hetherington and Junger. They were in Hollywood to promote Restrepo. I had just read Junger’s account, War, as well as a book of Hetherington’s photos, Infidel. They are companions to the documentary itself; what both books illuminate by way of contrast is the moment to moment immediacy of film; but Hetherington’s powerful still images along with Junger’s detailed narrative text also reveal the limits of the motion picture image in providing a deeper understanding of complex events.
Restrepo is a powerful statement that deserved to have won this year’s Oscar. I know that a distant war in a desperate country can seem a remote issue to the Academy voters who selected Inside Job to receive the Academy Award. The recent Wall Street war against America was more in their sights—but the intimate look at the daily grind of war as seen through the eyes of grunt soldiers in a platoon of the 173rd Airborne as depicted in Restrepo, is a crucial record of the cost of this country’s ongoing military ventures—in money lost for domestic needs, and in fractured lives of the men and women we enlist to implement our foreign policy goals. Restrepo will be a vital human document long after this year’s Oscar winner has become just a statistic.
The NY Times Lens blog “Parting Glance” offers a tribute from colleagues to Hetherington and features a 15-photo slideshow. Be sure to click on “full screen” as the image resolution is excellent:
The same blog site has a moving tribute to Chris Hondros who died several hours after Hetherington, from severe trauma to the brain. Hondros seems an unlikely candidate for the role of a conflict photographer. He was quiet, focused; he was noted for a peculiar sartorial tic—he wore a blazer with elbow patches (a professorial look), according to colleague Ron Haviv—even in desert heat. He was partial to chess, martinis and Mahler (often walking around waving his arms like a symphony conductor, according to Chip East). He was deeply devoted to his fiancée, Christina Piaia, and he told friends he was eager to marry her and become a father: not wanting to be an "old dad." His friend, Tucker Reed, in a tribute article, wrote about Hondros’ love of music and how he integrated it into public presentations of his work:
Last Fall, he led a performance called "Sound + Vision: At War" at John Jay College, pairing hundreds of images from Iraq and Afghanistan with excerpts from Bach's cantatas, sonatas, and concertos. When Bach's Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major filled the room, a piece of music so moving that it has eloquently been described as "A Transcendent Voice for the Good in Life," and Chris' images of Iraq flashed rapidly across the screen, skillfully paired with the emotion of the music, all of us in the room knew we were seeing something special. We were witnesses to a moment of innovation—present for something that had never been done quite like that before.
Much lauded NY Times photojournalist Tyler Hicks says of Hondros:
“He’s a sensitive photographer. He never was in it for himself or for the vanity of what the job brings with it. He really believes in his work. It was a drive”, Mr. Hicks said, “that comes from the inside, and Chris has it.”
“He wanted to tell the story. He wanted to show the world what was going on. And he was willing to take the personal risk and make the personal sacrifices to go along with that.”
The lens blog link includes a 19-photo slideshow of earlier work, as well as one of his most indelible recent images, a Mubarak supporter riding a camel through a crowd of protestors in Tahrir Square on Feb. 12.
In an interview in the Columbia Journalism Review Hondros discusses his most famous image:
Almost every soldier in Iraq has been involved in some sort of incident like that or another, I would say. Their attitude about it was grim, but it wasn’t the end of their world. It was, “Well, kind of wished they’d stopped. We fired warning shots. Damn, I don’t know why the hell they didn’t stop. What’re you doing later, you want to play Nintendo? Okay.” Just a day’s work for them. That stuff happens in Iraq a lot.
On his final day of life, Hondros was with a group of rebel fighters in Misrata. They were trying to flush out Ghadafy loyalist fighters planted at the top of a building, snipers who had been picking off the rebels on the street below. The lens blog link to this series of final images includes one of a rebel setting fire to a tire and rolling it into a hallway occupied by loyalists. One photo captures the bold intensity on the face of a rebel fighter, even as it evokes Caravaggio's tenebrous light.
The acknowledgements pages of Sebastian Junger’s May 2010 book, War, recognize the litany of friends and colleagues that make reportage like this possible. At the very end he credits his friend Tim Hetherington:
It’s hard for me to even begin describing his contribution to this work. The images he captured—both stills and video—have become almost iconic of the war in Afghanistan. But more than that, his humor, courage and companionship during our trips helped make this project psychologically possible for me . . . I was once asked about our collaboration, and my answer was something to the effect that working with Tim was like climbing into a little sports car and driving around really, really fast. He saw this story in startling new ways . . . Thanks, Tim. I hope we get to do many more like this.
In the photo essay book on his year in the Korengal Valley, many of Hetherington’s images are not of combat and violence. They are quiet studies of soldiers at a remote outpost, alternating flashes of firefights with longeurs of inaction. Many are images of young men in repose, images that haunt us.
Sebastian Junger remembers Hetherington in an online Vanity Fair posting:
This weekend saw the release of the movie The Bang Bang Club, a fictionalized account of four photojournalists in the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. I wrote about the book of the same title in an essay from last November:
On last Tuesday, the day before Hetherington and Hondros died, Terry Gross, host of the NPR program Fresh Air, interviewed the two surviving members of this fraternity of South African photographers. Silva is still in rehab at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He tells Gross of his intention to go back into the field once he has healed from severe internal injuries, using prosthetic lower legs in place of his own that were destroyed by a land mine blast last October. Marinovich speaks on why he became a photojournalist:
I have this fascination to be on the cutting edge of history [and] witness history firsthand. I've always wanted to show those that are fortunate enough not to live in a war zone the realities or certain realities of war zones, which is ultimately the point. We go out and we expose ourselves believing somehow that we have an impact on society.
On March 12, outside of Benghazi, Al-Jazeera cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber was ambushed by Ghadafi forces. He was the first photographer to die in that war. Now there are three. More than a dozen other photo and print journalists are incarcerated or missing in Libya. It seems that not only are these men and women “in the line of fire;” they are the targets. The explosive round that struck the four photographers last Wednesday was neither errant nor random. It was an RPG, shoulder-fired by someone whose intention was to kill those who were “bearing witness.” The martyr is the love of God.
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Next week, the pre-empted Bergman essay, part two.