Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Captivating tribute to slain war photographer

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He figuratively and literally cast a long shadow.

His life was cut short by the very events he chose to document, but Tim Hetherington left behind an impressive legacy of accolades and awards for his hard-hitting photos and film footage of far-flung conflict zones.

In a captivating tribute to the exceptionally tall British-born photojournalist, freelance American journalist and author Alan Huffman takes readers into the midst of some dangerous and gruesome battle zones that Hetherington recorded.

The book is part biography and part war chronicle, but it is also a skilfully constructed eulogy, in which Huffman allows many of Hetherington's friends and colleagues to reminisce about a fallen comrade.

Huffman is the author of Mississippi in Africa (2003), a widely acclaimed book tracing the history of the West African country Liberia, where Hetherington first gained international recognition.

This likely explains why he was chosen by Hetherington's tight brotherhood of war journalists to fashion a literary legacy to one of their own.

Hetherington first made his mark while accompanying fellow British war journalist James Brabazon during the long-running Liberian civil war, which ended in 2003.

At a time when television screens featured sterilized war coverage from Iraq, Hetherington's images of grinning drug-crazed young Liberian rebels portrayed the effects of war through close-ups of its combatants.

While living in Liberia's war-ravaged capital Monrovia, Hetherington submitted photographs to human rights organizations and to western newspapers and magazines, also serving on the UN's panel of experts on Liberia tasked with post-civil war compliances.

In 2006 in Sudan, Hetherington filmed Darfur Bleeds with Human Rights Watch researcher Olivier Bercault, who tells Huffman that the graphic documentary was "an artistic approach to a massacre."

Its portrayal of starving civilians with hacked limbs prompted international condemnation of the Sudanese government's role in the genocide.

Huffman speculates that taking close-ups of faces was Hetherington's attempts to understand why young men, regardless of race, religion or creed, willingly fight battles usually planned by older men in safe places.

U.S. author and journalist Sebastian Junger (The Perfect Storm) provides Huffman with further insight into Hetherington's psyche, describing him as "a bright spirit drawn to dark places."

According to Junger, Hetherington's obsession with documenting conflicts stemmed from the bullying and corporal punishment he witnessed while attending a Jesuit school in Britain.

Two months before his death in 2011, Hetherington posed for photos on Hollywood's red carpet as he and Junger celebrated an Academy Award nomination.

Their documentary, Restrepo, shot in eastern Afghanistan during 2007-08 didn't win the Oscar, but it did become the basis for Junger's bestselling book War, while one of Hetherington's images of an American soldier won a World Press Award.

When the Arab Spring threatened to bring down Moammar Gadhafi, Huffman writes that Hetherington saw Libya "as the next logical step in his long-running project about the relationship between young men and war."

On April 20, 2011, Hetherington was hit by a mortar blast and died ingloriously in the back of a battered pickup as it bounced towards the only functioning hospital in the besieged port of Misrata. He was 40.

Huffman includes an interesting postscript, showing how Hetherington's well-known mistrust of new technology was justified.

Newsweek editor Jamie Wellford received an email from Hetherington on April 29 that had been sent shortly before the mortar blast, "but for whatever reason spent a week in digital purgatory."

"Hey man, just checking in," Hetherington had written. "Crazy day today. It's an incredible story... and hardly anyone here."

By deftly combining such personal memories with vivid descriptions of battle zones, Huffman makes Here I Am a must-read as a uniquely constructed memoriam.

 

Joseph Hnatiuk is a retired teacher in Winnipeg.

Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer
By Alan Huffman
Grove Press, 250 pages, $30

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 2, 2013 J9

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