In Memoriam: Tim Hetherington
I met Tim Hetherington during FotoWeek DC last November, when he gave the keynote of the event to a packed auditorium at the Corcoran. His hour-long discussion of his work and ideas completely blew me away. After the extended question and answers session, I waited another hour for the booksigning for his new book, Infidel, to wrap up, just to have a chance to ask him for an interview (and this was at 10 at night after a long week).
Given his clear intellectual depth and seriousness, combined with the fact that he’d been witness to countless war atrocities, one would expect a somber, intense person. But it was amazing to watch him interact with everyone in line. He was talkative, warm and quick to smile. He took an especially long amount of time speaking with a soldier’s mother who was immensely grateful that he had brought such popular attention to the soldiers’ experience. She bought copies for everyone she knew in military families. Basically, he was just a really good guy.
He immediately agreed to the interview, and we met mid-December at his apartment in South Williamsburg, a studio in an old industrial warehouse, the prominent feature of which was the massive library of photobooks along one wall. His girlfriend, also a filmmaker, read on the bed while we talked for over an hour, with the discussion ranging from his career, to the nature of war, to the future of photojournalism. This wasn’t exactly a New York Times interview, but for a small, new blog, so I was amazed he was so generous with his time.
This generosity, I would discover, was characteristic. He enthusiastically agreed to give me feedback for the photobook I was preparing. And just two weeks ago, Magnum photographer Chris Anderson, with whom Hetherington shared a studio, contacted me saying Tim had recommended me to share his story of the first monographed iPad book. Tim could have just as easily pointed him to his various big media contacts, but he recommended me. We broke the story, and it was quickly picked up by big outlets.
I always had the feeling that his best work was still ahead of him. There are very few people who you wait with anticipation to hear about their next projects, but Tim was one of them. His latest projects seemed to veer more and more into new forms of narrative experimentation, as though his aesthetic was racing to keep up with his unique philosophy on the future of image-making. War documentary was his subject, but he also had ambitions to remake what it means to be an image maker in an image-saturated world; to find a new model for the world to experience images, and a new model for making them. So it was all the more shocking when the Twittersphere suddenly lit up yesterday with rumors of his death in Libya, along with photojournalist Chris Hondros, by a mortar attack during the indiscriminate shelling of Misrata by forces loyal to Qaddafi.
He embodied the best qualities of a journalist: slow to judge, a sharp observational intellect, and an incredible drive, pushing himself voluntarily to get the hidden story. But he also had an artist’s soul, whose photography and experimental films and installations have a haunting, ambiguous quality that often found their way onto gallery walls.
The tremendous outpouring of sympathy following the news came from a surprisingly varied array of groups. Journalists, Filmmakers, Photographers, Servicemen and women all expressed sadness at the profound loss. It was a touching testament to the sheer scope of his impact and the quality of his character.
I was always interested in his overarching purpose. What drove him to insert himself in the most dangerous areas on the planet? He didn’t strike me as an amoral thrill-seeker, or merely a documentarian. He was looking for a deeper meaning and truth. I think he had unverbalized, but incredibly lofty ambitions. He may have hinted at this world-changing aspiration during our discussion on subjectivity and objectivity in photojournalism: “I need work out strategies to communicate to you, because I share this planet with you. And it’s important that we don’t just look at the world through a subjective, nihilistic lens. That we try to look at the world through a kind of objective lens, because we have to share it.”
As an artist, Tim was the complete package. He was a singular visionary, pushing the visual medium into the twenty-first century. But his subject matter was equally as ambitious, grappling with the core issues of war, life and death.
Below are all the videos from our interview: