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Book review: Biography of slain British journalist gives insight into life of conflict photographer

Alan Huffman's biography of the British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed by a mortar round in Libya two years ago, tells the story of a dedicated and intrepid humanitarian with a unique approach to chronicling the world's conflicts.

Tim Hetherington's winning entry in the World Press Photo 2008 competition is carried into an exhibition at the Oude Kerk church in Amsterdam. Robin Utrecht / EPA
Tim Hetherington's winning entry in the World Press Photo 2008 competition is carried into an exhibition at the Oude Kerk church in Amsterdam. Robin Utrecht / EPA

Alan Huffman's biography of the British photojournalist Tim Hetherington, who was killed by a mortar round in Libya two years ago, tells the story of a dedicated and intrepid humanitarian with a unique approach to chronicling the world's conflicts, writes Dave Stelfox

Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer

Alan Huffman

Grove Press

On April 20, 2011, troops loyal to Muammar Qaddafi fired a mortar into the heart of Misurata. As the explosion ripped through Tripoli Street, rebel fighters fell into the dust. Some were killed instantly; others seriously injured. Among the carnage, voices could be heard crying for help. Ambulances and flatbed lorries raced to the scene and bodies were loaded onto them. Only months earlier, the people of this Mediterranean port town had lived peaceful lives. But when the Arab uprisings spread to Libya, they were met with a level of violence from the government that was both chilling and predictable.

What propelled this particular attack to the world's front pages was the fact that among those struck down were a group of western photographers. Guy Martin, 27, from the UK, had sustained injuries to his abdomen; 32-year-old Michael Christopher Brown, from the US, was hit in the shoulder; American Chris Hondros, 41, had suffered a massive head trauma, and 40-year-old Tim Hetherington, also from the UK, had been hit in the leg and was bleeding profusely.

In the ensuing chaos, all were picked up by the opposition forces' makeshift emergency teams and rushed to the nearby Al Hikma hospital. Brown, the least seriously hurt, was treated by doctors on arrival. Not realising the extent of his injuries, Martin passed out, owing to internal bleeding caused by a previously unnoticed pelvic wound. He would undergo many hours of emergency surgery before he woke again. Sadly, Hondros never regained consciousness and Hetherington, whose femoral artery had been severed, died in the arms of the Spanish photographer Guillermo Cervera before the pickup truck they were travelling in could reach the clinic.

Conflict photography has, by definition, always been a risky business. Its practitioners make informed decisions to step into the world's most hostile and unpredictable environments, in order to make images that illustrate the very worst facets of human behaviour. They do so knowing that their work may one day cost them their lives, and that at least some of what they see is likely to scar their minds forever. Yet, as Alan Huffman seeks to explain in Here I Am, his biography of Hetherington, bearing witness to and exposing the reality of war can become a way of life, a vocation, an obsession.

Huffman begins his story at the siege of Misurata, but quickly rewinds to Hetherington's childhood in the north of England. "Timothy Alistair Hetherington was born in Birkenhead, near Liverpool, in 1970, to a family of comfortable means," he writes. Hetherington attended a strict Jesuit school where bullying was common. It was there that "after his religious confirmation he added a third name, Telemachus, after a central character in Homer's Odyssey … Telemachus is also the name of a saint who was stoned to death in a Roman amphitheatre for attempting to halt a gladiator fight."

The writer uses this early anecdote to map out his subject's later life. Both appalled and fascinated by conflict, Hetherington developed an acute sense of social justice. In the words of his friend and colleague Sebastian Junger, whose documentary Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? was released on HBO this week, he became "a bright spirit drawn to dark places". Within a few short pages, Huffman then covers Hetherington's university studies (English literature and classics at Oxford), two years travelling in India, China and Tibet, his discovery of photography, the completion of a postgraduate course at Cardiff University, his first freelance assignments in London, trips to Liberia and Sierra Leone, his first contact with victims of conflict, a World Press Photo award, and journeys through Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Nigeria, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast.

If that sounds like rather a lot to pack into one short chapter, that's because it is. Huffman's main interest lies in the key moments of Hetherington's career: his work with the filmmaker and author James Brabazon following rebel forces in the second Liberian civil war and their hasty exit from the country when president Charles Taylor placed a bounty on their heads; the months Hetherington spent embedded with a unit of US marines in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley while filming the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo with Junger; the events that led to his untimely death. Little is revealed about his friends or family, and next to nothing of his personal life. Although this makes the biography feel somewhat rushed in places, Huffman's approach is not so different to Hetherington's own. He pursued his work with a singlemindedness that few others could match. While other journalists would parachute into an area, cover a story and leave, he would often stay. Long after most western journalists had departed Liberia, he returned, rented an apartment and for three years continued to document the nation's processes of reconstruction and reconciliation. Rather than following the rest of the world's media to Iraq, he then chose to spend the better part of a year at a remote US outpost in Afghanistan, filming Restrepo and making images that would eventually be collected in Infidel, a book that continued to explore a theme he had first touched on in Liberia.

More than the blood and bullets, Hetherington's fascination lay in what drew young men to conflict and how they behaved once they were part of it. To say that he concentrated on the quieter moments would be inaccurate, but one strand of his work from the Kor engal Valley remains unique in the field of war photography.

When Junger first saw Hetherington creeping around the marines' barracks shooting pictures of the men asleep, he was confused. But it all made sense when he explained what he was doing. "Don't you get it?" he asked. "You never get to see soldiers like this … That's how their mothers see them … We want to see our soldiers as strong … We don't want to know that they're also these vulnerable boys … because then it would be too painful as a nation to send them off to war where they're going to get killed." As Huffman explains, "these images would later become part of an exhibition titled Sleeping Soldiers, which mixed still photos of the men in their bunks with battlefield footage evoking the nightmares within."

This need to understand the "origins and ramifications of war" drove Hetherington's work and was what took him to Libya in 2011. From Monrovia to the US marines he had noticed the influence of Hollywood movies and TV shows on the way men behaved in conflict zones, and he believed that the media-saturated Arab uprisings offered the perfect opportunity to delve deeper into this idea. He promised himself and those close to him that he would keep a safe distance from the violence and work on a set of portraits of fighters. Accordingly, he took only one medium-format film rangefinder and a small video camera with him. However, disappointed with his work in Benghazi, Hetherington quickly decided to join a team of fellow photographers and board a fishing boat bound for the battle-scarred streets of Misurata.

While almost half of his book's 240 pages concentrate on Libya, it is at this point that Huffman's work comes to life. Here, his descriptions of the scenes that met the group are gripping. None of them had seen a war so fierce at such close quarters. Huffman's research is also excellent, including lengthy interviews with fixers, fighters, ambulance drivers and Hetherington's peers. All speak fondly of him, but some also mention that he seemed to be driven by the desire to capture something special in Misurata. As a result, he pushed hard to make a second trip to the front line on April 20, at a time when most considered it too dangerous.

Still, they all went in the end. The final scenes on Tripoli Street vividly convey how the adrenalin rush of conflict and the dogged pursuit of the perfect image can cause even the most seasoned professional to take one risk too many. Most importantly, though, the author portrays Hetherington as a brave and generous individual with an easy charm, a keen intellect and extraordinary sense of dedication to his craft. These very characteristics are plain to see in his images. As a photographer, Hetherington connected with people and understood their stories.

In doing so, he reached beyond headline events and revealed deeper, more resonant truths. As Huffman says: "He saw very little distinction between being a journalist, a humanitarian, an observer, a witness, or a participant." In other words, wherever he was, he was always truly there.

Dave Stelfox is a regular contributor to The Review.