04.21.11

Libya War Photographers' Final Hours

Tim Hetherington’s final tweet from Libya noted indiscriminate shelling and a lack of NATO support in Misrata. It was a typically risky assignment for him and fellow photographer Chris Hondros, David A. Graham reports. Plus read Hetherington describe how he covered the Afghan War.

The news was vague at first: a French photographer said on Facebook that the two men had been injured, one dead, the other in the hospital in Misrata, Libya. There were conflicting reports, though: no one could confirm it, no one knew for sure whether they were both dead. Around the world, the photography community held its collective breath.

By late afternoon, the horrible news had been confirmed. Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two decorated, veteran war photographers, were dead, apparently killed by a mortar shell as they documented the siege of the city by Muammar Gaddafi’s army. Two colleagues who were with them were wounded, one seriously. Just hours before, their photos had been moving across wires, and the Washington Post had run a Hondros photo on its front page Wednesday morning. Suddenly, two of the leading photojournalists of their generation were gone.

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Chris Hondros / Getty Images

In an ironic twist, Hetherington's final tweet said Misrata was subject to indiscriminate shelling, and that there was no sign of NATO air support.

For the tight-knit group of photographers who work in their milieu, the news is a shock. Both were experienced war photographers, men who knew how to deal with a dangerous situation and who weren’t reckless.

Dozens of photographers, photo editors, and journalists from a wide variety of publications gathered at The Half King, a Manhattan bar co-owned by Hetherington collaborator Sebastian Junger, for an impromptu memorial Wednesday night. The mood was heavy-hearted but not solemn. Some came to swap stories about Hetherington and Hondros, while others seemed to just seek shelter in the company of friends and colleagues. Few wanted to speak on the record, but many spoke of the humility and humor of the men.

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Tim Hetherington

"Tim was very brave. We were in a lot of combat situations, and I can't imagine a better combat photographer," Junger said of Hetherington. But he said the best way to remember the fallen photographers was to recall that they were killed not while trying to snap a front-page photograph, but while attempting to chronicle the destruction caused by armed conflict. "He and Chris Hondros and the other journalists in Misrata were capturing the horror of Misrata, but they were also capturing something much greater and more important: all of the tens of thousands of civilians that have been killed in the past decades. That's what they were going there for—Rwanda, Sarajevo, Liberia, the list goes on."

The White House issued statements saying it was saddened by the deaths, and calling for the Libyan government to protect working journalists. “The United States will work to do everything possible to assist those who were injured in getting the care they need. Our thoughts are with these brave journalists and their loved ones,” one statement said.

Twelve journalists have been killed during protests in the Middle East, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. But journalists’ deaths, especially among Westerners, are exceedingly rare: Hetherington and Hondros are the first Westerners to die in the conflicts. Losing both at once seems almost beyond comprehension.

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Tim Hetherington for Newsweek (2)

“It’s hard to feel like you’re not in a very, very bad dream,” Jamie Wellford, a senior photography editor at Newsweek who knew both Hondros and Hetherington, said Wednesday night as he sat with two other photographer friends who also knew them. “It’s a very dark day indeed. I’m not blinking.”

The exact circumstances of the men’s deaths are still not clear. Washington Post reporter Leila Fadel was at the hospital where they were brought. She said Hondros had suffered a severe head injury when shrapnel hit him in the forehead, while Hetherington was pale and had a leg injury. He was pronounced dead as he lay in a tent at the hospital, within 15 minutes of his arrival. Doctors were able to revive Hondros, but his wounds proved fatal also. NPR’s Andy Carvin posted footage originally published on Facebook of Hetherington, Hondros, and Guy Martin, a third wounded photographer, at the hospital. (The footage is extremely graphic. You can click here to read Carvin’s explanation of the video and to find a link to it.)

"Tim and Chris Hondros and the other journalists were capturing the horror of Misrata, but they were also capturing the tens of thousands of civilians that have been killed in the past decades.”

Hetherington, a native of Liverpool, England who lived in New York, was 40. He had worked in Liberia, Afghanistan, and Nigeria, shooting both still photos and video. In the middle of a rapidly rising photojournalism career, Hetherington quit the field and took a job at the United Nations as an investigator in Liberia. Two years later, he returned with a vengeance, winning the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year award, one of the field’s most prestigious honors. In 2010, he made his highly acclaimed debut as a director with Restrepo, a collaboration with Sebastian Junger that told the story of a year they spent embedded with a U.S. infantry unit in Afghanistan’s remote, perilous Korengal Valley. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was nominated for an Oscar. Hetherington was also contributing photographer at Vanity Fair. His agent, Cathy Saypol, told the magazine, “We are saddened beyond words that our friend, photographer and filmmaker, Tim Hetherington, was killed in Misrata this morning.”

Wellford had known Hetherington for 10 years and described him as a genuine, generous, and humble friend and colleague. “When you worked with Tim, the way he announced and addressed a story was so eye-opening. It was always so much more than a picture,” Wellford said. He’d been emailing with Hetherington all week, and even sent him an email Wednesday morning before the news of his death broke, checking in and making sure he was safe. His work in Libya wasn’t just about capturing a moment in the war, Wellford said: “He wasn’t shooting in Libya to show a picture of the conflict in one week. He was continuing a body of work about war and conflict, and why young men engage at that level.”

Hondros, an American who was 41, was similarly decorated. He shot for Getty Images. In 2004, he’d been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for his work in Liberia, and in 2006 he won the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal— named for the famed war photographer who was himself cut down in the line of duty while shooting photos in Vietnam—for a series of photographs he took while on patrol in Iraq with U.S. troops. A talented musician, Hondros lived in New York, and was especially known in photographic circles for the legendary New Year’s Eve parties he hosted. He was engaged when he died. “Chris never shied away from the front line having covered the world’s major conflicts throughout his distinguished career and his work in Libya was no exception,” Getty said in a statement.

Hondros also shot for Newsweek for many years. A dogged photographer, he went out of his way to get the best information and photographs he could, and cared deeply about the work he did. Wellford remembered that Hondros had been one of the few journalists to remain in Iraq as that country’s civil war exploded: “He was one of the intrepids.”

In 2005, Hondros recorded an audio photo gallery for Newsweek about the images that would win him the Capa award. The images depicted an incident where a car carrying an Iraqi family—parents and six children—approached an American patrol and came too close. The patrol opened fire, killing the parents. Hondros captured the sequence, as the car approached, and the soldiers shot, and then took the family to a hospital. In his commentary, Hondros offered a wrenching assessment of war—and one that acquires a bitter poignancy following his death. “When you talk about war being hell, this is what you mean. When any country says it’s going to go to war, these are the kinds of things that we can expect. These are the types of things that happen in war,” he said. “I’ve seen lots of wars that happen around the world, and these happen in all of them. It’s just with Americans involved that we pay attention.”

(Correction: This article initially reported Hondros' audio photo gallery was made after he won the Capa award.)