One year on from the deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, I’ve been trying to imagine what we’ve lost.
If Tim were still working now, we’d have a year’s worth of him pursuing the project he started in Misrata, Libya. The problem with the photographs he left behind from Libya is that he didn’t caption them, and he didn’t edit them. It’s a snapshot, literally, of the beginning of a body of work, and we don’t have the conclusion. I think the year that’s gone by would have seen that body of work evolve into something substantial, fleshed out, more familiar, and possibly even finished. And the sad thing is that what’s happened in Libya is something that really does need explaining.
When Tim was there those first weeks, the war had a very specific characteristic to it, which was very surreal. I think people massively misunderstood what was happening in Libya and what was going to happen. It was very naive. What Tim’s work would have done is that where everyone else has basically left Libya, true to form, I think he would have stayed with it. That was what we could expect from him—he showed it in Sierra Leone, in Liberia, in Afghanistan. By his staying on the journey with those young men, we would have developed a much better understanding of how they perceive themselves, and what they see their future as. Although the fighting has stopped, the country is in the control of various groups of armed militia, and they’re paying lip service to the idea of a united and peaceful Libya. We don’t have a great insight into where it might go.
There are lots of photographers taking lots of pictures. There are very few people who can really distill the essence of something like that and put it into a language that we understand here.
The strength of Tim’s work was that it wasn’t just representational. His photographs embodied within them an act of translation. And what he was doing very well—uncommonly well—was translating over there to over here. He wasn’t just showing an audience what was going on. He was explaining to an audience what was going on by condensing a very strange, frustrating, and alien world into pictures and language that we in America and in Britain could understand. And I think that act of translation is really quite rare. There are lots of photographers taking lots of pictures. There are very few people who can really distill the essence of something like that and put it into a language that we understand here.
Chris worked very differently from Tim. He just perfectly embodied the spirit of a wire photographer. He’d go to the right place at the right time, get the right pictures, and come back. He was very clean in his approach, and his edits really distilled the situation perfectly. During the civil war in Liberia, I spent a couple of years with the rebels. Tim came over for a long trip with me, and then he moved back there. Of all the thousands of frames that Tim shot, probably the one defining photograph of the war was taken by Chris. He took the photo—of a militia commander jumping for joy after firing a rocket-propelled grenade—from a bridge outside Monrovia in 2003. Tim and I looked at that picture when it was taken and said, ‘Wow, he’s done it.’ It’s everything. It’s exuberance. It’s hope. It’s fear. It’s excitement. It’s destruction. It’s naiveté. One shot. That’s what every wire photographer aspires to. It’s that moment of transcendence when the viewer comes out of the picture and into the story itself.
The other thing we’ve lost with their deaths is inspiration. Lots of young people went out to Libya to take photographs. Pretty much anyone with a plane ticket and an iPhone seemed to be going out there. But people like Tim and Chris provided strong role models for what to do with the material once we’re there. It wasn’t enough to have the access. There needed to be a plan for what to do with it. And I think what the industry loses, and what the younger generation coming up loses, is a guiding star. You could really set a course by what Tim and Chris were doing. They worked very differently from one another, but their direction was usually true. So we’ve lost understanding and we’ve lost translation, but we’ve also lost direction.