Our community suffered a shocking and terrible loss yesterday, when world-renowned photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed during an attack on the Libyan city of Misurata. Their colleagues, photographers Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown, were wounded. Amy Yenkin, director of the Documentary Photography Project, remembers Tim Hetherington, who showed his work in the Open Society Foundations’ Moving Walls 11 exhibition.
I came to know Tim’s work in 2005 when he sent a proposal to exhibit work from the civil war in Liberia in the Open Society Moving Walls exhibit. The power of his images immediately struck me. But it wasn’t just that Tim was a good photographer. Clearly, he was. But he was more than that. It was through him that I discovered what it meant to be an engaged photographer. At that point, Tim had been living for several years in Liberia, arguably one of the most difficult places to live at that time. He was an expert on Liberian history committed to telling the story of the Liberian people. In covering war, he had the rare ability to capture the people fighting or caught in its crosshairs. We didn’t just see their faces. We came to understand them because he understood them so well.
Moreover, Tim’s photographs showed us something unexpected. They deepened our understanding by revealing personal experiences of struggle and salvation. One image from Liberia in particular stands out in my mind: two lovers in conversation before heading off to the front lines in their battle against the ruthless dictatorship of Charles Taylor (above). In this intimate moment, we can feel this couple’s emotions as they head off to fight.
Again and again, whether documenting Liberia, or working in Afghanistan on his “Sleeping Soldiers” series or the film Restrepo (which he co-directed with Sebastian Junger), Tim demonstrated that sometimes the most powerful and evocative images of war are not the most sensational.
Tim’s ability to synthesize abstract concepts into emotionally compelling photographs was acknowledged by my colleague Jed Miller from the Revenue Watch Institute (a sister organization of the Open Society Foundations), where Tim’s photographs often contributed to their work: “Tim’s images helped us vividly illustrate challenges to economic justice and the disparity between resource wealth and poor development, which are not easy to convey in simple terms. His gift for combining social realities and personal stories into a single narrative was an invaluable asset that will continue to inspire other artists and advocates.”
And as Ari Korpivaara, the Open Society Foundations’ Director of Publications, reminds us, Tim’s steadfast commitment to illustrating to the world the realities of war and conflict, no matter what the risk, is a quality that is shared by many of Tim’s colleagues: “His death is a reminder of the great risks photojournalists are willing to take, not just in war situations but in other hostile environments where the person with the camera is a threat and target for opponents of open society. We are indebted to Tim and his colleagues for showing people the world’s problems and inspiring us to work to solve them. If only Tim need not have died to help us see.”
There have been hundreds of attacks on the press in the greater Middle East and North Africa since the uprisings in Tunisia. It was just weeks ago that four New York Times journalists, including fellow Moving Walls 11 photographer Lynsey Addario, and their driver, were kidnapped while on assignment in Libya. Telling these stories has become increasingly essential and increasingly dangerous.
In spite of the immense challenges facing journalists, Tim maintained his commitment to exposing the chaotic realities on the ground. From the moment I opened Tim’s portfolio in 2005 and started leafing through the photographs in the box, I was convinced of the power of his work. He was immensely talented and accomplished and respected by all those who knew him. Yet, he remained humble and self-effacing. Tim was an inspiration and role model for his fellow photographers, filmmakers, and human rights advocates who admired his unique method of storytelling, his humanity, and the passion he brought to his work. He will be greatly missed.