‘He could create beauty out of horror’: the extraordinary life and photography of Tim Hetherington

<span>All in the details... a young rebel fighter in Liberia; the shot appears in the IWM show Storyteller.</span><span>Photograph: Tim Hetherington/IWM</span>
All in the details... a young rebel fighter in Liberia; the shot appears in the IWM show Storyteller.Photograph: Tim Hetherington/IWM

Tim Hetherington used to get so hung up about time. This was his issue on every photography assignment, his main bone of contention: how much time did he have? He could never understand why a writer was allowed a full hour with a subject while the photographer had to shoot around the edges, grabbing 10 minutes here and there. “Hold on, hold on,” he would say, whenever I dared hurry him. He had important work to be doing. He absolutely refused to be rushed.

Tim and I were colleagues back in the late 1990s when we were both at the Big Issue magazine. The editorial office was like a dysfunctional family: everyone fighting their corner and mostly learning on the job. For some of us, it was home, but Tim was only passing through, bound for wilder places and greater glories. He joined rebel convoys in west Africa, bunked alongside GIs in Afghanistan and chronicled the first green shoots of the Arab Spring. He won a quartet of World Press Photo awards and earned an Oscar nomination for Restrepo, the war documentary he made with US author Sebastian Junger, drawing on their 15 months embedded in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. On assignment, his approach was methodical and deliberate. In life, he went at things full-speed. It was as if he was running to his own internal stopwatch, subconsciously aware that he had to make the most of each moment.

The pictures are nuanced and empathetic, finding unconventional routes through the carnage

Now along comes Storyteller to put a further twist in the timeline by stitching Hetherington into history. This bumper exhibition, at the Imperial War Museum in London, features his photographs and films, his journals and cameras. Tim’s pictures tell us vivid stories about men and women on the frontline. But indirectly, implicitly, they tell us his story as well. The retrospective leads the visitor remorselessly, step-by-step, from his early work in Liberia, through to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, all the way up to his final days in Misrata, covering the Libyan civil war.

The stereotype of the war photographer is of a thrill-seeker, a loose cannon, babbling on the sidelines like a demented Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now. But Tim wasn’t like that. He was serious and idealistic, diligent and principled. He came to conflict via humanitarian work and this shows in his pictures, which are more interested in military software than hardware, fascinated by the human cogs in the machine and the relationships between them. So he’s drawn to what might otherwise be dismissed as small details: the knackered young rebel with his hand grenade on the counter; the bullet-headed captain who cradles a small dog he’s adopted; the bored soldiers wrestling on the floor of the barracks. The pictures in Storyteller are nuanced and empathic. Time and again, they find unconventional routes through the carnage.

“That’s why so many photographers have been influenced by him,” says show curator Greg Brockett. “If you talk to people in the industry, they all know his work and think it’s great. When you talk to the general public, they’ve never heard of him. So hopefully this introduces him to a wider audience, as a communicator, an interpreter – someone who looks at conflict in visually impactful ways but who talks about it in ways they never would have expected.”

Typically, tellingly, Tim worked at his own pace. At a time (the early 00s) when most photojournalists were crossing to digital, he shot colour negative film on an analogue camera: 10 frames on each roll. This forced him to think carefully about each composition, lifted him out of the frantic news cycle and nudged him towards such long-term themed projects as his sensual Sleeping Soldiers series, , with its elegant framing of servicemen at rest. Tim liked circling back to revisit people and locations. Best of all, he liked immersing himself within a group dynamic. Embedded alongside Junger in the mountains of eastern Afghanistan, the pair condensed hundreds of hours of footage to make Restrepo, named after the platoon medic who was killed early in the tour.

Today Tim has been typecast. The frontline is his legacy. The photographer Stephen Mayes, executive director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, has mixed feelings about that. “Tim has now reached the point where he’s turned from memory to history,” Mayes says. “History will selectively view us as it wishes and there’s nothing we can do about that. But I think he’d be appalled to be represented as a war photographer. That’s not how he defined himself. The human characteristics he was interested in revealed themselves most strongly in times of conflict. But his subject wasn’t war. It was more profound: it was people.”

I speak to James Brabazon, the frontline journalist who worked with Tim in Liberia. Brabazon recalls their experiences in 2003, covering the Lurd rebel advance on the capital, Monrovia. Bullets flying. Casualties left and right. He says that 80% of war reporting is logistics. It’s about staying hydrated, keeping safe, moving between locations, resting when you can. The risk, after all that, is that you’re too exhausted to pay attention to the story. To focus on the human beings. To remember why you’re even there.

“To be honest,” he says, “I’ve found it a drag, having to be interested in other people. I want to say, ‘Please, just let me be alone in my hell.’ But Tim was always super-engaged. His curiosity and humanity persisted through it all – however intense it had been, however traumatised he was. And they deeply affected him, the events that he witnessed. He carried deep psychological harm for the rest of his life. But somehow, he could then turn around and create beauty out of horror. He could immediately sit down with someone and capture the essence of humanity that somehow existed outside the architecture of war.”

He didn’t know where he was going – I knew him for 15 years and he was all about the journey

On 20 April 2011, Tim was filming inside the besieged city of Misrata when the rebel army was shelled by Gaddafi’s government forces. His femoral artery was cut by a small piece of shrapnel. He bled out in the van, a few minutes from hospital.

“It’s difficult,” says Brabazon. “I’ve spent years trying not to think about it. I wish I’d been there. I wish I’d been with him. Sebastian feels the same. We both operate under the strong delusion – or certainty, depending on our mood – that Tim would still be alive if we were with him that day.”

Tim’s death still feels strange. It leaves the man fixed in time, forever 40 years old, as much a piece of history these days as his Arab Spring pictures. It also prompts others to speak on his behalf. The unfinished Libya work is flash-lit, hyperreal and contains an element of performance. Tim had started taking pictures of photographers taking pictures. He seemed fascinated by the feedback loop of warfare, the way in which one image of conflict influences another. Brockett thinks that this may have been his next direction: a project focused on the theatre of war. Ultimately, there is no way of knowing.

Tim’s closest friends like to joke that their two most dreaded words are “Tim would”. Tim would have thought this, Tim would have done that. The point is that it is ridiculous, says Mayes, because nobody has a clue. “Even Tim didn’t know. Tim didn’t fully know who he was. He didn’t know where he was going. I knew him for 15 years and he was all about the journey.”

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By 2011, thinks Mayes, Tim had largely fulfilled his agenda. “He’d explored the world. He’d explored multimedia. He had recognition, an audience, an Oscar nomination. The tragedy was that he was cut off with a full stop at the end of a sentence. He was about to start the next sentence. Nobody knows what it would have been.”

Just before his death, Tim produced a 19-minute documentary called Diary. It’s a fine piece of work: a freeform, abstract audit of 10 years of war reporting, cross-cutting between rainwashed African roads and bustling London streets, dropping us without preamble into the aftermath of a massacre in eastern Chad. Tim has come to record the remains: the broken pots, the burnt corn-cobs and the charred human-shaped shadow laid out on the grass.

“Hold on, just hold on,” he tells the African guide who tries to move him along – and there it is, like a seance, our photographer from the past. Bold and brilliant, authoritative and exasperating. He was constantly demanding more time, the awkward bastard. There were always so many things that he wanted to do.