Tim Hetherington: Of War and Compassion

© Tim Hetherington ‘Forward Observer Murphy’ [detail] from the series ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan July 2008

Big History told in the form of a small history

Tim Hetherington


For those in the privileged West, contemporary warfare and conflict are reported from afar, remote from the experience of the viewer. There is an emphasis on statistical data and the machinery of battle. Soldiers become an extension of both: numbers killed and injured; armoured anonymised accessories to the lethal equipment they operate. Meanwhile, the victims of war become the abject collateral of conflict to be pitied – regrettable but somehow ultimately inevitable. Far removed from daily life, the concept of war merges with the virtual violence of video games and the simplistic ‘good versus evil’ of Marvel comics.

The work of Tim Hetherington stands in sharp contrast to these latter-day conventions. Early in his career he travelled to West Africa to document the conflicts and political upheaval in countries such as Liberia, Sierra Leone and Nigeria. In 2007, having spent two years as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council, he began a series of trips to Afghanistan on assignment with the writer Sebastian Junger. They were embedded with a US Army platoon in the Restrepo bunker, a remote outpost in the war-torn Korengal Valley.

Initially, he focused on the action of conflict. However, as he later observed, war is “boredom punctuated by sheer terror”. Rather than seeking to represent war through iconic, but essentially cliché, images of dramatic action, he began to explore what he called the “texture” of life in the bunker – “Big History told in the form of a small history”, as he put it. The resulting work brought a wholly original way of understanding the nature of war for a modern soldier on the front line. In so doing, he began to engage the entanglement of danger, masculinity and comradery that draws young men to battle. It was the work that came to define his oeuvre, challenging and empathic in equal parts.

His search for the texture of war spanned many different media and modes of presentation. He produced books and films, exhibitions, multi-screen installations, fly-posted projects… His work made in Afghanistan resulted in both the award-winning book ‘Infidel’ and the documentary film ‘Restrepo’ (2010), which he co-directed with Sebastian Junger. ‘Restrepo’ won the Grand Jury Prize for best documentary at Sundance Film Festival 2010 and was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature the following year. His final work, an experimental film simply called ‘Diary’ is a powerful and highly personal evocation of his experience of war in contrast to his life back in England.

In April 2011, less than two months after attending the Academy Awards in Hollywood, Tim Hetherington was killed when he was hit by shrapnel while covering the civil war in Libya.

In this interview, four friends and former colleagues remember Tim Hetherington, the man, his work and his ever-evolving approach to storytelling. They are: Idil Ibrahim, his life partner and human-rights filmmaker; the documentary filmmaker, journalist, and author James Brabazon; the writer and film director Topaz Adizes; and Stephen Mayes, executive director of the Tim Hetherington Trust, which was established by the photographer’s family to manage his estate and actively nurture young photographic talent.

Alasdair Foster

© Tim Hetherington ‘No Condition is Permanent: Liberia 2003–2006’. A member of the AA (Anti-Aircraft) brigade exchanges a brief tender word with his girlfriend during heavy fighting in the capital Monrovia, 25 June 2003


Alasdair: Was Tim Hetherington a compassionate photographer?

Idil: Tim was naturally compassionate; it infused his work. In his still photography, I think immediately of ‘Healing Sport’, a series of images featuring amputee athletes from Angola.

© Tim Hetherington ‘Homemade Football’ Kuito, Angola, 2002 from the series ‘Healing Sport’

James: There’s a photograph of a rebel on his way to fight, saying goodbye to his wife or girlfriend. The maximum point of emotional import and tension is in the space between their faces. It’s a wonderful moment of unity and separation that captures something of Tim’s image-making sensibility.

Stephen: Tim’s compassion extended beyond the subjects of his photography to include the viewer. He didn’t consider himself or the people around him to be separated from the people he photographed, except, of course, by geography.

Topaz: Tim was a bridge between worlds, linking general audiences with experiences that they would never have had themselves. He was not so much promoting compassion as fighting against compassion fatigue.

What do you mean by ‘compassion fatigue’?

Topaz: With all the visual material flooding social media and the internet, images of suffering become cliché, people tire of them or become overwhelmed and cease to see. Tim’s concern was how to create work that touches people in a new way. To pierce the shell of indifference and re-ignite compassion.

James: One of the key things for Tim was agency. For him, true poverty was not primarily defined by lack of material means – a lack of money – but by a lack of agency. That is fundamentally important in understanding his work. It strives to give agency to the subject. And that necessitates a kind of conscious repositioning of the photographer in the process of making images.

Topaz: But there is a cost to that. You have to open yourself up and be vulnerable. The only way to be a bridge is, each time, to offer a little bit of you own soul.

Can you give an example?

Topaz: His series ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ shows young men in one of the most dangerous places on earth, Korengal in Afghanistan. They lived under constant threat. And yet he photographed them as their parent might see them, asleep. This is not the conventional way of photographing conflict. The audience is being presented with a story about war told in a new way. It has emotional weight, and that weight comes from Tim’s own heart… Every image you see, although it is about someone else, is also a reflection of Tim.

Stephen: I think ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ is one of his most radical projects. It’s not reportage, it’s a meditation. Tim is inviting us to look inwards to reflect on aggression and vulnerability, and the ghosts that live in all of us. He is exploring the metaphor of sleep and death that we all share, and which makes us part of the same life-force that also wages war.               

Tim was reluctant to precisely define his practice: his medium and mode of communication. Why do you think this was?

Idil: I believe it was because he did not want to be constrained. He seemed intent on challenging conventional practice in order to find new approaches to storytelling.

James: It’s tempting now to see every part of Tim’s work as a logical progression, but it was actually more chaotic than that. It’s part of what makes him difficult to categorise. Many of his ideas went nowhere, but he kept experimenting. On the other hand, compassion truly is a unifying factor in his work. It isn’t something constructed with hindsight.

Stephen: By the time he died, Tim was describing himself as a storyteller. But I think that is still too limiting because his work went beyond narrative. It explored alternative ways to express his experience of the world.

Topaz: Tim was always fully aware of the medium and the context. He did not simply copy-and-paste his images from one presentational mode to the next. He made the content native to the platform and that made him unique. In one of our last conversations he was talking about being an artist… stepping into the freedom of that way of working.

Tim spoke of being fascinated by conflict and war. What do you think it was that he found fascinating?

Idil: Tim was moved by the totality of the human experience, in all its complexities. I believe he was interested in exploring what motivates people to go to war, the beauty and terror exposed in the theatre of war, and the incredible human cost associated with conflict.

Describing the work he made on the tour in the Korengal Valley, Tim said: “I didn’t want to pretend this was about the war in Afghanistan.” What do you think he meant by that?

James: I think he meant he wasn’t a current-affairs journalist. It wasn’t about the war; it was about the people who were fighting the war.

Stephen: In my last conversation with Tim he pulled out his book ‘Infidel’ and opened it at page 168. Spread across two pages is a picture that in some ways is emblematic of how we’ve been trained to view conflict, with a fearless warrior silhouetted against a dramatic landscape. But then he turned to page 104, an ordinary snapshot of two buddies, arms across shoulders grinning for the camera. “This,” Tim said, “is the real experience of war. This is the war that these soldiers will carry with them for as long as the live.”

Topaz: Tim would say that there is the hardware and software of war. The software is these young men. How do you explore that in a new way that cuts through the shell of compassion fatigue? How do you bring to this a new perspective?

Idil: We live in a patriarchal world. I believe Tim was interested in examining masculinity and notions of manhood more deeply. I think a lot of his work demonstrates that maleness and masculinity are multi-faceted and varied, yet also prescribed and perpetuated in the way they are conventionally depicted in imagery.

James: When we were in Liberia together, I talked with Tim about my paternal grandfather’s experience of war as a professional soldier. My grandfather had said that, despite the way it had changed him with injuries and so on, he did not regret it, because war was almost the only opportunity that men had in modern society to demonstrate unconditional love towards each other. And I think that’s what you see in the work in Korengal.

© Tim Hetherington ‘Specialist Tad Donoho screams with pain following being administered a ‘pink belly’ for his birthday. Each member of the platoon strikes his stomach until blood can be seen to rise, hence the name ‘pink belly’.’ Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, July 2008

Topaz: In a way, for these young men, war is a rite of passage into manhood, something they cannot find in today’s society. There is an exploration of masculinity, sexuality, but perhaps also a sense deep down inside that it might just be futile.

James: Sebastian Junger [who wrote the introduction to ‘Infidel’] called this idea “the man in Eden” – a kind of intimate levelling. When you are digging fortifications and filling sandbags, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, what car you drive, how hot your girlfriend is, ‘if you ain’t filling up sandbags, you ain’t shit’.

© Tim Hetherington ‘Man Eden.’ Men from the 2nd Platoon dig earth for sandbags. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan, June 2008

Stephen: I go back again to the picture of Shriner and Walker and the honesty of their embrace. Tim described war as about the only place where men could express their love for one another without inhibition and without any possibility of it being misunderstood as anything other than men being so attached to each other that any one of them would die for the other.

Of the various bodies of work Tim made, which do you personally hold in highest regard?

Idil: Many, but in contrast to what we have been discussing, ‘Every Time I See The Sea’, which arose from Tim’s visit to Sri Lanka and India after the devastating Tsunami of 2004.

Topaz: As a piece of cinematography, ‘Diary’ is incredibly raw, brilliantly created and edited. It is the last thing he made and released, and I think that it is his most honest, vulnerable and self-reflective work.

Diary (2010) from Tim Hetherington on Vimeo.

Stephen: I would say the extraordinary portraits that Tim made at the Milton Margai School for the Blind. This began around the time Tim was getting his first direct experience of conflict at its most brutal. These kids were witnesses to the ongoing civil war in Sierra Leone [1991–2002], often deliberately blinded precisely because of the horrific things they had seen. By focusing on the children, he was able to communicate messages of horror through really beautiful images that could be smuggled into people’s consciousness disguised as aesthetic gifts.

James: The Blind School work is his most compassionate. It is also unfinished. He was in the process of creating a book that would have had each image overlaid with an acetate sheet on which Braille was printed describing both the visual content and the emotional mood of the picture. He wanted to create something with which the children he was photographing could meaningfully interact: to ensure they had agency in the work that he had created with them. To ensure it was a shared experience.

© Tim Hetherington from the series ‘Blind School’ Milton Margai School for the Blind Sierra Leone 2001–2002

Biographical Notes

Timothy Hetherington was born in Birkenhead, England, in 1970 and died in Misrata, Libya, in 2011. He read Classics and English at the University of Oxford, graduating in 1989, and in 1996 he received a post-graduate diploma in photojournalism from Cardiff School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. His first job was as trainee and sole staff photographer at The Big Issue, in London. He then spent eight years making documentary work in West Africa, later working as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee. In 2007 and 2008, he made several trips to Afghanistan with the writer Sebastian Junger, where they were embedded with a US Army platoon in the Korengal Valley.

His work has been widely published and exhibited. He created two monographs, ‘Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold’ [Umbrage, 2009] and ‘Infidel’ [Chris Boot, 2010]. He won four World Press Photo awards (2000, 2002 and 2007), the Rory Peck Award for news features (2008) and Columbia University’s Alfred I. duPont Award for broadcast journalism (2009). In 2010, his film ‘Restrepo’, made with Sebastian Junger, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival; the following year he won two Emmy Awards and ‘Restrepo’ was nominated for an Oscar.

Tim Hetherington was killed in 2011 while covering the Libyan civil war. In 2012, his parents established the Tim Hetherington Trust, which promotes the use of his work for humanitarian purposes and each year provides a grant to a photographer through the Visionary Award for innovation in visual storytelling.

In 2013, Tim Hetherington was posthumously honoured with the McCrary Award for Excellence in Journalism from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society of the United States of America.

This article was initially published in Chinese, in the November 2020 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing. The theme for the year was compassion.