Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life And Time Of Tim Hetherington
by Phil Dyess-Nugent April 18, 2013
The premiere episode of the new HBO newsmagazine series Vice featured a scene in which Shane Smith, the CEO of the media company that spawned the TV show, went through a lot of huffing and puffing about the “scary” hoops he had to jump through to obtain an interview. It was with Syed Muhammad Akbar Agha, a former Taliban commander who, in his current incarnation as a well-connected spokesman for the movement, actually does a shit-ton of Western press, which may be why he was visibly having trouble getting through the interview without giggling on-camera. A subsequent episode opened with a report on a North Korean woman who was trying to sneak across the border in the dead of night. She and her companions were accompanied by a puppyish Vice correspondent who talked so incessantly about how they all might very well be captured or killed at any minute that it’s bewildering that the Koreans didn’t snap his neck before someone in the darkness called out, “Who’s that yammering over there!?”
Tim Hetherington, the British-American photojournalist who may be best known for co-directing the 2010 feature documentary Restrepo with Sebastian Junger, didn’t go in for this kind of fist-pumping. Junger’s documentary about Hetherington, who was killed by flying shrapnel while covering the 2011 Libyan civil war, opens with footage of Hetherington trying to explain why he does what he does. Again and again, he tries to say something that might look right on a book jacket, only to interrupt himself: “No, that’s too bullshit,” he mutters, as if jealous admiration of those who are able to promote themselves in ways that are just bullshit enough. “Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah!”
Which Way Is The Front Line From Here—a title with an unfortunate echo of an old Jerry Lewis movie—is an elegiac tribute to a singular individual, a valued colleague and creative partner who was harder to pigeonhole than a term like “photojournalist” or even “war correspondent” can allow for. One of Hetherington’s teachers says that Hetherington was the first of his students to have “embraced multi-media” and see “that the future wasn’t just going to be print.” Hetherington was unusual in the field for his proficiency at both video documentary and still photography, and even before Restrepo, he served as one of the cinematographers on The Devil Came On Horseback, an eye-opening 2007 feature documentary on the Sudanese genocide. As the plentiful footage of Hetherington contained here shows, he was also a movie star; the man loved cameras, and the affair was not one-sided. In one photo, he sits next to a small boy who imitates his arms-crossed posture, except that the kid is glowering in the time-honored fashion of boys trying to look cool. Hetherington’s features are arranged in the reflective yet goofy expression of someone who doesn’t have to try.
The interview subjects in Which Way include Hetherington’s father, his girlfriend, and Junger himself, and they all take a stab at asking themselves why he spent 20 years in a profession that required that he repeatedly go far from home to put himself in harm’s way. (His father sort of shrugs and says that maybe Tim got a taste for travel as a child because they moved around a lot.) The best answers are right there on the screen. Junger managed to track down a woman called Black Diamond who Hetherington knew when he was covering the Liberian civil war. In video footage from the good old days, Hetherington enquires into her plans for the future. She declares with she’s “going to Monrovia, hit [President Charles] Taylor and capture him, and dress him like a woman!” Looking at her, you have to think: she may not make it quite that far, but if she did, and you had the chance to be there and take pictures of it and you didn’t take it, wouldn’t you feel like an ass? But the best reasons of all, and the best reason to watch this film, are in the glimpses provided of the work that Hetherington did. A single photo of a man leaning over and looking into a woman’s eyes before he heads off to battle says as much as any war movie ever made about what people fight for and their fears of not coming back. The only reason Hetherington ever needed for what he did with his life is that he had the ability to do this.
Part of the dynamism that powered Hetherington’s gifts as an image-maker may have lain in his understanding of what he called “the theatrics of war”; young men, he noted “used drama to instill fear,” and also “to give themselves courage.” Part of what makes Restrepo so remarkable among the documentaries about life among soldiers posted in Afghanistan or Iraq is that it really is about the people on screen, with no baggage or agenda or larger picture beyond what Junger describes as “the truth about combat as a form of bonding.” It was Hetherington’s focus on the individual human beings in the nightmare zones he visited that gives his work lasting importance beyond its journalistic value.
“Moral outrage,” he says at one point, “motivates me, but I don’t see it as a useful tool for getting people to engage with the world. I think we need to build bridges to people.” He had a great eye, but he also talks like a conscious artist, trying to connect people to the lives of the people he’d met and photographed, and trying to move them without being shameless about it. Junger, the professional literary tough guy, may be more susceptible than Hetherington to broad, sloppy feelings; he pours treacly music over some scenes and shows more than one interview subject tearing and choking up. Hetherington really reached people’s hearts and minds; Junger is sometimes content to reach lower. But when he lets Hetherington and his work speak for themselves, your heart and mind may thank him for getting your attention.