An evening on Tim Hetherington – and all I took were some lousy phone pics

More musings on conflict reporting – my conflicted view

Stephen Mayes, director of the estate of Tim Hetherington, talks at de Balie in Amsterdam
Stephen Mayes, director of the estate of Tim Hetherington, talks at de Balie in Amsterdam

Tim Hetherington was a wonderful photographer and documentary maker who operated mostly in conflict zones, which on 20 April 2011 got him killed in Misrata, Libya. The Arab Spring, so hopefully named, has been particularly deadly and otherwise damaging for those covering it. An exhibition of Tim’s work arrived in Amsterdam in July and a new film on his life, a tribute directed by Sebastian Junger with whom he made the 2010 award-winning documentary Restrepo on life at an American outpost in Afghanistan, also had its Dutch premiere…

Various friends of Tim’s attended the launch and gave presentations that I won’t go into; I want to talk about me and Tim. I never met Tim, never heard of him before Restrepo and only vaguely afterwards. But we had a few things in common, apart from rugged good looks (I wish). We both did journalism courses in the UK and we both ended up in war zones. I know it’s not much but it’s more than some. Yet when I listened to the presentations and as I watched the film, the gulf between our experiences seemed vast, making me question the way I engaged with some of the same topics that Tim came across. There was a charming bit in which he has to talk about what it is that he’s doing. He starts out with a rather worthy description, only to stop himself short and say “that’s bullshit”. More attempts follow before he gets it right, kind of. It feels like it’s meant to show the difficulty war reporters have in talking about their work without sounding pompous, full of pathos and bravado or, on the other hand, overly jaded. But it can also be seen as defanging any such qualms pre-emptively as in, ‘see, he knew how difficult it was to talk about it’. Yet he talked about it a lot, on camera and on the record…

It always makes me feel uncomfortable. I have not heard people talk about war reporting in public in a way that sits well with me, probably reflecting a puritan streak that urges me: do, don’t tell. I find it almost impossible to talk about my decade or so covering conflict in a way that does not somehow trivialise it, dramatise it or worse, instrumentalise it for my own greater glory. When I sometimes try to discuss it, as dispassionately and in as sparse and stripped-down terms as I find possible, it feels as if nobody listens. Poor me. It is as Tim also said: you need to communicate in order for people to be able to engage with the subject. But I feel utterly conflicted about people who continue to communicate such issues outside the context of immediate war reporting. In the film on his life, many also said of Tim that he was always engaged with his subjects, the people he came across, whom he kept treating as individuals, as human.

Stephen Mayes, James Brabazon and Max Houghton talking about Tim Hetherington at de Balie, Amsterdam
James Brabazon, James Brabazon and Max Houghton talking about Tim Hetherington at de Balie, Amsterdam

Expressing such engagement also makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Maybe there’s a big difference between writers and photographers, also in the levels of danger encountered and in the way they process what they see, but I find the exhortation to keep in mind that the people you write about or photograph are also human, individuals with their own stories and not just characters in a larger plot, utterly redundant and preposterous. The cliché that war reporters only write about cannon fodder or people as numbers, is misleading and tiresome. Overwhelmingly, reporters who risk their lives, who insert themselves knowingly into dangerous situations, are very much aware of the excess of humanity around them. Human yes, always interesting? No. War and conflict tend to polarise people, resulting in a couple of standard narratives that many of those involved and engaged in conflict employ. It is a reporter’s job, maybe not a photographer’s, to puncture those shells and dig down to the real story if there is such a thing. Combat may temporarily heighten one’s senses but continual conflict flattens everything, including what distinguishes people. After a while, all stories become similar, whether it’s an American soldier’s or an Iraqi Jihadist’s. The logic of violence is often frighteningly similar and therefore also horribly clichéd. Yes, it is ritualistic and it has to do with male bonding but to me these themes never held the fascination they seemed to have had for Tim Hetherington. Perhaps that is at the root of much of my unease; I have always been a reluctant war reporter with a visceral distrust of people who sought out such situations willingly. Just maybe the life and work of Tim Hetherington will start me thinking differently about such things. But I’m a hard nut to crack.

I yet have to see Tim Hetherington’s show ‘Infidel’ at Foam Amsterdam and may post on this again afterwards…

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22 thoughts on “An evening on Tim Hetherington – and all I took were some lousy phone pics

  1. Ferry,
    Forget Tim, this is one of the most honest accounts of the conflicted view you take of talking about your own experiences. I’m starting to understand, but still think you should overcome your “puritanism” and, as Tim said, communicate it. If no one knows about what you did, saw, reported on, well, then it’s hardly journalism. Just listened to an interview with the neuropsychologist Oliver Sacks. He said that he chose a narrative and personal style of reporting his research simply because it mattered to people more and actually led to the most effective science. What’s more, he wasn’t inventing anything new, but reviving the way it used to be done in the 19th century, the era that led to the most rational kind of science reporting. Write your book, sir. I can feel it boiling up inside you.

    1. Ahem ,thanks. Just one point, of course I published my stories at the time, so it was journalism pure and simple. If I now ‘do something’ with my experiences I don’t know what it will turn out to be.

  2. Each person harbors their own pain. War never makes sense. It is to be avoided at all costs for the cost is so high. I wrote a short story on a war between Russia and Germany. At the end nothing was accomplished except the dead and wounded. There are areas in France that the trees grow so well. Blood is a great fertilizer. And yet we will find the reason for conflict and go marching to glory.

  3. Your subjects – war reporting and Tim Hetherington drew me to your blog. I’ve felt compelled to blog about both here, – fascinated by this urge to witness war. During a stint of a few years in Bosnia as a ‘peacekeeper’ (heh) I was alternately traumatized and but also compelled, weirdly energized although also felt a bit like a fraud. But I admired the journalists then – and still do although with the changes in the business, it seems a bit like the wild west now. I like your take on the business – your discomfort seems well placed. I’ll look for your work.

    1. I enjoyed your post on Tim Hetherington too. I never engaged much with the question of why people go to war. I just assumed we all had a reason that somehow made perfect sense to ourselves but lately I’ve really started to wonder what compelled me to keep doing it. To be honest, if a newspaper were to ask me right now to go back, I probably would. But maybe that’s just a reflection of the changes in the business, as you say, because I’d rather live it up in Paris or New York, postings that used to be a reward for time in the field.

  4. I am surprised that you have not seen Tim Hetherington’s show ‘Infidel’ at Foam Amsterdam. I hope you post your thoughts again after you see ‘Infidel’.

  5. Thanks for a thoughtful piece that stirs more thinking! I didn’t view the FADERTV clip until after I’d read. Two deeper human needs for ‘felt experience’ identified by Hetherington caught my attention – being “close to mortality” and the “bonding”. (Which I’m inclined to understand as a root need, not restricted to guys. … Interesting that Hetherington specifies ‘without women’ … but that observation leads into an entirely different discussion so will leave it alone!)

    Back to ‘close to mortality’ and ‘bonding’ – when I was a teenager I worked in a general hospital where my work kept me in direct patient contact, meeting the most basic of human needs. I was usually on a medical-surgical ward but sometimes assigned to emergency or psychiatric. I was pretty mystified about the world in a number of ways at that time, but one thing was deeply clear to me: I was ‘close to mortality’, and I the environment had elements of ‘bonded community’. Not only among those of us serving patients, but including patients, and often visiting family members too.

    It’s interesting to contrast hospital work, (one could include EMT units, firefighters, etc.) with the experience of war. I by *no means* mean to suggest the enduring intensity is equal! I mean to suggest that there may be something in the human psyche that finds “ultimate meaningful experience” by bonding in close community while being close to mortality. Many years later I was a classroom teacher. There was similar bonded community, and similar commitment to service. But being ‘close to mortality’ was stretched out across time in a very different way.

  6. I am happy to get a blog as nice as I can find today. Fate led me to enjoy the beautiful words to me

  7. I like your post.

    I am not sure when I first came across Tim but I liked his work and it is nice to see the footage here.

    I think your line: ” I have always been a reluctant war reporter with a visceral distrust of people who sought out such situations willingly.” is interesting. While it is difficult to imagine that a sane, rational, person might willingly venture into war, it happens all the time with the volunteer military, doctors, nurses, chaplains, and of course journalists, and I am sure that most of them would rather not be there in a perfect world. But they are there, and often for pretty altruistic causes.

    There are of course other reasons, more personal in nature, like money, or advancement of career, but these are powerful motivating factors that we all feel at one time or another, and not necessarily a character flaw in and of themselves. And I have to say that in my years in the Marine Corps (although never in combat myself, I need to make clear), I met a few who just really, really liked it. And that is a whole nother thing, as they say, and at least one of those was a war correspondent.

    So i am interested in why you distrust those people? is it because of things you have seen? or just an inner emotion?

    Anyway, best, most thought-provoking read I have had in a while.



    1. Hi Whit, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I was waiting to be asked that question, actually, and I have not yet worked out the answer for myself completely. I don’t know about altruism but I do know that most journalists were/are in it for their own reasons, which is fine. Maybe that’s the source of my unease; I see covering war and conflict as part of a job, no more and no less. When I was Africa editor it was part of the job that I had to go to Rwanda and Eastern Congo when things started to happen there, when I was Middle East correspondent, I had no choice but to go and cover the wars there. Now I know that this is too simplistic a way of looking at it. There were some colleagues who let others deal with the war reporting, and I could have quit sooner. But while being there, maybe as part of some kind of group-think we developed, I think I became somewhat wary of other professions working in a war situation. Aid workers were of course do-gooders who drove around in their big fancy Land Cruisers and stayed in guarded luxury compounds, diplomats were of course completely divorced from reality in such situations, and another category, such as film-makers or freelancers just trying their luck and not being sent out there on assignment were irresponsible flakes. That may be putting it a bit strong and was not always automatically so, but I guess it was part of how at least I thought about it. Now I’ve mellowed a bit and I see the use in presenting a view of war different from straight-laced journalism, and I’m really trying to understand better what my own motives were. But I’m not there yet.

      1. Thanks for the answer. I can see your struggle there.

        People can certainly be venal and exhibit poor behavior, and situations like war can bring it out in spades, no doubt. And like the old Atheist in the Foxhole saying, it may also be that there is no altruism on the battlefield.

        But up there you say: ” I see covering war and conflict as part of a job, no more and no less.” which is fine, but I think there are others who don’t.

        There are many folks who consciously start down a path in life which points directly to war. Military or civilian; doctor, preacher, journalist. I would argue that even the least intellectual of these people does give it a good bit of thought and examine their motivation. And while I am sure there are flakes and opportunists among them, I have to think they are a minority. Somehow, for some reason, all these people are willing to risk their most valuable possession (life) for something that is of more importance. That’s not just a job, it is more than that.

        Thanks again!


  8. As others have commented, a very honest and sensitive post. The words “War and conflict tend to polarise people, resulting in a couple of standard narratives that many of those involved and engaged in conflict employ” resonates particularly with me in light of my research on the Great War.
    Cheers, Christine

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