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04/29/2013

War correspondent's professional life documented in own photos

Photojournalist Tim Hetherington was often described as “larger than life” and a visionary, but it is only in death that his vision has been fully understood.

Sebastian Junger, who produced the Oscar-nominated film Restrepo with Hetherington in Afghanistan, seems to come closest to showing what motivated his friend in his documentary Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?

The documentary follows Hetherington’s life as a war photographer from his early days in Sierra Leone to his final days in Misrata, Libya, where he was killed by mortar blast in 2011. Hetherington was 40.

In an interview, Junger spoke about his friend, his film and a war correspondent’s vexing combination of selflessness and selfishness.

“You’re doing something dramatic, glamorous and potentially deadly — and incredibly urgent and important. But (war correspondents) are also personally really complicated and sometimes messy people and you don’t realize that looking in from the outside.”

While Junger has captured his friend’s life on film, Hetherington’s own photos also chart the stages of his professional life. Reflecting on those assignments in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Afghanistan and finally Libya, Junger explains how these places pushed Hetherington forward, shaped his work and helped him get closer in his quest to understand war.

- Michelle Shephard

 

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SIERRA LEONE, POST-WAR, started him off in his career. I think a lot of combat reporters would yawn at the idea of doing portraits at a school for blind children but Tim saw something very beautiful there. That was Tim, seeing the thing that everyone else was ignoring or thought was boring.I think it also sensitized him to the consequences of war and made him curious. Why would people do this?” (Photo taken in 1999)

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IT WAS INCREDIBLY DANGEROUS,” JUNGER SAYS OF HETHERINGTON'S first war reporting in Liberia. “They really weren't soldiers. They were militias filled with teenagers who were pretty out of control.” But Junger says among war correspondents there's a similar boyish thrill to being inside a war and he believes Hetherington may have discovered this in Liberia. “Addictive is too strong a word, but it makes it really irresistible at times.” (2003)

Hetherington (Korengal)

HETHERINGTON and Junger were embedded with U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley — a remote 15-man outpost considered the most dangerous posting in the war — while filming “Restrepo,” named after a medic who had been killed. The photo shows a soldier screaming with pain after getting a “pink belly” for his birthday. Each member of the platoon struck his stomach until blood could be seen. “That fraternal bond was absolutely possible, so I think for the first time Tim felt he was becoming more and more indistinguishable from the guys we were covering,” said Junger. “We identified with them tremendously, which I know is a huge journalistic no-no, but we weren't trying to be objective, we were trying to understand their experience. That was very different for both of us.” (2008)

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HETHERINGTON'S DEATH PUSHED JUNGER TO STOP REPORTING FROM war zones. Hetherington had often said he wanted to stop and before he left for Libya he told friends he didn't intend to go to the front line. “But it has a huge gravitational pull,” said Junger. “I know exactly how he felt, Oh my God it's all happening right there. We have complete access. Let's go.' He went because it's exciting — in a word. He went because it's incredibly exciting.” Hetherington took this picture in Misrata after a fierce fight between rebels and army soldiers. It was his last photograph. (2011)

 

Documentary show time: May 4, 4 p.m. at Bloor Hot Docs Cinema

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