On April 20, renowned photojournalist Tim Hetherington was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade in the city of Misurata, Libya. At our offices in Santa Fe, the shock of the news was compounded by the fact that we had nearly finished editing what would turn out to be the last interview Hetherington, 40, gave before he died. In mid-March, former Outside photography editor Rob Haggart reached Hetherington at his home in New York City as he prepared for his departure to Libya. The central topic of discussion: the crisis in photojournalism. When something happens in the world, the images we see in the news are increasingly provided by amateurs on the ground with cell-phone cameras. Hetherington’s take: So what? As he saw it, saving photojournalism requires abandoning it. In 2007, Hetherington teamed up with writer Sebastian Junger on a Vanity Fair assignment to embed with a U.S. platoon in Afghanistan’s Taliban-infested Korengal Valley. Not only did one of Hetherington’s pictures win the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award, but he and Junger turned their rough video footage into Restrepo, which earned an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary. Hetherington also produced a photography book, Infidel, a three-screen video installation, Sleeping Soldiers, and a conceptual film, Diary, that tried to make sense of his experiences covering war. When he died, we lost one of the most creative and ambitious experimenters in modern media.
HAGGART: What’s your plan for Libya?
HETHERINGTON: Ah, I’m still trying to work out what to do. I’ve got a potential way in, but the situation is moving so fast, it’s very hard to know whether it’s a good call or not.
You’re shooting a film?
Yeah, a documentary. The problem is, unlike making still photographs, you don’t know what you’ll get in this kind of situation. It’s a complete fishing trip.
You studied photography, but now you make films. Is that where visual storytelling is headed?
I’m not interested in replacing photography. I’m interested in what’s happening with the still image and the moving image and their discussion together. But video is having a profound effect on our society. I watched Anderson Cooper right after the Japan earthquake, and the entire broadcast was amateur videos. And they were fascinating—almost more powerful than professional images. Why is that? It’s the immediacy. And it’s the intimacy. It’s a personal view.
Doesn’t a personal view get in the way of the kind of objectivity that journalists offer?
I’ve never been interested in objectivity.
What is objectivity? There’s always a perception that Al Jazeera has a point of view, that CNN has a point of view. I’m not advocating citizen journalism necessarily. I think it’s a great thing the wires exist. We need everything. It all adds to the layers of understanding and meaning. I’m about being inclusive.
Aren’t professionals losing their jobs due to all this inclusiveness?
As professionals we’re meant to be communicators, but we’re not actually driven by what people can relate to. The photographic community is not thinking hard enough about who we’re making the work for. Sometimes professional aesthetics don’t help.
What about when professionals alter photos? Earlier this year, New York Times photographer Damon Winter won an award for photos he took of soldiers in Afghanistan with his iPhone, using the Hipstamatic app, which adds all these filters. Does that count as—
—photojournalism? I have no idea. The thing was, it was shot on an iPhone, and that’s the discussion. I’m interested in the content. What was it saying? What did it reveal to us that we hadn’t seen already?
And your strategy for revealing new things is to pioneer storytelling formats?
I’ve had a role as an experimenter. I’m expanding the vocabulary of an artist by reaching as wide an audience as possible by using multiple forms. Some of it is immediate, some more contemplative, and each has a different strength and weakness.
In Diary, there’s a moment when you say that you make pictures to try and understand what’s happening to yourself.
I think it’s got to come from yourself, first of all. That’s the most honest place to be coming from. If I started saying that it came out of a desire to change the world, that’s very suspect. Can’t it come out of a place of personal curiosity? A desire to locate myself in the world and to also have some utility?
That was your approach in Afghanistan?
My examination of young men and violence, or of young men and this kind of dramatic energy in war, was also me trying to understand my own fascination with violence. It was as much a journey about my identity as it was about those soldiers.
And it ended with you on the red carpet at the Oscars.
It was really pretty far out. To realize that, wow, all the way from this tiny outpost in Afghanistan to this. I had Pemble [U.S. Army Sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin] with me in his uniform, and from quite a long way off Tom Hanks recognized him from Restrepo and made a point of coming up to shake his hand and thank him for his service. It was incredible for me to witness that.
What’s the one big goal that drives your work?
Creative freedom. When you’re working for yourself, it’s very liberating, and you can make really interesting work. My mom was a Catholic, and I was brought up through a lot of my life by Jesuits, who are a tough and mean bunch, so I hate any sense of authority. That’s my fate. That sense of not conforming, of doing something that other people aren’t doing, is always fun.
Embedding with the U.S. military seems the opposite of that.
Yeah, but then so does making a book about masculinity when you should be taking pictures about war.