Tim Hetherington’s Last Interview
A few weeks before his death, the award-winning photographer spoke to Rob Haggart about heading off to Libya the future of photography.
“I don’t buy the whole altruism thing. I think at the heart of altruism is a selfish deed. You know, and that’s fine. . . I want to reach people. Can’t it come out of a place of personal curiosity? A desire to locate myself in the world and also have some utility?” —Tim Hetherington
YESTERDAY MORNING we received news that award-winning photojournalist and Outside contributor Tim Hetherington was killed by a rocket propelled grenade on Wednesday in the city of Misrata, Libya. He was 40 years old. Three other photographers working at his side were also wounded, one fatally. At our offices in Santa Fe, the shock of this news was compounded by the fact that we had just finished editing what was likely the last interview Hetherington gave before he died. On March 13, former Outside photography editor Rob Haggart reached Hetherington at his home in New York City. The photographer had just returned home from the Acadamy Awards, where Restrepo, the film he co-directed along with writer Sebastian Junger, had been nominated for best documentary. Hetherington was preparing to head to Libya. Below, in an exchange that kicked off the interview, he expresses his uncertainty about the situation he was getting into.
ROB HAGGART: Hey, Tim, how are you?
TIM HETHERINGTON: Rob, I’m very well, man.
Good. Did you find a way into Libya?
Ah, I’m still trying to work out what to do. I mean, I’ve got a potential way in, but—I mean the thing is, the situation is moving so fast it’s very hard to know whether it’s a good call or not.
That’s the main thing at the moment.
And do you have an assignment or are you just going to go?
Yeah, it’s like a top-shelf documentary film. A director who I know who—and I said I wanted to go in. The problem is, unlike making still photographs, you don’t know what you’ll get in this kind of situation.
When it’s so fast moving, it’s very hard to structure a kind of narrative. It’s difficult to find characters—you know what I mean? I have no idea what’s going to happen. It’s like a complete fishing trip, so it’s also, like, not wanting to—for them back in New York, the director—for them to understand clearly that that’s what it is.
Right, they probably don’t understand that or maybe just basing it on your previous documentaries, right?
I just don’t want to set myself up for them thinking that they’re going to get something and then they don’t, because it’s impossible—it may be impossible to do what they want out of that. No second chances— like it’s so fast moving, it’s pretty crazy what’s going on. In terms of the government moving very close to Benghazi and who knows whether Benghazi is going to fall or whether the rebels will counter-attack or whether Gaddafi will buy people out in the town, you know what I mean?
HETHERINGTON HAD made a name for himself as a genre-busting photojournalist. From his 2007 assignment in Afghanistan for Vanity Fair, he’d not only teamed up with Junger to turn their rough video footage into Restrepo, he’d won the prestigious World Press Photo of the Year award for one of his images. He’d also produced a photography book, Infidel, a three-screen video installation, “Sleeping Soldiers,” and a conceptual art film, Diary, that tries to make sense of his experiences covering war.
His willingness to experiment gave him a unique perspective on his profession. By many accounts, photojournalism is in crisis. When something happens in the world, the images we see in the news are increasingly provided by amateurs on-site with cell-phone cameras—their raw footage replacing the kind of crafted documentation that used to be supplied by trained professionals. Hetherington’s reaction to this development was, So what? “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer,” he said, arguing that, to save his profession, you have to abandon it.
HAGGART: You studied photography but now make films. Is that where visual storytelling is headed—to video?
HETHERINGTON: 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 perceived subjectivity—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 that 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 been the discussion. I’m [more] 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 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. Sergeant Misha Pemble-Belkin] with me in his uniform, and from quite a long way off Tom Hanks recognized him from Restrepo and came up to shake his hand and thank him for his service. It was incredible to witness that.
What’s the one big goal that drives your work?
Creative freedom. When you’re making work for yourself, it’s very liberating. My mom was a Catholic, and I was brought up through a lot of my life by Jesuits, who are a tough, mean bunch, so I hate any sense of authority. 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 making a book about masculinity when you should be taking pictures about war…
Outside‘s condolences go out to Hetherington’s family and colleagues, including longtime Outside contributing editor Sebastian Junger. In a statement released yesterday, Junger had this to say about his close friend and collaborator:
“There is no way to express my devastation and sorrow at the death of my dear friend, Tim Hetherington in Misrata, Libya. Tim was one of the most courageous and principled journalists I have ever known. The good that he accomplished—both with his camera, and simply as a concerned person in some of the most devastated countries in the world—cannot be measured. I can’t believe he is truly gone.” —Sebastian Junger