Tim Hetherington

The news tonight of photographer-filmmaker Tim Hetherington‘s death in Misrata is shocking and upsetting. I had the pleasure of meeting him first about 10 years ago when I invited him to give a talk to the RPS Visual Journalism Group. I remember him to be thoughtful, intelligent and focused, with a clear view of where visual documentary was likely to go. It was clear then that he had a bright future and his was a name to watch.

It is for others who knew him well to write his obituary (although one piece well worth reading can be found here). What concerns me is the gaping hole that is left by his passing, and what his legacy might be. What made Tim unique was not the methods he employed, but the fact that they were coupled with a genuine passion and empathy for his subjects. He was not judgemental, and it showed in his work – it had soul.

I confess I am ashamed by a thought that forced itself into my mind shortly after hearing the news: the well known story that on learning of his client’s untimely demise, James Dean’s agent retorted, “Good career move.”

To modern ears this seems a crass remark, but in an era that predated the soundbite by several decades, it is more likely to have been a quick reflection on the likely effect on Dean’s appeal. Indeed, this effect is as true for rising stars in acting, music and popular culture today as it was then.

It was once also true for photographers: Robert Capa was at the top of his game when he was killed in French Indochina (Vietnam) in 1954. He was called the greatest war photographer in the world during the Spanish Civil War, and his exploits during World War II did nothing to diminish that view of him. Moreover, with friends like Hemingway and Picasso, and Ingrid Bergman as a lover, his champagne fueled gambling lifestyle and big heart only served to enhance his appeal. Arguably for Capa generally, and his legacy Magnum in particular, his death was a “good career move”.

But with that thought in my head whether I liked it or not, it necessarily posed the question, does it apply in this case?

Hetherington was unquestionably a talent whose star was in the ascendant. He was nominated for an Oscar for Restrepo earlier this year, a film which had already won the prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival last year; he took the top prize in the World Press Photo Awards in 2008, and had received countless plaudits since he turned professional in the late 90s. He was widely regarded by his peers as one of the most dynamic and creative people working in photography today.

While the industry as a whole is starting to get excited about “convergence”, Hetherington had already occupied the high ground. He recognised early on that to make a difference it was not enough to shoot stills, or video, you have to grab the opportunities the modern multi-media world offers to get a story across using a variety of tools. Magazines, newspapers, art exhibitions, books, the internet – all have an audience, and the audiences are receptive to the stories you want to tell provided you approach them in the right way.

Hetherington’s genius was that he had started to find a way to bridge those audiences and tell those important stories. None of this was done out of self-agrandissement, but rather out of a genuine desire to give voice to those who are often overlooked. Restrepo (and the accompanying book Infidel) was a perfect example of this. When the public in the UK and America (Hetherington had dual UK and US nationality) became increasingly hostile to the war in Afghanistan, Tim worked with writer Sebastian Junger to show that far from being a simple instrument of policy, the soldiers on the front line were real people doing a hard job in an impossible situation. The point was that if we, the public, have a problem with the policy we should take it up with the policymakers; the soldiers on the front line deserve to be appreciated whether or not we agree with the orders they carry out.

But to come back to my question, when Capa died the world was a different place, and the gap he left was never really filled, not in the same way. With each passing conflict ever greater numbers of photographers have strived to make a name for themselves in war zones, and the impact of the inevitable deaths has been increasingly muted; their names rapidly consigned to history. Hetherington’s death, should be different. It deserves to be if for no other reason than the impact his work was starting to make. But therein lies the problem – it was only starting to affect a broader consciousness than that of photographers and filmmakers alone. Time will tell whether this impact will be the lasting one it deserves to be, but the reality of 2011 is that it is so much harder to make a mark than it was in Capa’s day, and as a result there is a real danger that Tim’s legacy will be left behind by history’s inexorable march and the exponential rise in the numbers of people eager to take his place.

Perhaps we should not be surprised when someone who chooses to spend months in the Korengal Valley dies in a war zone, but his death has shocked everyone. It is a testament to the extremely high regard in which he was held that his name was trending on Twitter (is this really how we now measure a man’s worth?) within an hour of the news breaking, and was the lead item on the BBC by 9 o’clock. Tim was no novice, and he certainly knew the risks in Misrata – his final tweet read:

In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO.

His passing will numb his family and friends for a long time to come, and my prayers are with them all. I shall miss his despatches, his images, his films, and his thought provoking contribution to the world we live in. It has affected me more profoundly than I would have expected even though I did not have the honour of calling him my friend.

In the end I do not believe anyone’s death should be written off in the way James Dean’s was, and certainly in the case of Tim Hetherington, with so much promised, it was not a good career move at all.

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