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The Life and Death of a War Photographer
April 18, 2013  | By Eric Gould

From firsthand interviews with Tim Hetherington, it has become clear how a photographer, searching for hard news – world news – grows into the dangerous line of war work. In Hetherington's case, we also learn how they sometimes get too close, and pay the ultimate price for it.

Hetherington's early years, and eventually his death in 2011 in Libya, are assembled together in the upcoming HBO documentary Which Way is the Front Line from Here?: The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington, directed by friend and war-reporting colleague Sebastian Junger. (They co-directed the Oscar-nominated Afghanistan documentary Restrepo in 2010.) It premieres Thursday, April 18 at 8 p.m. ET.

The documentary features an early interview with Hetherington, in which he tries several times to describe, in the clearest terms possible, why he reports on war, and the stories he's trying to tell. It all sounds so much like canned B.S. that Hetherington repeatedly chuckles, apologizes and starts over.

It's a repeated theme throughout the 75-minute documentary. Hetherington, the soldiers he covers, and Junger himself, with seriousness and straight to the camera, give many descriptions of the true nature of war, and why war reporters must witness. It's debatable whether they get to one, legitimate moment.

The film features interviews with Hetherington's friends, family and colleagues, as well as a wealth of personal photographs and video diaries that flesh him out as a prolific, creative soul and a gregarious friend. It is a stunning portrait of an impassioned artist, loving son and principled photojournalist.

Which Way is the Front Line begins gently enough, showing young Hetherington on bohemian, itinerant adventures in India during his post-college years — a young man unsure of where he wants to be in the world, but sure he isn't going to be stuck inside an office.

Hetherington soon discovers photojournalism, and sees it as a way of satisfying his wanderlust while expressing himself as an artist, communicating the truth of what he sees to an audience.

His work took him to Liberia in the early 2000s; there he won acclaim for photos he took at a school for the blind (above) and of rebels fighting to overthrow the government (below).

As these early Liberia photos show, Hetherington was a photographer of enormous talent, whether he was shooting war or not. But his real interest was in armed conflicts. His experiences following the young, teenage rebel fighters in Liberia led him to Afghanistan, where he not only photographed but also served as a videographer for Restrepo (below, right).

Shane Smith of the just-launched HBO news-documentary series VICE recently said in a promotional clip for that show that he and other war reporters are not "action junkies," but it's hard not to think otherwise, as the camera follows Hetherington into Libya as rebels assemble in 2011 to overthrow the Gaddafi regime.

Some of the final moments Hetherington and others captured on video that day show mortar rounds and RPGs flashing by and exploding within yards of the cameras crew. Interviews with reporters who were there with Hetherington recount how he cut ahead of soldiers that day to get as close to the fighting as possible to capture footage.

Hetherington was well aware of risks associated with the habituation of his job. He calmly recounts in one interview that, when it comes to war reporters, most casualties occur among older reporters who have been around armed fighting for a while, begin to see it as routine and develop a veneer of invulnerability.

This attitude is counter to his first brush with war in Liberia. "You really kind of think 'man, you wanted this, but this has gone too far," Hetherington says in an early interview. "Like you've really f#*ked it now. You're gonna end up dead. You've let everybody down, for what, a picture?'"

Which Way to the Front Line is not just the story of how Hetherington became a war reporting — it also illustrates how he lost his fear of it.

During the film Hetherington and Junger each reach for crystalline reasons for why they do what they do. They're journalists looking for total immersion and attempting to understand human nature. They're focused on telling the soldier's point of view, to explain how the troops fight to keep the men around them alive.

It occurs to me, though, that the answers to Hetherington's and Junger's questions — the reasons for war and killing — maybe weren't ever at the front lines at all, but somewhere behind the reporters. They're most likely inside the governments and military institutions that mechanize for conflicts, use them as a method for negotiating, and when pushed, set them into motion.

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