Tim Hetherington (1970–2011) was one of the world’s most distinguished and dedicated photojournalists, whose career was tragically cut short when he died in a mortar blast while covering the Libyan Civil War. Someone far less interested in professional glory than revealing to the world the realities of people living in extremely difficult circumstances, Hetherington nonetheless won many awards for his war reporting, and was nominated for an Academy Award for his critically acclaimed documentary, Restrepo.
In Here I Am, Alan Huffman tells Hetherington’s life story, and through it analyses, what it means to be a war reporter in the twenty-first century. Huffman recounts the camerman’s life from his first interest in photography and war reporting, through his critical role in reporting the Liberian Civil War, to his tragic death in Libya. Huffman also traces Hetherington’s photographic milestones, from his iconic and prize-winning pictures of Liberian children, to the celebrated portraits of sleeping US soldiers in Afghanistan.
“A powerfully written biography . . . This is poignant imagery and metaphor for the entire body of this extraordinary artist and humanist’s life.” —The Huffington Post
“Huffman excels at heightening the drama, depicting the rapid-fire action and constant danger of working among soldiers and guerrillas engaged in battle.” —The Boston Globe
“Huffman vividly chronicles the short life of a man drawn to danger zones to capture the horrors of modern warfare.” —Los Angeles Times
“Celebrate[s] Tim Hetherington’s life . . . Recount[s] his last days in Libya in excruciating detail.” —Time
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MISRATA, LIBYA, APRIL 20, 2011
The walls of the old al-Beyt Beytik furniture store were riddled with holes from mortar and machine-gun fire. Some were the size of the wounds they were intended to inflict. Others were as big as picture windows. In a back room on the third floor the ragged openings framed views of the war zone outside: a distant, solitary figure with a Kalashnikov, silhouetted on Tripoli Street; a burned-out car at the base of a towering palm; a shot-up Pepsi billboard. Viewed as a whole, they evoked a nightmare gallery, showcasing images of war that could get you killed if you stared at them too long.
In late afternoon, sunlight streamed through the holes, illuminating smoke-blackened walls, floors littered with bullet casings, and, in one corner, the rumpled sleeping bags of the Gaddafi snipers. The snipers had shot through the holes at anyone who passed through their field of vision below — mostly young men in head scarves, combat helmets, or baseball caps who darted across Tripoli Street or swerved through intersections in trucks with shattered windshields.
At a little before 4:30 p.m. on the day the snipers were finally killed, the frozen images framed by the holes in the front of the building were suddenly set in motion. A tall, handsome man sprinted past on the sidewalk below, gripping a camera in his left hand, holding the strap of his rucksack with the other to keep it from bouncing as he ran. A few seconds later there was an explosion.
Tripoli Street, like most streets in Misrata, was lined with bombed-out buildings. Earlier in the day, al-Beyt Beytik had been the scene of a firefight between the snipers and perhaps thirty rebels who had fought from room to room with weapons designed for longer-range combat — automatic rifles and grenades. The result was like an ATF raid on a serial killer's holdout but with interested spectators and a retinue of photographers who filmed the action on Flip cams and iPhones. Some of the rebels laughed and smoked cigarettes. One arrived with a handful of bottle rockets, grinning as he sang "Happy Birthday." In one of the photographer's videos someone laughs nervously offscreen.
At one point in the video one of the rebels balances a piece of broken mirror on a section of angle iron and extends it through a doorway to reveal the snipers hiding around the corner. Behind him, Tim Hetherington peers through his camera at the reflection and is heard to say of the hidden snipers, "One is dead. They're under the beds." A bearded man in a headscarf steps forward and begins firing his Kalashnikov around the corner. It is unclear if he hits anyone but he keeps firing.
Hetherington and the other photographers crowd behind him in the hallway, with perhaps a dozen rebels and a few onlookers. When the first gunman steps back, another takes his place and begins firing blindly into the room. The metallic snap of bullets echoes through the building. The rebels chatter in Arabic. Hetherington says, "Fucking hell." Someone else says, "Oh, my God." Eventually the rebels set a couple of car tires on fire and roll them into the snipers' room, hoping to smoke them out.
Al-Beyt Beytik stands a block from where Tripoli Street crosses a bypass known as the Coastal Road on a long bridge that leads toward the capital, about 120 miles to the west. For the past two months Tripoli Street had been a linear battlefield, starting at the center of Misrata and lurching toward the bridge, as the city was besieged by the army of Muammar Gaddafi, bent on stopping the westward advance of the Libyan uprising toward Tripoli. The siege of Misrata, which had brought everyone to al-Beyt Beytik that day, was the climax of the first Arab Spring uprising to escalate into a full-scale war. Misrata, a Mediterranean port of about 300,000 people, was surrounded, and the government forces had positioned snipers — many of them mercenaries — in all of the tallest buildings. Among the mercenaries, it was said, were a group of Colombian women with particularly deadly aim.
Aside from occasional NATO air strikes, Misrata's only defense came from the kind of men who shot up the interior of al-Beyt Beytik that day — local rebels with little or no military training, people who before the war had been truck drivers, salesmen, artists, office workers, laborers, lawyers, students, or unemployed. In the beginning most did not have guns. Some had arrived on the front lines armed with knives or steel rods. Over time, they managed to ambush and kill a few Gaddafi soldiers and steal their guns, which they used to kill others, acquiring more guns in the process. Meanwhile, weapons and ammunition were being smuggled into the port aboard fishing boats, so that by April 20, 2011, the day they attacked the furniture store, most of the rebels had guns, though not everyone knew how to use one.
That afternoon, as Hetherington sprinted past al-Beyt Beytik, a few dozen rebels and a small group of photographers lingered on Tripoli Street, waiting for what came next, which turned out to be a mortar blast, after a long, relatively quiet period. The bomb exploded on the sidewalk in front of an auto repair garage, scoring the pavement in a star-shaped pattern, sending smoke, dust, and shrapnel into the group of people who stood — or, in Hetherington's case, ran — nearby. As the smoke cleared, a Spanish photographer watching from across the street saw perhaps ten bodies strewn about and people sprinting for cover. Soon a few cars and trucks emerged from hiding places and sped away. A few vehicles stopped and rebels leaped out and began loading the injured into them to take them to al-Hekma, the city's only functioning hospital. The photographer across the street, whose name was Guillermo Cervera, snapped three pictures of the aftermath of the explosion with his iPhone, then ran to help. At the scene of the explosion he flagged down a car and pushed two of the photographers, one of whom was bleeding from his chest, into the backseat. The car then sped away. Next Cervera helped two rebels load Hetherington and a second photographer, an American named Chris Hondros, into the bed of a black pickup truck, after which the rebels jumped into the front seat, Cervera climbed into the bed with his injured friends, and they drove away, down the sidewalk and into an alley to a side street that went north from Tripoli Street toward al-Hekma. Hetherington was bleeding profusely from a small wound at the top of his right leg. Hondros, who still wore his combat helmet, was unconscious and had an ugly gash in his forehead.
Where the alley emptied into the side street, the driver saw an ambulance and stopped. After a quick and frenzied discussion, the decision was made to transfer Hondros, who was at the back of the bed with his feet hanging off, to the ambulance. He was the easiest to get out. While the transfer was taking place, Cervera took a photo of Hetherington lying on his back in the bed of the truck, propped against ammunition boxes. Then everyone got back in the truck and the driver tore off down the sandy street in a cloud of dust. As they sped toward al-Hekma, Hetherington began to lose consciousness due to loss of blood. Cervera took his hand in his own and spoke to him soothingly, trying to keep him awake.
The streets passed between walled residential compounds that had been subjected to frequent shelling and sniper fire so that the routes were full of obstacles — downed power lines, destroyed cars and trucks, the rubble of collapsed walls. Everyone other than the fighters was long gone. The pickup and the ambulance behind it rarely slowed, though at one point the truck's driver had to jam on his brakes and swerve to avoid colliding with a car full of rebels that appeared out of a blind side street. Eventually — it felt to everyone like an eternity — the warren of sandy streets led to a paved road, which in turn led to a series of checkpoints that the rebels quickly waved the vehicles through, across several roundabouts and, finally, to the avenue that led to al-Hekma. On the final stretch there was a series of speed bumps, which jostled the injured men. Some fifteen minutes had passed by the time the pickup and the ambulance careened into the narrow driveway of the small hospital, where a tent had been set up in the parking lot as an emergency room.
Alerted over the radio that two more Western photographers were on the way to the hospital, a group of rebels, nurses, and doctors rushed out to meet the vehicles. They pulled Hetherington from the bed of the truck, loaded him onto a gurney, and hurried with him into the tent. Others removed the stretcher on which Hondros lay and rushed him into the main hospital, to the small ICU.
Inside the tent were the other two photographers who had been injured in the attack — an American, Michael Christopher Brown, who was one of the men Cervera had pushed into the car, and a Brit, Guy Martin, who had been transported in another pickup truck. There were also perhaps six injured rebels, some with equally grave injuries, though they would not be mentioned in later news accounts. At least three rebels were dead, or soon would be. Hetherington had by now lost consciousness, and was possibly dead, but for ten or fifteen minutes a group of Italian and Libyan doctors pushed violently against his chest, trying to resuscitate him. A rebel photographer named Mohammed al-Zawwam filmed the scene with his video camera, pushing his way through the crowd, now and then bumping into someone so that his footage veers wildly from the men on the gurneys to the floor to the back of someone's head. At the point where he comes upon Hetherington, we hear him say, off camera, "Tim," in surprise and recognition. He then focuses on Hetherington's body for a long moment and zooms in on his face, close enough to pick up the stubble on his chin.
As al-Zawwam filmed, a Brazilian photographer with a dark, manicured beard, whose hair was trimmed into a kind of soccer mullet, observed him getting in the way of the doctors and nurses and kicked him. A moment later, the Brazilian, whose name was André Liohn, saw Cervera standing off to the side and said, angrily, "I told you, you shouldn't have been there." Liohn would later post a message on his Facebook page that said, "Sad news. Tim Hetherington has died just now in the Misrata hospital when covering the frontline, Chris Hondros is in a serious state."CHAPTER 2
In the summer of 2003 a Liberian rebel named Black Diamond was roaming the remote garrison of Tubmanburg, Liberia, when she saw Tim Hetherington sitting on the balcony of a house that belonged to her leader, General Cobra. At the time, the West African nation was in the midst of its second civil war in a little more than a decade, and Black Diamond was in charge of a group of female fighters. Her life had an ecclesiastical aspect. She had joined the rebels after being raped at seventeen by government soldiers who had killed her parents, and she was known as a relentless, fearsome fighter. Later in the summer she would be featured in a BBC report called "Liberia's Women Killers" for which she posed with a pistol and an AK-47. She was rumored to have castrated enemy soldiers, though she declined to publicly verify or deny the claims. Her exploits eventually became so notorious that some Liberians thought she was a myth.
In that context, the arrival of a tall, handsome, stranger, a white man who seemed to be having a good time, struck her as odd. Black Diamond had heard that two white men were scheduled to arrive in Tubmanburg to film the rebels during their assault on the Liberian capital, Monrovia, but by the time the journalist Sebastian Junger interviewed her in 2011 for a documentary film about Hetherington's life, after he'd been killed in the North African nation of Libya, she had transformed Hetherington into something of a legend, an apparition. In the lilting patois of Liberian English, she said her first thought was, "Wow, what a strange guy ... what a handsome man doing in the lion den?"
Black Diamond and her female compatriots, including many who had likewise been raped by government soldiers, were part of a rebel group known as LURD, which stood for Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, a lofty name that belied a violent history in a place long noted for violence. Hetherington and the filmmaker James Brabazon had traveled to Liberia to accompany LURD during its second assault on Monrovia. Junger would later become a friend and professional collaborator of Hetherington's and, in the summer of 2003, had been reporting on the war from inside Monrovia, on the other side.
Hetherington stood out in a crowd, and his appearance unsettled Black Diamond, she said. She was unsure why such a man would give up a comfortable life to put himself at risk in someone else's civil war. During his eight years as a photographer covering numerous wars, conflict zones, and other places of human disaster, which began that summer in Liberia, Hetherington would ponder the question himself. It seemed at times as if war photographers were vultures and, at others, part of the conscience of the world. Going back and forth between war zones and the comforts of home tended to make such photographers perennial outsiders.
The simple answer is that a war photographer is someone who makes his living photographing wars — someone like Robert Capa or Larry Burrows, who put their lives at risk to illuminate what was happening in the world's dark and violent recesses, and meanwhile brought high drama to the mass media. Hetherington was among the best known photographers covering war at the time of his death, but his interests extended beyond what journalists call "bang-bang" photos. Often his war photographs are not of combat itself but of faces and telling details about the people caught up in the conflict. He tended to immerse himself in their world, and to stay there longer than most of his peers, who tended to show up, snap dramatic photos, and move on. Wherever Hetherington was, he was always there. He preferred to describe himself as a maker of images, someone who told stories through a variety of media, including still photography, video, and written narratives, and he saw himself as an artist with a strong humanitarian bent. His aim, as he later put it, was to try to explain the world to the world. As it happened, there was no better place to do that — to show what mattered — than in a war zone.
The nexus of conflict photography as a journalistic discipline was, in fact, art, though its original intent was more about military strategy than the kind of storytelling that characterized Hetherington's career. The earliest precedent for war photography is generally considered to be the work of a Dutch painter named Willem van de Velde the Elder, who in 1666 rowed out in a small boat to sketch an encounter between the Dutch and British navies during what was known as the Four Days Battle. Van de Velde later used his drawings as the basis for heroic oil paintings, as well as to acquire a commission from the British government to sketch naval battles for official review. Numerous other painters followed suit in subsequent wars. The British war photographer Roger Fenton also started out as a painter in the mid-nineteenth century. After visiting an exhibition of photography in London in 1851, he studied photography for two years, then got an assignment to cover the Crimean War, also for England and, again, for official, strategic purposes. In the United States the painter Mathew Brady started photographing in the 1840s and later became famous for his photos of the American Civil War, including graphic images of corpses, which was a new phenomenon that brought home the reality of war in a less stylized, sanitized format. Both Brady and Fenton were limited in their choice of subjects by the slowness and awkwardness of their equipment; because of the necessary length of exposure times subjects had to be still, which meant that they primarily photographed landscapes, buildings, and people who were posed, much as they would have been for a painter. As a result, the first photographic images of war were, like many of Hetherington's own combat portraits, carefully framed and comparatively static. Their subjects — the live ones, at least — had time to think about how they were being recorded and tended to consciously play the role. So did Fenton and Brady, who in some cases staged their photos.
War photographers hit their stride during World War II, and by then most had their own agendas — to share the drama with the public. Among the first well-known war photographers was Robert Capa, who covered the Spanish Civil War, World War II, and the First Indochina War, where in 1954 he was killed by a landmine. The role of war photographers became pivotal during the Vietnam War, when photographers such as Burrows — another Brit who, like Capa and Hetherington, died at war — brought home powerful images that not only entertained the public but illustrated precisely and on an intimate level what was at stake in war.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Here I Am"
Copyright © 2013 Alan Huffman.
Excerpted by permission of Grove Atlantic, Inc..
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Table of Contents
1 Misrata, Libya, April 20, 2011,
2 From England,
6 Across Africa and South Asia,
9 Libya and the Arab Spring,
10 Zeroing in: Benghazi to Misrata,
11 The Siege of Misrata,
12 The Front Line, April, 2011,
13 In the Eye of the Story,
14 Tripoli Street,
15 The Mortar Attack,
17 "That Town",
What People are Saying About This
“I don’t think I fully understood how brave my good friend Tim Hetherington was until reading these pages. Not only does Huffman bring Tim back to life his brilliant work, his extraordinary vision but he also leads us through some of the most harrowing combat of our generation. His description of the siege of Misrata should be read by anyone who imagines they understand war or courage, or fear. For all my time as a war reporter, I don't think I fully understood those things until reading Huffman's incredible book.”Sebastian Junger
“Huffman recounts Hetherington’s career in chapters that expand on the many conflicts the photographer covered: The Liberian civil war; the genocide in Sudan. . . the American occupation of Afghanistan. . . and succeeds in immersing us in Hetherington’s daily reality while in conflict zones. . . . Many excellent interviews with friends and colleagues add a personal dimension to the photographer’s extraordinary life.”The Columbia Journalism Review
“Huffman recounts the career arc of British-born and -educated Hetherington while simultaneously providing insights into the mentality of war photographers during the past century. . . . A first-rate biographical portrait that also deserves accolades for its insights into the minds of adventure-seeking photographers.”Kirkus Reviews
“Compelling . . . Huffman details Hetherington’s early career, friendships, and experiences with rebels in Africa, and influences and aesthetic struggles. . . and offers perspectives from firsthand sources to unveil the heroism and errors of his final days.”Publishers Weekly
“From American journalist Alan Huffman comes Here I Am: The Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer. . . a biography about the photojournalist famous for his iconic photos of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, who was killed in 2011 by a mortar blast during the Libyan civil war.”Quill & Quire (Spring Preview 2013)
“Huffman details the life of a man who wasn’t satisfied to record images but wanted to understand the causes behind the war, the histories of conflict, and the individualsmany, adolescentscaught in the horror and drama of war. Through Hetherington’s extraordinary life, Huffman explores a dangerous profession and how one man pursued it with his own personal twist.”Booklist