Its hard to understand why something has the ability to punch you in the figurative gut. Something so far removed from you that it should barely register a reaction. Yet, it steals your breath anyway. That happened to me this week – with a tweet. The offending tweet (from a breaking news thread) said, “Reports: renowned war photojournalists Chris Hondros, Tim Hetherington killed in Libya. Details sketchy; awaiting more.”
I don’t know why this news struck me so very hard. These are not the first journalists to be killed in a war zone – but Tim Hetherington is the first journalist whose work I have studied to be killed so shockingly, and yet so predictably. It registered. It hurt. Not for me personally, it hurt for everyone who knew him. It hurt for the people whose lives he brought to light. It hurt for the stories he won’t get to tell. It hurt because people you admire shouldn’t die. Not like that. At least not in a perfect world. But then again, in a perfect world there wouldn’t be a profession called “War Photojournalist.”
Hetherington is best know for the documentary film Restrepo, which he directed with Sebastian Junger. It was nominated for an Oscar this past winter. I’ve read Junger’s book on the same events as the film – called War, and seen parts, though admittedly not all of Restrepo. It is about the time Junger and Hetherington spent embedded with a group of American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. My post, Sebastian Junger’s War Zone ruminates on the book and on the topic of war. But looking back on it, I can’t help but feel deeply how little I know about war.
There has been a lot of coverage of Hetherington and Hondros’ deaths, but the People Magazine of it all isn’t the story I hope most people will read to find out about these men, and the circumstances under which they died. Sebastian Junger has a tribute in Vanity Fair written as a personal letter to Hetherington that drips with grief and beauty. Susan Orlean has a post in The New Yorker about Hetherington and what it is to be brave. New York Times war correspondent C.J. Chivers has a post on his personal website, Almost Dawn in Libya: Chris and Tim heading home, that pauses amidst the chaos of tragedy to thank the people and groups that tried so hard to save, and then do right by the fallen photojournalists. These are the stories that I hope people will read. It is a tall order to memorialize the fallen, but these writers give it a damn good try.