Acclaimed war photographer Tim Hetherington “saw very little distinction between being a journalist, a humanitarian, an observer, a witness, or a participant.”
Seeking out the man behind the lens, journalist Alan Huffman, author of “Sultana,” investigates not only the significant life of his subject, whom he admires greatly, but also the craft of the war photographer and the tensions and contradictions involved in “showcasing images of war that could get you killed if you stared at them too long.” Ultimately, that’s exactly what happened to Hetherington, after he found himself in an unnecessarily dangerous situation.
After traveling through Asia and then graduating from the photojournalism program at Cardiff University, Hetherington drifted through a grab bag of freelance jobs until, in 1999, “he began to find his focus” through his coverage of a Liberian soccer team touring the United Kingdom. Many of the players were soldiers in the first Liberian civil war, and they were seeking a photographer to document their travels back in Liberia. So began Hetherington’s prolific career as a war photographer who “abhorred the inhumanity of war yet was attracted to understanding its origins and ramifications.” Though Huffman provides little detailed information of Hetherington’s personal life, it becomes clear that his subject dedicated nearly all his time to his craft.
Huffman starts off in 2011 with a tense recounting of the firefight in Misrata, Libya, during which Hetherington was fatally injured in a mortar blast. The photographer died an hour later of blood loss. Then the author retreats to 2003, when Hetherington and documentary filmmaker James Brabazon, author of “My Friend the Mercenary,” were embedded with the rebel forces of the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy, who were fighting against Charles Taylor’s brutal dictatorship.
It was here that Hetherington established two of the main themes guiding his work: “the complex, persistent, and often baffling relationship between young men and war” and a “search for beauty amid scenes otherwise characterized by sadness, terror, or despair.” Ultimately, though, both Hetherington and Brabazon were forced to flee to neighboring Sierra Leone when Taylor put a bounty on their heads.
Hetherington returned to Britain but quickly became restless with life at home — as Huffman notes, “Going back and forth between war zones and the comforts of home tended to make [war] photographers perennial outsiders” — so he returned to Liberia before moving on to Afghanistan in 2007, where he worked for the next year-plus with Sebastian Junger on the Oscar-nominated documentary “Restrepo.” In the Korengal Valley, he witnessed firsthand the heroics of Specialist Salvatore Giunta, who would become the first living soldier since the Vietnam War to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Much of the rest of the narrative concerns Hetherington’s work in Libya, from Benghazi to Misrata, and Huffman excels at heightening the drama, depicting the rapid-fire action and constant danger of working among soldiers and guerrillas engaged in battle. The author also makes good use of lengthy quotations from those who knew Hetherington, including Brabazon, Junger, and, later, fellow photographers Chris Hondros, Guy Martin, and Katie Orlinsky. The urgent immediacy of Hetherington’s exploits is never far from the surface — nor is his grappling with the tension between the desire to document the true experiences and the fear of exploitation of his subjects.
In the end, his commitment, which often blinded him to potential danger, contributed to his death in Misrata, an incident that, given its attendant risks, many of his contemporaries believe could have been avoided. And though his career was blessed with numerous awards and widespread acclaim, the lasting impression of this admirable photographer and humanitarian is one of hyperfocused dedication to his cause, the “power of images . . . to spark dialogue about what was happening in the world.”
Eric Liebetrau is the managing editor and nonfiction editor of Kirkus Reviews.