PARK CITY, Utah: The life and work of British war photographer Tim Hetherington, who died covering fighting in Libya in 2011, is celebrated in “Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” a film presented at the Sundance Film Festival.
The doc was directed by Sebastian Junger, with whom Hetherington made an Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary about Afghanistan, “Restrepo.”
Junger still clearly recalls the call on April 20, 2011 which reported that Hetherington had been injured in Misrata, followed shortly by confirmation of the photographer’s death. At a New York memorial for his friend, Junger interviewed fellow journalists.
“Suddenly I was making a film,” he said, pointing out that Hetherington “had documented his last day of life extensively with a video camera, and that material became the beginning of [the film].
“Journalists are dying with greater and greater frequency in war zones,” he continued, “and their deaths are better and better documented because everyone, it seems – including rebel fighters – carries small video cameras.
“The well-recorded tragedy of my friend’s death, I thought, might be able to inform other journalists and the general public about the risks of the job.”
The movie was presented out of competition at Sundance, where Hetherington and Junger won the documentary Grand Jury Prize in 2010 for “Restrepo,” which recounted the life of a platoon in the Afghan war.
“Which Way is the Front Line from Here?” is produced by U.S. cable channel HBO and follows the Briton’s training and career over a decade, from his first warzone images in Liberia to his death last year at the age of 41 with fellow photographer Chris Hondros.
Born in Merseyside, he studied English literature at Oxford before deciding to become a photojournalist, living and working for several years in Africa, where he became the only photographer behind rebel lines in Liberia in 2003.
In New York he worked for Vanity Fair, winning wide praise for his work in Afghanistan, including the World Press Photo of the Year award in 2007 for a picture of an exhausted U.S. soldier on the Afghan front line.
Junger puts Hetherington’s own still and video images from his final days alongside interviews with family and friends – notably photographer James Brabazon, who was in Liberia with him and praises his talent for documentary.
“Tim was much more than just a combat reporter,” Junger agrees. “True, he initially made his name shooting video during the Liberian civil war and achieved widespread prominence with the documentary ‘Restrepo.’
“But his ultimate value as an artist lay in his ability to integrate multiple media and transcend the limitations of his profession. He refused to even call himself a photographer, preferring the more ambiguous ‘image-maker.’ That ambiguity allowed him to do almost anything he wanted, creatively speaking.”
To underline how much more his friend was at ease behind the lens than in front of it, Junger opens the film with a close-up declaration from Hetherington, hesitating over his words.
“I think the important thing for me is connecting with real people,” he finally tells the camera. “To document them even in extreme circumstances, when there is not a neat solution, when there is not a neat guideline saying ‘This is what it’s about.’ I hope this is what my work shows.”
Junger says his film “chronicles Tim’s passage from a terrified and untested photographer in Liberia to one of the masters of his profession. By necessity it is very much a war movie, but it also strives – as Tim did – to defy the expectations of the genre.
“Some of Tim’s most courageous work did not take place in war zones but in the ridiculously creative enclaves of his mind,” Junger recalls. “He never flinched from either. I hope I have made a film that does not flinch as well.”