There are many war photographers. There are photographers who go to the front line to capture the mechanics of conflict, the weapons, the fighting and the violence. Then there was Tim Hetherington, who took pictures of war yet wasn’t a war photographer. With his images he sought to capture all manner of human emotions crystallized. At the root of his work was intimacy and personalisation. He was deeply attached to his subjects and wanted to show the suffering of war on a closer, individual level rather than just the objective truths of battle.
This emotionally charged and enlightening documentary from HBO is an insight into the life and mind of this extraordinary man who was killed aged 40, while covering the front lines in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya, in 2011. He had recently received an Oscar nomination for his documentary ‘Restrepo’, which later went on to win an Academy award. He had co-directed it with his friend Sebastian Junker, who has also directed this reflective documentary. Its success is largely down to his insight and to the skilled editing by Geeta Gandbhir and Maya Mumma. Tim’s public life also helped aid the making of the film as there was a wide archive of interviews with him on the topic of his work. These are balanced with footage of him on location and his friends and family reflecting on what made him so remarkable.
We are also shown slideshows of his striking photographs, primarily in West Africa and the Middle East where he dedicated most of his career. Some of the most powerful images come from his ‘Sleeping Soliders’ series, which were taken of American soldiers asleep in Afganisthan on a rare uneventful day. He saw the potential for transforming established romantic ideals of bravery and honour, and exposed their vulnerability. He was fascinated by how men interact during war, how they view themselves in their role, and the depth of emotion felt in a war zone that cannot be reproduced in ordinary society.
After studying English Literature at Oxford, Tim travelled in China and Tibet for two years before studying Photojournalism at Cardiff University. According to his tutor he was the only “modern student, he embraced multi-media”. When given a project on hospitals, he was the only student to spend a whole 24 hours in A&E. In 2003 he was asked to photograph the conflict in Liberia, where he spent time with the Rebels who were trying to oust President Taylor and overcome one of the most severe regimes in West Africa. Tim said he wasn’t “interested in in photography per say”, but he was enamored with human nature and the theatrics of war. His father remarked ‘Tim seldom became a tourist”, and that he had a unique ability to connect with people.
In one stirring moment, his friend recalls the time when Tim had risked his own life to negotiate another mans death. A medic helping the Rebel army in Liberia was almost executed as they were convinced he was a government spy. Rather than getting his camera ready, Tim stood in front of the gun and began making peace. Later that day, the medic was back helping people again. Tim stayed in West Africa for years acting as a mentor, teacher, humanitarian and investigator. Which way is the Front Line from here? is of course, not an enjoyable watch, but an educational and inspiring one. This film clearly came together organically and is the ideal tribute to a man of endless talents and virtues.