Sebastian Junger learned of Tim Hetherington’s death via social media. The news came less than two months after the pair had reveled in the excess of the 2011 Academy Awards, where they were nominated for the war documentary “Restrepo.”
That seems somehow fitting since the 40-year-old Hetherington — in contrast to some photojournalists who prefer to maintain an objective distance from their subjects — was always reaching out and trying to connect to those people he covered.
“I got a phone call that Tim had been hurt. I had never done this before, but I put Tim’s name in Twitter and it (his death) came up. Of course, that’s not confirmation, but it looked pretty bad,” Junger recalls.
The author, journalist and filmmaker celebrates his friend and colleague in the new documentary, “Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” premiering at 7 p.m. Thursday on HBO. Junger was recently in Austin for a screening of the film at the LBJ Library and a taping of KLRU’s “Overheard.”
Hetherington and fellow war journalist Chris Hondros were killed in Misrata, Libya, alongside rebels who were trying to oust leader Moammar Gadhafi; a regime artillery shell launched shrapnel into Hetherington’s body, causing fatal blood loss.
“I was supposed to be with Tim on that assignment. At the last minute, I had to change my plans, and he went on his own,” Junger says. The last communication between the friends was Junger’s email message to Hetherington expressing concern about the danger of the trip and reminding him to be careful.
Junger organized a memorial service in New York City and interviewed a number of journalists present who had been with Hetherington during the deadly mortar attack. Those interviews motivated Junger to create this documentary.
The stunning film is filled with beautiful and devastating examples of Hetherington’s still photography as well as harrowing war zone video. It covers his travels from Liberia, where he went to photograph children playing football in 1999 (two years into the reign of Charles Taylor) through his death in 2011.
Using “Trojan horse” photography, Hetherington was able to create a deeply moving collection of photographs about Liberia’s civil war disguised as pictures of sport. Later, he would travel with a group of rebel soldiers to Monrovia, the country’s capital, where they attempted to remove Taylor from power.
There’s no question that Hetherington was brave, but the film resists depicting its subject as an action hero. During the firefights near Monrovia, Hetherington begins to doubt the wisdom of his mission, fearing that he will let his friends and family down by being killed in pursuit of “a picture.”
He engaged deeply with the subjects of his photographs. “I’ve got to talk to them,” he says in the film. Hetherington held his camera low against his body, peering down into it to frame shots so that his face would always be visible.
“He was a big, outgoing, friendly, beautiful person. Tim could just walk up to someone in the street and plug into them,” Junger says. “But in the end, that’s what journalism is — connecting to people.”
The film depicts a different kind of connection through footage from the months Junger and Hetherington spent embedded with United States soldiers in Afghanistan while filming for “Restrepo.”
The photographer was surprised by the amount of combat taking place in Afghanistan while the world was focused on Iraq, and he was fascinated by these men and their connections to war and boredom at the outpost he came to refer to as a kind of “Man Eden.”
“Tim was looking for the truth of combat as a form of bonding,” Junger notes. “And what he saw with his camera in this environment of killing, fear and hardness was connection.”
Hetherington shot his “Sleeping Soldiers” series there, depicting the warriors as vulnerable and peaceful, images he felt Americans never had the opportunity to see.
His experiences in Afghanistan led him to the opinion that the relationship shared by these men had nothing to do with war or politics — they were just a group of young men thrust together who were looking out for each other so they could all survive and go home.
Hetherington arrived home from Afghanistan and its close calls, the film suggests, with the sense that it was time to retire from combat reporting. But his girlfriend and colleague, director Idil Ibrahim, proposes in “Which Way” that the journalist found himself uncomfortable being at the Oscars in a tuxedo while his colleagues were documenting devastation in the Arab world.
He had grappled with the issue before. His 2010 film, “Diary,” was a deeply personal attempt to visually explain “what it feels like to be in Times Square one moment (and) being shot at in Afghanistan the next.”
Despite the concern of his parents, friends and colleagues, Hetherington returned to Libya, heading to the front line. He and his group of fighters and journalists retreated early the day he would be killed when a rebel soldier in their group was shot in the head, but Hetherington returned to the front line later the same day.
“There’s an enormous amount of adrenaline involved in being on a front line,” Junger explains. “And I think Tim went over there thinking that he could sort of stay off the sauce.” While Junger wonders why Tim went back “for a second helping,” he thinks he knows the answer.
“Front lines have a huge sort of gravitational pull, and it exerts that pull on just about everyone who considers themselves a war journalist.”
Junger’s thoughts about the “Restrepo” soldiers at the end of “Which Way” could just as easily be about Hetherington:
“The core reality of war isn’t that you might get killed out there. That’s obvious,” he says. “The core truth of war is that you’re guaranteed to lose your brothers. And now you’ve lost a brother and you know everything you need to know about it.”
“Which Way is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington”
7 p.m. Thursday