"I'm a big white guy in their country. To pretend otherwise is stupid," says Tim Hetherington - the subject of this documentary by sometimes working partner and all times close friend Sebastian Junger.
Hetherington's photography has always been about the intimacy of the lens and the opportunity for interaction it offers, Junger's film reveals. The photographer, who died at work in Libya in 2011, focused on establishing relationships first, and creating pictures second. Photography was for him about "the need to build bridges to people," about finding ways to use images and the process of getting them to get closer to people and get closer to understanding them. This is something that Junger makes great strides to get across in his film - part collage, part eulogy - before seeing, perhaps in the edit room, certainly in the flesh, that this is something Hetherington conveys himself, in his work and in his words.
Junger explores Hetherington's relationships as much as his career, the power of his photographs and the power of his person, and if he weren't so obviously personable it might seem too sentimental. In the film, the footage offers more than the contributions - though this is no discredit to the filmmaker. Seeing the artist in his element is always more convincing than having others retail it. One interviewed moment that stands out is a scene where Hetherington's videographer partner in Liberia talks about a scenario where Hetherington intervened, to lifesaving effect, in a potential murder of a medic thought to be a spy. As he describes Hetherington;s bravery, he bluntly describes his own instinctual reaction to the situation - "to step back and get the execution in wide-shot." This admission is not said with remorse as might be expected, but unapologetically. Hetherington's compassion was an exception, not the rule.
It is known that guilt has ruined many war photographers, and that being privy to so much suffering pays a toll, but to see the antithesis of this, a hardened professionalism, an almost immunity to the horrors of conflict is thought provoking. Hetherington operated outside of the expected 'rules of engagement' as it were, and it perhaps why his images are unique. Hetherington was far from immune, Junger examines late in the film his increasing awareness of his involvement in the 'theatre of war,' the reflexivity of the image in relation to combat, and how men see themselves in war in relation to images of themselves and those of other soldiers through history. This serves more to humanise Hetherington than to explore the fundamentals of the question.
The tone of the doc is celebratory, sometimes adulatory, but this becomes forgivable once it is clear how incredibly personable Hetherington is. Its not so much that Junger and his contributors want to eulogise him, its that they can't help themselves. You can't fault friends for looking back fondly. But importantly, Junger is careful to avoid deification, as the film explores finally the terrible lure of working in conflict zones. This addiction to danger, that many in his position are prone to, led Hetherington to return to war torn areas even when he himself felt his time in that world was up. In a uncomfortably prescient press conference, Hetherington admits that most of the photographers who die at war, do so because they either are too old to keep up with the danger, or too used to it to notice it.
Hetherington, whose forte became finding "images of reflection in moments of conflict," it seems became drawn as much to the violence as the peace. While his work in Afghanisation, where he stayed a year embedded within a unit, (a year which is captured in the film Restrepo, which Junger and Hetherington were nominated for an Oscar for) focused largely on the camaraderie found in the inactivity of war, it was the violence he experienced in Liberia, where he followed rebel soldiers for an extended period, that held the ultimate draw over him. In Afghanistan, he made an amazing series of pictures of sleeping soldiers, showing the boys sent to die behind the men out to fight, as if to counteract his part in contributing to the light of violence and power that most soldiers want to be portrayed in. Yet, in Libya, tragically he is back to the frontline - the title is a quote from footage on his last day. Photographers will always look for the point of most impact.
Yet, at one point, Hetherington states on a recording somewhat unexpectedly: "I have no interest in photography per say. I'm interested in engaging people." It seems odd for someone who dedicated their life to an art to sideline the practise so brashly, but when you come to understand Hetherington as Junger presents him, it makes more sense. His interest was in people, photography just gave him a means to address them.