Why Tim Hetherington Risked His Life for His Art

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Tim Hetherington

The Oscar nominated "Restrepo" co-director was killed this week in Libya.

What was it that drove Tim Hetherington, co-director of the Oscar-nominated Afghanistan doc Restrepo, back again and again to combat zones, until shrapnel killed him in Libya this week? I believe it was the ambition of an artist out to break with convention in search of emotional truth.

I first heard Hetherington speak at length about his art when I was randomly seated with him at February's Oscar nominees' lunch. He told me the starry Oscar court scared him way more than dictator Charles Taylor, who ordered Hetherington's execution when he was behind rebel lines in the 2003 Liberian war. But he bonded with fellow artist James Franco at the same table.

READ: Filmmakers risked their lives to shoot DGA-nominated 'Restrepo'

"I'm new to all this, the dynamic of Oscars," Hetherington told me later. "So I just mentioned I knew his work and we sparked on the conversation." Like Franco, Hetherington disregarded art boundaries: His Afghanistan work spawned the film, the brilliant art book Infidel and an art installation, Sleeping Soldiers. "News and entertainment are the two primary ways we accrue images into our visual library," said Hetherington. "Things are getting more and more open, and boundaries are breaking down between media. You're image makers, you kind of mine your craft in different kind of ways."

Tim Hetherington: Sleeping Soldiers Excerpt from Heather Morton on Vimeo.

His own book was essentially esthetic in intent. "It's stuff that's not traditional war photography," he said. "It expands the genre." Likewise, his art installation was far from the macho inclinations of some war correspondents. "I used lots of visual images you don't usually see, like images of soldiers sleeping," he told me. "They look almost like nudes. They're very soft and intimate pictures, much more conceptual [than what's conventional]."

Hetherington made plans to see Franco at the Rhode Island School of Design: "We exchanged emails. But I had to go back to Afghanistan."

Had Hetherington survived Libya, he might have returned from the war zone to the art zone. In Restrepo co-director Sebastian Junger's letter to his fallen friend in Vanity Fair, he writes, "Before this last trip you told me that you wanted to make a film about the relationship between young men and violence. You had this idea that young men in combat act in ways that emulate images they’ve seen — movies, photographs ... You had this idea of a feedback loop between the world of images and the world of men that continually reinforced and altered itself as one war inevitably replaced another in the long tragic grind of human affairs."

It's also possible that Hetherington would have been drawn back into combat. Risk, writes Junger, "was the beautiful woman we were both in love with, right? The one who made us feel the most special, the most alive? We were always trying to have one more dance with her without paying the price ... in the end, you were the one she chose."

Hetherington was amazingly cavalier about danger. He talked about bullets as if they were a pesky annoyance, like mosquitos. "When I first went [to Afghanistan]," he told Moving Pictures magazine, "I thought, you know, we're gonna walk around and be shot at a little, and talk to the village elders, and it would be pretty calm." Instead, he'd walked into the location of 80 percent of the war's combat, with ordnance that dwarfed mere bullets.

In a haunting 2010 Flip-cam interview with Anne Thompson, he said, "I can count on a single hand times where I'm in a situation where I think I'm gonna be killed, and gone much further -- not just killed like, 'Aw, I could've been shot,' but really a situation where you think like, this is it. I've gone too far now. My family's going to be so angry with me, they're going to be so upset. What have I done?"

VIDEO: See Tim Hetherington's Last Documentary Short 'Diary'

Hetherington's work is a deeply emotional experience, and so is simply reading or watching him talk about it. Bouncing between the real world and that of war took its toll on him, too. "It's always tough to come back from a situation where … you suddenly switch off the adrenaline," he told Moving Pictures. "You're used to the rush and suddenly it's finished." He told Thompson, "It's like you're being drip-fed adrenaline, and then one day somebody just switches off that valve, and that also leads to depression, you know, it leads to a trough that you try and come out of."

He meant to come out of the depths with a work of art. He told Thompson that, great as The Hurt Locker was, Restrepo better captured war's elusive truth, and nobody got the shots he and Junger did. "There's only been two IED (improvised explosive device] scenes from inside a Humvee, where you've been blown up [as Junger was, though he survived]. And I've never known of a situation where somebody's filmed people crying over their friends, the body of their dead friends. So I think there's a lot of stuff in the film that is completely unique to documentary." I've never seen a war movie that's emotionally immersive in quite the way Restrepo is. Truffaut said it's impossible to make an anti-war movie, because it's such a thrilling cinematic subject. But Truffaut never saw Restrepo.

At 40, Hetherington was a great journalist, as Junger remains. But Nan Richardson, publisher of his Liberia book, tells THR, “He was an artist above all. He saw all he did -- the photography, film, writing/reporting -- as a means to some distillation of meaning.” As Junger told THR, "Journalism is about the politics and the start of war, and that's the proper role. Documentaries have a different responsibility: to affect people emotionally. To get them crying, talking, and discussing these incredibly important topics."

“His life’s work was just beginning,” says Richardson.