Just before dawn, I awoke inside my tent to the voice of a BBC broadcaster crackling through a shortwave radio. The initial phrases of her report were lost in my half conscious state. “Those killed were Tim Hetherington, whose recent documentary film about Afghanistan was nominated for an Academy Award and Chris Hondros, an award winning photojournalist,” she announced. Her words seared through my exhausted mind. I scrambled from my tent, wearing only my underwear, and charged toward the guard who held the radio on his lap. He was alarmed by my urgency. While I was sure I’d heard her correctly, I held out hope that I’d misunderstood some critical part of the statement.
By the time I reached the guard, the reporter had moved on to address other developments of the day. I stood in the middle of the county commissioners compound, nearly nude, in a state of shock and frustration. In such a remote area, I had no way of verifying what I thought I heard. No television, internet or phone network exists in this remote part of southern Sudan. At that twilight hour, blurry-eyed southern Sudanese stared at me as they washed their faces and brushed their teeth with the stocks of plants. I scratched my head and looked foolishly around for anything that might provide additional information.
With a knot in my stomach, I collapsed my tent and packed my things. I got into the truck and headed to Mariel Lou, a sandspeck village in Tonj North county. I had planned to meet a fellow photographer, Cedric Gerbehaye, who is also working to document the situation in southern Sudan. When I reached the compound where he’d been staying, I learned that he’d moved into remote field areas and would not return for several days. I left a note, explaining what I thought I’d heard on the radio. “I’m fairly certain that I heard a radio report this morning stating that Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington had been killed. I hope I’m wrong. It’s a terrible loss if so,” I wrote.
It was not until that evening, when I called my fiancée on a satellite phone, that my hopes of misunderstanding the report were put to rest. Tim and Chris and been killed during heavy fighting in the Libyan city of Misrata. “It’s all over the internet,” she said. In pitch darkness, hundreds of miles from anywhere, I stood in disheartened shock.
I never had the good fortune to meet either of these men. I’d always hoped that our paths would cross at a party in Brooklyn or out in some conflicted part of the world. I’d found tremendous inspiration in their respective bodies of work. In fact, Chris’s 2003 photograph of a Liberian rebel leaping though the air after firing an RPG on a bridge in Monrovia was one of the images that inspired me to work as a photojournalist. Tim’s work in Liberia, Afghanistan and elsewhere haunted and inspired me deeply. I remember studying his book on Liberia, Long Story Bit by Bit, at a friend’s apartment in Red Hook last summer, thinking about how high the photographic bar really is and how much devotion is required to aptly tell these stories.
In recent months, I watched and rewatched Tim giving an interview on morning television to a group of rather obnoxious anchors. In the face of their brashness, Tim was so composed, poised and articulate. He explained his intentions when making Restrepo and outlined his view of the experiences of the American soldiers with whom he worked. He was so handsome, confident and modest. As an admitted groupie, I sometimes scoured his photos of Facebook, admiring the caring and intimate relationships he’d cultivated with the soldiers featured in Restrepo. In one particular album, he stood arm in arm with them at some highbrow reception celebrating the launch of the film. The tattooed soldiers looked out of place among the New York art crowd. They donned crooked hats, baggy tee shirts and diamond stud earrings. The handsome and sophisticated Hetherington embraced them and seemed to ease the collision of these two separate worlds.
Tim and Chris’s tragic and untimely deaths gave me great pause. As a photojournalist in a conflicted region, I associate with so many people who travel regularly to the world’s most dangerous areas. It becomes, in a sense, routine. People are constantly coming from, or heading to, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq, Somalia, Congo. In this line of work, we accept risk and to a certain degree, become desensitized to danger. Everything becomes a highly specific assessment of risk. Gelkayo is ok. Mogadishu is not. Basra is a doable, Ramadi not so much. We plan trips to war torn areas with remarkable casualness. We book assignments and social engagements for the weeks after we return from deadly regions, fully anticipating our safe escape from danger.
As I stood on the banks of the river, I thought about their homes in New York and how they must be filled with so many things that they planned to undertake upon return from Libya. I thought of their email inboxes, filled with messages that detail plans and projects that they will never get to finish. I thought about them lacing up their boots on Wednesday, having no idea that they were in their final hours. I thought of all their loved ones at home who all believed that they would see and touch and spend time with them again. I thought about their friends and colleagues, all of whom must be reeling. I image the photo community in New York, London, and Paris at a standstill, gasping for its collective breath.
I thought of the legacy they leave behind. The extraordinary documents of human drama, of struggle and war and emotion. I thought of all the places they’d seen, all the people they met during the extraordinary lives they had created. I wondered what else they might have accomplished had they lived through that day in Misrata.
When I was in college, I read a book about an eccentric humanitarian aid worker named Fred Cuny. Cuny traveled to the world’s most conflicted countries, shaking hands and trying to assist beleaguered populations. Upon departing for his final trip to Chechnya, before which he had a premonition of his own death, he left a note for his son. It read, “Don’t cry for me. I’ve lived a life that few men have. Don’t cry for me. Don’t cry for me. Don’t’ cry for me.” Cuny was killed some weeks later.
I must think of the loss of Tim and Chris in Fred Cuny’s terms. They devoted their lives to documenting the plight and suffering of others. The risked everything in order to bring to light stories and images that might have otherwise gone unnoticed. They made the ultimate sacrifice so that others might know the story of oppressed people caught in the throes of violent revolution. They lived the way so few men do. Their memory will live in the exceptional work they created and the change and awareness they helped to foster.
When I ended the call that confirmed the news of their deaths, I was speechless for many hours. My friend and translator, Monywiir, a humble and intelligent young Dinka man, urged me to focus on my work and not allow the news to distract from my immediate pursuits. Having grown up in southern Sudan’s civil war, he is no stranger to death. I decided to accept his advice.
In the evening hours, I commenced a short portrait series of cattle raiders on the banks of a river over which a war is being fought between two pastoral tribes. The following morning, clashes would erupt between the groups leaving at least three people dead and scores more wounded. The photos are shot in the signature style of Jehad Nga, a friend and inspiring photographer who himself was abducted and badly abused by Libyan authorities at the outset of this war that has shaken so many lives.
They are my humble tribute to Chris, Tim and all the brave photographers and journalists who continue to risk their lives so that others might see. They are owed a remarkable debt of gratitude from us all.