The Restrepo Man


There have been so many powerful stories lately, it is hard to catch up on them.  But one that resonated with the Petchary recently was the death of Tim Hetherington – photojournalist and filmmaker.  Tim was buried in London yesterday, May 13.  He died covering the conflict in Libya on April 20.

The first documentary film he ever directed, “Restrepo,” has aired recently on HBO.  I could not leave the television set for one moment until it ended.  I was immediately drawn into the lives of a platoon of fifteen U.S. soldiers, holding out in an area of Afghanistan called the Korengal Valley, a lonely place of dry, empty hills.  The place is considered one of the most dangerous postings anywhere, with attacks coming in from all directions, and the soldiers named it after an army medic, Private First Class Juan Restrepo, who had been killed in action a few weeks earlier.

This is not one of those fancy documentaries with special effects, reconstruction of events, cuts to interviews with senior military men, or wives, or mothers, or fellow soldiers.  It is quite simply what the  soldiers felt and experienced – boredom, anticipation, fear, pain, loneliness, homesickness.  At the end of it, you feel you have really lived with the soldiers for 90 minutes.  There is no political commentary, no agenda.  There is just being there in the Korengal Valley, and it is for you to decide how you feel at the end.

A still from "Restrepo"
A still from "Restrepo" - one of those photos that no caption really can describe. OK, "A soldier."

Tim co-directed the film with his friend, American journalist and author Sebastian Junger (he wrote “The Perfect Storm“).  It won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival.

Sebastian Junger by Tim Hetherington
A photo of Sebastian Junger by Tim Hetherington, at Restrepo

Like his co-director (who worked as one of those high-climbing tree surgeons until he was injured) Tim was obviously attracted to extreme situations.  In this film and in his subsequent book, “Infidel,” published last year, he was exploring the nature of young men and conflict.  There is something indefinable and raw about these young men, fresh from their home town, their clean faces besmirched with sweat and the dirt of a foreign land, their quickly-acquired bravado, their cursing, their boyish mock fights, their dry laughter, their noisy fortitude and their weakness.

From "Restrepo" by Tim Hetherington
A still from "Restrepo" by Tim Hetherington - young soldiers play

Tim was a remarkable combination of qualities.  Creative and artistic (he studied literature at my alma mater, Oxford University), he was a contributing photographer for “Vanity Fair” magazine and was always working on new projects – installations, poster exhibitions and the like.  Born in Liverpool in the UK, he lived in that creative and energetic city, New York.  His photographs form part of a group project, “Tales of a Globalizing World” (published by Thames and Hudson in 2003).

But there was nothing superficial or artsy about him, it seems to me.  He tried to understand the nature of humans, the harshness of their relationships, politics and the wearing away of human rights and the dirt and the anger.  He lived and worked in Liberia, West Africa for eight years, and was cameraman for another documentary, “Liberia: An Uncivil War” (2004).  The result of this was also “Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold” (2009) – a compilation of images and interviews over a five-year period.

Boy with rifle, Liberia
Boy with rifle, Liberia by Tim Hetherington

Human Rights Watch used him as their first assigned photographer; he worked with them in Chad, Darfur and Sri Lanka.  HRW has called Tim’s death “a devastating loss to the human rights community. His work has raised the visibility of many of the world’s forgotten conflicts.”

Tim was killed by one of Colonel Ghadafhi’s mortar bombs in the town of Misrata, Libya.  Here is a wonderful photo of him just a few weeks earlier in Benghazi.

File photo of photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington working at a rally in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in Libya
Tim Hetherington at a rally in Benghazi, Libya on March 25, 2011

And one should not forget that another photojournalist was mortally wounded alongside him on that sad day:  Chris Hondros, the New Yorker son of Greek immigrants and an astounding photographer.  He was senior staff photographer for Getty Images and Tim died beside him as they sheltered against a wall from the battle.  The wall was hit by a shell.

Chris Hondros on assignment
Chris Hondros, half-smiling amidst desolation and deprivation

The Petchary wonders where such a strong love of life and human beings comes from, in someone who has seen so much anguish and struggle, so much complete horror.  But perhaps, without that love, these photographs would not have their impact.  It is more than emotion.  It is who we are.

Bridesmaid, Liberia
A young bridesmaid stands aside as newlyweds pose next to a monument outside the Centennial Memorial Pavilion after their wedding ceremony. A photo taken in Liberia by Tim Hetherington.

And there is, after all, always hope.

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5 thoughts on “The Restrepo Man

    1. Thank you. The documentary itself was moving and it led me to read and learn more about Tim Hetherington – and the others who do this very dangerous work. I should have added a note about the well-known photo-journalist (a German woman) who was killed in Afghanistan earlier this month. Perhaps I will write something about her, too.

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  1. Reblogged this on Petchary's Blog and commented:

    I am re-blogging this piece I wrote three years ago, after viewing the incredibly moving HBO documentary “Restrepo.” Today is the third anniversary of the death of Tim Hetherington, the photo-journalist who co-directed the film, in Misrata, Libya. An American colleague, Chris Hondros, was mortally wounded alongside him. These brilliant, brave men risk their lives every day to bring us the dramatic footage we see on our newscasts every evening. Let us not forget Tim and Chris.

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