Photographer-Filmmaker Crosses Borders with Masterful Storytelling

November 26, 2009 Updated: December 6, 2009
(Tim Hetherington)
(Tim Hetherington)

NEW YORK—There’s no way to succinctly describe Tim Hetherington. You could call him a photojournalist, but that leaves out his work as a filmmaker. You could say he’s a writer, but that’s a narrow definition of his prowess as a storyteller using multimedia.

In a way, the London native who transplanted himself to New York is a perfect example of new trends in journalism. But don’t tell Hetherington that—he’s worked hard to not be put into a category.

“I like ideas,” says Mr. Hetherington. “I’m not interested in being relegated into the shoebox of photographers, into an art gallery, the way that photographers are taught to by mainstream discussion.”

He seems to be succeeding so far at being hard to pin down. Hetherington is a successful photogpraher-filmmaker with a new book "Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold." He also has a feature-length documentary about a platoon of U.S. Airborne soldiers in Afghanistan due out in May next year that he made with his Vanity Fair colleague Sebastian Junger. He’ll also have an accompanying book of photographs that have barely been seen.

One photograph from his time in Afghanistan, of a weary soldier resting, already garnered him the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year.

Hetherington and Junger’s projects are the fruits of one year of going back and forth to Afghanistan, documenting the lives of the troops there. He says the documentary doesn’t have a political theme, though.

“It’s a story of loss of innocence—it’s a portrait of young men at war,” he says. “It’s also a commentary on the counter-insurgency war.”

His documentary and book are being eagerly anticipated, but Hetherington hasn’t let success go to his head. After 12 years of hard work in the field, he stays close to the basics.

(Tim Hetherington)
(Tim Hetherington)
“The best pictures are honest images,” says Mr. Hetherington. “Images tell us about the world and about ourselves in many different ways and in many different layers.”

He also doesn’t get far in a conversation without floating an idea or concept, and sometimes they are in his head for months or years.

“[If] I have what I think is a good idea and it excites me, I’ll let it rattle around like a pea in the tin can upstairs,” he jokes. Sometimes the ideas work. “It’s about the process. You’ve got these photographers that have styles—the old mantra was you have to have a style. You can be identified in the marketplace and sold and packaged. Actually I’m just into the ideas.”

Hetherington’s book on Liberia is proof of this absence of a defined style. The book is full of sweeping images shot on film (not digital), and is far more than a set of photographs.

The lucid images include a range of things from abandoned buildings, to forests, to striking portrait shots. They are all dense with history and information. Beneath many of the pictures are captions detailing historical incidents in that place. The captions are also cross-referenced to related pages within the book. The unusual style is a testament to Hetherington’s way of communicating on multiple levels.

“Understanding that places exist not in a moment as photography presents them, but also in history was really important to me,” says Mr. Hetherington about his Liberia book. “I wanted to reveal through photography this kind of history of Liberia so it made sense to have these timeline captions.”

Ultimately, he feels his work as a photographer will continue to take him places, literally.

“You can always write your article about the war from the safety of the capital,” he says. “But you can’t do that as a photographer. The point of an image is that you have to be there, and that means that you have to experience and see.”

See Tim Hetherington in person in NYC: