Go to the Globe and Mail homepage

Jump to main navigationJump to main content

Getting the story: Why Hetherington and Hondros were in Libya Add to ...

After the deaths in Libya this week of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two very impressive war photographers, some friends have asked me the unsurprising question: Why do people do that job? I'm not sure how to answer that except to say that if you're asking the question, it's probably not something you're going to take up. I'm sure to them it was self-evident.

Chris and Tim were acquaintances and I feel their loss mostly through friends who are heartbroken and it is mixed with the relief that a photographer I met in Benghazi, Michael Christopher Brown, was only wounded in the same attack. One other photographer, Guy Martin, was injured seriously.

The deaths of Chris and Tim are devastating for the profession, but will not stop anyone from continuing their work. Quite the opposite, probably. Libya was the first war I have covered for a few years and I had forgotten how much I liked going to these places. A huge amount of the attraction is the friends you make while you're there.

And like many writers, I have a soft spot for photographers. One of the great and fading privileges of journalism is getting to work with them - even the epic squabbles between writers and photographers forced to work together are a source of entertainment during slow assignments.

On my first few days at the Libyan front lines, I spent a lot of time trying to track down John, a photographer whom I hadn't seen in years. Before I left home, I had noticed his byline and wanted to tell him that back at the hotel I had a bottle of whisky for him (Libya is dry).

I eventually found John next to a roadside mosque talking to another photographer. As we were talking, a truck with some wounded soldiers pulled up and John disappeared into the scrum. Just then, someone spotted a government MiG and the Shebab, as the young rebels call themselves, started firing wildly into the air. I followed another photographer off the road and hid beside him next to a small sand dune. It was comforting to be in the proverbial foxhole with a renowned war photographer. But when I glanced over, he looked worried, which in turn made me extremely worried. He told me later that he was tired of covering wars, didn't like them at all.

I knew what he meant. People talk a lot about war junkies, but I have never liked the feeling of vulnerability that comes with getting shot at or bombed. Even the adrenalin is itself nerve-racking - although the sense of relief when it's over is pleasant. Fortunately, writers can stand back from the action. For photographers, that is more difficult.

Photographers are a kind of guild, in the medieval sense, with a strong emphasis on mentoring and a lot of talk of the craft. The first time I met Tim was over lunch with two other photographers. He had just arrived in Benghazi, and the talk during the meal was whether the risks being taken were worth the results. At that point, there had been some extraordinary photographs produced, although, as time went on, one shot of a rebel in the desert was beginning to look much like another.

The conversation turned to the details of their craft and I left, teasing them about their pretentious talk of aesthetics. They insulted me genially. Photographers tend to believe that they are doing the heavy lifting, journalistically speaking, for very little reward. Certainly, they take the greatest risks.

The community to which Chris and Tim belonged has received a terrible blow. There is another community that I know must be saddened by their deaths - the people whom the photographers met in Misrata. No one is more appreciative of the risks that journalists choose to take than those who are trapped in a war. I wasn't surprised to read that the boat carrying the bodies of Tim and Chris also carried the body of a Ukrainian doctor killed in the fighting. Anonymous to us but no less appreciated, I'm sure, by the people they all went to help.

Patrick Graham is a Canadian freelance journalist.

 

In the know

Most popular videos »

Highlights

More from The Globe and Mail

Most popular