Remembering Tim Hetherington Through Restrepo

Left, photograph ©Matt Stuart

I caught wind about the death of Tim Hetherington earlier than most because during the week I always have one eye on Twitter, and that’s where the story broke. Naturally it was shocking and sad, but as media junkie I was also interested in the development of the story.

Early on I posted a link to the story when the details were still sketchy and unconfirmed, but then quickly deleted it when there were requests to not spread the word in order to keep the families from finding out through social media. I was conflicted because it was certainly news but I also understood the tact in keeping silent. Eventually, I sided on maintaining a private thread on Facebook rather than reporting much on Twitter until it was confirmed through legit sources.

I think we all know the background and rather than talking about the tragedy, I’d rather talk a bit about Tim Hetherington’s film Restrepo because in terms of stories about the conflict in Afghanistan, it resonated with me more than anything else I’ve seen. In fact, it was one of those rare experiences when I was completely transfixed as the film ended.

I’m a bit of a Netflix streaming addict and tend to know quickly when new films are available. When Restrepo popped up I tweeted out the news immediately, but it took me a few days to actually watch the film. I was apprehensive because I’ve tried to ignore the fucked up situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Giving a shit just takes so much out of you, especially when you really put forth an effort to understand the complexity of a situation.

After about a week I was finally in the mood to watch the film. From the get go, it wasn’t what I expected. The intimacy between the filmmakers and the subjects became apparent in the opening moments when the platoon is being deployed. Right away, you know you’re there with the troops and there’s no turning back.

The film gets its title from an early tragedy and that sets the tone for the rest of the film. The prospect of death is always present. No matter how the platoon tries to cope, it’s there with them because of Restrepo. It’s also there with us as we become immersed in the details of their mission.

The platoon is stationed in the most dangerous place in the world but their mission is rather straight forward: to build an outpost. This is not a story about the epic battles that decide wars. It’s a story about how dangerous and deadly the most basic of missions can be. Against that backdrop, we live with the platoon, learning about their immaturity, bravado, camaraderie and wisdom in the face of unspeakable danger.

We’ve been bombarded with stories about the horrors of what’s happened in Iraq and Afghanistan. Unfortunately most people aren’t paying close attention, but if you are then Restrepo becomes all that more powerful because it’s rather apolitical and doesn’t attempt to shock you. It simply puts you in the middle of war as truthfully as possible.

And it works. It works the way The Wire works. It’s the type of drama that doesn’t attempt to manipulate you. There’s something amazingly powerful about simply being present and showing reality as it is that it sometimes becomes difficult to digest. Restrepo does that and that’s what makes it so memorable.

Part of the tragedy of any artist dying young is that we mourn what they might have accomplished. That feeling is strong with the lose of Tim Hetherington. When so many people have that ‘sense’ about an artist you know they were onto something special. When you watch Restrepo you can feel it. It’s a film, and more importantly, a piece of journalism that will define the war in Afghanistan.

I don’t often make strong recommendations, but I’m recommending you go and watch Restrepo as soon as possible. It’s one of those experiences that will stick with you for a long time and influence the way you look out upon the world as a photographer.

Tim Hetherington was a photographer, journalist, documentarian and artist who consistently challenged himself to communicate what he saw in ways that would connect in unique ways with other people. He had that thing, indescribable and eternal, which is why his work will be remembered for years to come.