I’m paging through my BlackBerry, looking for a phone number in the T’s and unexpectedly come across someone else: Tim Hetherington. I pause on the name for a minute and think about deleting it. It’s over two weeks since he and fellow journalist Chris Hondros were killed while working in Libya.
I think for a second about the information stored under his name — his cellphone and email. Somewhere in my mind there’s a shadow of thought that I need to save the entry, just in case. Part of me seems to be stubbornly holding onto the idea that he’s not gone. That after enough time goes by, I’ll just be able to pick up my phone and call him.
The whole thing gets repeated when I come across the entry for Chris Hondros. I reluctantly delete both entries on May 8 and mentally say goodbye. They would have wanted me to move forward and be part of whatever comes next for journalists. After all, if anybody knew how hard it was to push through and make it in this profession, it was those guys.
It’s not that I was best friends with either one of them. In fact, in many ways I barely knew them. But they left so many friends, colleagues, admirers and loved ones behind, it’s clear that many people loved them. I know I did.
The thing about both Tim and Chris is they earned and commanded respect and admiration because of what they represented — although they’d probably hate to be considered iconic of professional journalists. But they were the real deal.
Both Tim and Chris moved in a world that had changed drastically in the course of their careers. A lot has been written about them in the past few weeks. Both were just barely 40 years old, but in the past 10 years they were there as the journalism industry became littered with hyperbole that wasn’t there before: bloggers, online content farms, the always-hungry 24-hour news cycle, and news talk shows that are either a lot of yelling or a lot of mindless commentary.
Amid all the cuts and cutbacks, the fears over how things were changing and would change, these guys kept charging forward with a decidedly old-school approach. Tim always told me his goal in his work was to communicate, and he didn’t care how he did it. And all you have to do is look at Chris’ last photos from Misurata, Libya, to see his grim determination to get people so close to the story they could hear the shots being fired and smell the sweat. For a young journalist trying to make it in an industry that’s fraught with physical and emotional danger, financial tension and wavering ideals, it’s a lot to have your own versions of Clark Kent.
Tim told me once that he started his career by following a Liberian soccer team around and photographing them. The way he described it sounded like he had literally hopped on the team’s bus.
I guess he never really got off. He said he later quit working at the U.N. because he realized no report he ever wrote could tell a story of suffering and need like a photograph could.
Here was a guy who was immeasurably talented in many ways. He was a fine writer and Oxford educated. But ultimately he found that the power of imagery — both photography and film — was the most valuable tool he could communicate with.
Chris had the kind of career where he followed wars from one place to another, including from the former Yugoslavia to Libya. He didn’t seem like the kind of guy who was a thrill-seeker or action junkie. In fact, neither one of them did.
Maybe that’s why the few glib comments I heard about “they knew what they were getting into” bothered me so much. It takes a special breed of journalist to brave a war zone in search of the story. More than bravado, I think it probably takes a lot of humility and perseverance. I never heard Tim talk about how thrilling it was to be caught in the middle of a firefight in Afghanistan. I’m pretty sure Chris wasn’t known for enjoying having explosions going off around him (unless there was a great photograph in it). It’s what they did for a living, and they also happened to love the results the work could bring.
Nobody ever accuses professionals like firefighters of being thrill-seekers, but then they often save lives and homes. But maybe journalists like Tim and Chris, who dare to go into war zones and do things like work behind rebel lines, are heroes in their way, too.
It’s not an impossibility that assisting in the free flow of information can make a difference in the outcome for the people involved. Sometimes news coverage in an unjust situation can turn the tide. It’s just that a journalist’s job is not to pull a burning baby from a building, so it’s harder to see the long-term, far-reaching effects. Since Tim and Chris were killed, so much has been written about both of them by colleagues and friends. Essays and articles and testimonies and memories abound. It is evidence that what they did as professionals and who they were as people had a real impact on the world. I wrote one such article myself for The Epoch Times.
The funny part is, even though I admire what they did, I would never want to follow in their footsteps as a reporter or photographer. I don’t want to be in a war zone, waking up in the middle of the night to get to the front before dawn breaks. I don’t want to sleep in barracks with soldiers on an embed and eat MREs on some forbidden mountain slope in Afghanistan. Being a war photographer must be one of the hardest jobs in the world. But it’s also one of the most important.
Local reporters and photographers working in a war zone often won’t have access to the technology and money that a foreign journalist does. It’s often risky for local journalists to work amid revolution or war within their own country. They look and sound like the people around them and aren’t protected by a foreign passport.
During a recent forum in New York City, photojournalist Lynsey Addario said that when she first got to Libya earlier this year, she couldn’t even find a driver. People didn’t seem to know what a journalist was and didn’t understand the concept of getting paid to work with one. The truth is, journalism in a country like the U.S. and in a country like Libya are two different animals. If people in the English-speaking world want to get accurate news and information about what’s happening on the ground, the foreign correspondent who parachutes in for three weeks on assignment is vital.
In the past few weeks, what I’ve thought about most is what I can do as a journalist to carry on. Not that I want to strive to replace them or what they did, but I do want to strive to be better. I’ll probably never pursue assignments in my career that put me in war zones. But there are a million little things I see I can do better, no matter what little battlefield I’m on. It could mean being more focused and motivated about pushing forward despite hardship, whether it’s an interview or a book review or a story about some news event. In some cases it might just be a matter of asking uncomfortable questions.
It’s like the several interviews I did with Tim over the course of the past two years. He was very easy to talk to, had a warm demeanor and loved to joke. Yet I was afraid to ask him certain questions. At the time they seemed like the stupidest things to ask, but actually they were the most human and down-to-earth.
One was whether he was married, had ever been married or had a significant other. Something about the subject intrigued me, but I convinced myself it was forbidden territory. But it didn’t stop me from wondering about that part of his life, and how it played into his work and his lifestyle of constantly being away and working. As it turned out, it was a question other people wanted to ask, too. I heard it from casual friends and colleagues, and on more than one blog where I had posted interviews with him, numerous people found the articles by using the search phrase “Tim Hetherington wife.”
The journalist often goes where most other people can’t be, whether it’s a war zone or a private conversation. And who’s to say the audience’s questions aren’t exactly what is going through the reporter’s head? That was Tim’s lesson to me: Don’t hesitate when you see a worthwhile story; just trust your judgment and go for it.
About a week and a half after Tim and Chris were killed, I was on assignment to cover a literary festival in New York City. One of the participants, Gioconda Belli, is a famous Nicaraguan author whom I have wanted to interview for a couple of years, but she lives in Los Angeles. That week I got to sit down with her for a private interview that lasted almost 90 minutes, and I promised myself I wouldn’t be shy with any burning questions.
As we sat in the coffee shop of the Standard Hotel in Chelsea, Ms. Belli sipped white wine and I worked up the courage to ask her the one thing I really wanted to know. This is a woman who was a Sandinista rebel during the Nicaraguan civil war. She has faced terrible personal tragedy. She has had to fight for what she believes in. She has written numerous novels and books, and she continues to write past the age of 60. She’s a feminist and a nationalist and seems pretty damn invincible. Especially when you meet her face-to-face, you can sense her strength.
“What are you afraid of?” I asked Ms. Belli, still worried I was crossing the line, but willing to take the risk of offending her.
She paused for a moment. “I’m afraid of flying,” she said. “But I do it — I just force myself, because I have to fly a lot. And I’m afraid of speaking in front of people; it makes me nervous.”
I would have never guessed either one, and she suddenly seemed incredibly human and vulnerable, in the best kind of way. Then she explained about a defining moment earlier in her life when she faced a personal dilemma of standing up to someone whose approval she desperately wanted.
She found herself suppressing her viewpoint and disappearing as a person in his shadow. It ended when she decided to stop hiding behind the self-imposed restrictions. She used her voice. She spoke up. She faced her fear. It’s not that fear left her life after that day, but from that moment on it could no longer control her.
I like to imagine that Tim and Chris had that same kind of thread of courage in them. Not the courage to be blind to danger and charge ahead with some insane, invisible force driving them into war zone after war zone until they met their fate. But a courage that, even though they might have been scared out of their minds, they charged ahead believing they were on the path they were meant to follow.
The thing is, in the end I believe what was most important to both of them was to tell people the story. Maybe that’s why it took me so long to delete them from my BlackBerry. Every time I saw their names, it inspired me to carry on as part of the next generation of journalists. For that, and so many other reasons, even though they can’t be here to see what happens from now on, there is no doubt in my mind they will be part of it.
Genevieve Long Belmaker is a freelance journalist based in New York City. Her article “The Rebirth of Photojournalism” featuring Tim Hetherington appeared in the January/February 2010 issue. Contact her at email@example.com or@genevieve_long on Twitter.