Tim Hetherington’s friends and family were joined by soldiers from the platoon depicted in Restrepo, Hetherington’s award-winning documentary, to celebrate the photographer/filmmaker’s life and recall his talent and generosity at a memorial service held May 24 in New York City. Hetherington was killed in Misrata, Libya, on April 20 in a rocket attack that also killed photographer Chris Hondros and wounded two other photographers.
Standing at the pulpit of the First Presbyterian Church with three other soldiers from the platoon with which Hetherington had been embedded in Afghanistan, former Sergeant Brendan O’Byrne spoke before a crowd of several hundred mourners. He began to deliver a prepared speech, then stopped. He said the speech “didn’t feel right,” and he wanted instead to speak directly about “what Tim meant to us,” the soldiers deployed to the remote Restrepo outpost in the Korengal Valley. “He came a stranger and left a brother,” said O’Byrne. “He went out there again and again and again. He didn’t have to.” He noted, “If it weren’t for him, our stories would have been lost in the chaos of war.”
O’Byrne said Hetherington continued their friendship after their time in Afghanistan. “I came home with a massive amount of PTSD. Tim let me stay in his house,” and asked for nothing in return. “He said, ‘Get your feet on the ground, and don’t drink.’ ” O’Byrne said he had no words to describe what Hetherington meant to the platoon. “We cared about him so much.”
In his eulogy, writer Sebastian Junger, Hetherington’s frequent collaborator and co-director on Restrepo, explained how Hetherington earned the respect and trust of the soldiers. “He was terrifyingly brave, and he made them laugh. If you can do only those two things and not fall behind on patrol they [the soldiers] are good to you.”
Junger said, “Tim changed the world with his work, and the world changed him. He was seeking those changes.” He said Hetherington “allowed people access to his heart.” In his work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Junger said, Hetherington was a better journalist thanks to his openness to experiences and people.
Idil Ibrahim, Hetherington’s girlfriend, said many mourned him as a talented photographer, filmmaker, teacher, colleague, friend, “and brother from the front line.” To Ibrahim, however, Hetherington was, among other things, “partner, love, future, friend,” as well as “movie star,” “preferred dance partner,” “poet,” and “fashion stylist.” Though she said, “I mourn the loss of our future together” and “the children we’ll never have,” she noted that shortly before Hetherington left for Libya, they had a conversation about death. “I’ve truly lived,” Hetherington told her. She said Hetherington “exuded joie de vivre,” and was “the most brilliant person I know.” She said, “He taught me most about love and for that I’m truly grateful.”
Photographers Chris Anderson and Mike Kamber talked about the Hetherington’s photography. Anderson said that while poring over Hetherington’s work recently, he forgot about photographic craft, and felt that he was seeing into people’s lives. “His work was not about reporting a story but about recording an experience he shared with people,” Anderson said, before reading an impressionistic passage from the foreword to Hetherington’s first book, Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, in which he had described the sights and rhythms of a street in Monrovia.
Kamber said that for a generation of photographers, Hetherington seemed to be “leading us forward. He was changing photojournalism. He was also leading us forward as a human being” through his humility and imagination. Hetherington, he said, was capable of “flights of fancy,” like an idea he had to do a piece on soldiers sleeping in their outpost in Afghanistan. The idea became Hetherington’s acclaimed multimedia installation, “Sleeping Soldiers.”
Hetherington’s sister and brother, Victoria and Guy, shared stories of how Hetherington’s energy, curiosity and desire to engage with people were evident even at a young age. Both siblings emphasized that Hetherington, who was born in England, “loved his life in New York,” and in particular, Victoria noted, “the lifelong friends” he made there. Victoria noted how much Hetherington enjoyed the company of his friends’ children and his own nephew and niece. After she informed her children of their uncle’s death, she said, her four-year-old daughter worried that God wouldn’t let him into heaven: “Because he’s the naughtiest person. He throws us in the swimming pool with all our clothes on.”
Victoria quoted a line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “In the end it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years,” and expressed her gratitude that her brother had experienced so much in his 40 years.
At the end of the memorial service, O’Byrne and the three soldiers from his platoon walked up the aisle of the church and presented Hetherington’s family with a folded US flag.
After the memorial, a reception was held at the Aperture Gallery, where an installation of “Sleeping Soldiers” and Hetherington’s video, “Diary,” about his work covering conflict, are on view through June 23.