Tim Hetherington (1970-2011)

Tim Hetherington, tireless and lyrical raconteur of global conflicts, is dead, a victim of a Libyan mortar shell.

Many will remember Tim Hetherington as a great photographer, but to call him such would be to pigeonhole his contributions. He himself acknowledged his changing role in a new topography of media: “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.”

And he did. He covered various conflicts in West Africa and contributed to two documentaries on Liberia and Darfur. In 2007, he began a yearlong assignment documenting a battalion of American troops stationed in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley as bait to the Taliban. He published a touching book Infidel, won his fourth World Press Photo award for his coverage, and was nominated for an Oscar for his resulting documentary, Restrepo, which was all too human for it was palpably apolitical. His broad experiences were also recorded an ethereal webvideo, “Diary”.

To the very end, he was determined to reach out to as many people as possible; he began using twitter eight months ago, and his first and last tweet from Libya — posted just hours before he himself was hit  — read: “In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO”. It was fitting, if heartrending, epitaph.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/18497543]

Excepted from the Times of London:

When he was hit he was with [Chris Hondros of Getty], Guy Martin, a British freelance journalist and Michael Christopher Brown, an American photographer. They were covering the bitter fight for control of a bridge over Tripoli Street, which Colonel Gaddafi’s forces are trying to retake to give them a clear route into the heart of Misrata.

The group, escorted by a Libyan guide, were on the front line when the regime forces spotted them and fired a mortar round. Hetherington suffered massive blood loss by the time an ambulance managed to reach him and take him through the cratered streets to the Hikmeh hospital, where doctors did their best to revive him. Hondros, who was due to marry soon, also died late last night, while Martin suffered serious injuries to the abdomen. Brown was hit in the arm and was not believed to be in danger.

Charlie Wilson’s War

Flamboyant playboy Texan Congressman, Charlie Wilson, who died earlier today was perhaps the last of gentlemen-adventurers. Like to many an adventurer before him, the challenge came in the form of a beautiful woman: thrice-married socialite and philanthropist Joanne Herring who, after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, smuggled herself into that country to film the invasion.

Charlie Wilson, who she was dating at the time, was an influential member of the defence appropriations committee. The duo, along with some CIA help, launched a scheme to back the anti-Soviet militia, the mujahideen. Using Israeli and Swiss arms, and US and Saudi money, they managed to arm the mujahideen; with Wilson’s help, the United States’ funding of the Afghan resistance increased from the $30 million in 1984 to $630 million in 1987, with each fund matched by the Saudis. In 1986, Wilson prevailed over the Pentagon, CIA, and State Department resistance to send 1000 shoulder-fired surface-to-air Stinger missiles and 250 launchers to Afghanistan. Wilson quipped, “Whenever a plane goes down, I always fear it is one of our missiles. Most of all I wanted to bloody the Red Army. I think the bloodying thereof had a great deal to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union.”

The last Russian soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989. Wilson had won. The U.S. quickly lost its interest from Afghanistan. Funding of Afghan resistance leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezbi Islami party was cut off immediately. Disenchanted and armed, they would first support Saddam Hussein’s Kuwait invasion and would became the original Taliban. Wilson himself retired from the Congress displeased at how the United States treated his former allies. Seeing his weapons ending up in the hands of the Taliban regime, which took power in Afghanistan and harbored Osama bin Laden, Wilson reflected, “I feel guilty about it. I really do. Those things happen. How are you going to defeat the Red Army without a gun? You can’t blame the Marines for teaching Lee Harvey Oswald how to shoot.”

Mullah Omar

Two weeks ago, I was in the Middle East as the Nation of Yemen slowly devolved itself into Afghanistan 2.0. I learnt a funny fact that the Iman Yahia, the King of North Yemen (who ruled from 1918-1948) is the only head of a member state of the United Nations who has never been photographed. He did forbade taking of his picture under pain of drastic punishment.

The above is the picture of the Taliban leader Mohammed Omar (middle, standing), from a video shot by a BBC crew in Afghanistan in 1996. It is totally-unrelated to Iman Yahia’s story except in that the picture was the only known photograph of the Taliban leader (although this in fact too was disputed). The Taliban, like Iman Yahia before them, held ultraorthodox views of Islam, and outlawed photographs of people, saying making any image of a human being was forbidden by the Koran. Omar, self-styled, was ousted by US for sheltering Osama bin-Laden and al-Qaeda after the September 11 attacks, and is currently believed to be in Pakistan, directing the insurgency movement against US troops.

Very little is known about Omar. The picture below, used by many media, has since been established to be another Taliban official. Aside from the fact that he is missing one eye, accounts of his physical appearance are contradictory: some said he was a tall man, while others describe him as small and frail. Omar was so reclusive that he rarely left his house in Kandahar and only once visited the Afghan capital Kabul during his six-year reign as the Commander of the Faithful of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. Most Afghans do not have a clue what he looks like. The State Department has two ‘pictures’ of Omar on their Wanted lists, but both were not Omar’s.

In the above picture, Omar wore the sacred cloak of the Prophet Mohammad, which he retrieved from a Kandahar shrine where it had lain in darkness for 60 years.

Death of a Marine

Afghanistan Death of a Marine

Although many thinks it had been a desensitized blunt instrument for years, the American media usually shies away from carrying graphic images of the war death–a practice which dated from the Second World War and continues to this day in Iraq and Afghanistan. That was why AP’s release of the above photo in the first week of September 2009 was met with an extreme criticism.

The photo of a fatally wounded U.S. Marine was released against the wishes of the Pentagon and the victim’s family. It was part of a tribute package to the Marine, who died three weeks ago. The photo was taken by Julie Jacobson, who was there to capture his final moments before he was gravely injured. Lance Corporal Joshua ‘Bernie’ Bernard, 21, was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade during a Taliban ambush of his squad last month in Dahaneh, Afghanistan. Bernard was transported by helicopter to Camp Leatherneck where he died later of his wounds.

The photo was met with intense criticism starting from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, who was normally more convivial on such matters. He called the image, “appalling” and lacking in “common decency”. Many news outlets refused to run it, and others quickly purged the photo from their online galleries. Three newspaper giants, The New York Times, Washington Post and L.A. Times carried the AP tribute story, but not the image. The Daily Mail in England has the full story here.

As America debates the use of this image, it has become the symbol of the suffering inflicted on Americans in uniform elsewhere. With the dwindling public support of the Afghanistan War in the United States, the photo could be the Saigon Execution of Dahaneh. In our increasingly digitalized age, more and more photos are taken, but their respective iconicities are diminished. However, this image captures the quintessence of what a truly great, truly iconic image is. Shredding open the grim reality of war, this is the Picture of the Year 2009.