RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
A year ago this week, a photojournalist posted this message on Twitter: In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO. Photographer Tim Hetherington wrote those words and they ended up being some of his last. He was killed there in Misrata, along with fellow photographer Chris Hondros. Just a few months before his death, Hetherington was nominated for an Oscar for the Afghan War documentary he co-director with journalist Sebastian Junger. It's called "Restrepo."
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MARTIN: Hetherington started shooting the film in 2007 while he was embedded with members of Second Platoon Battle Company of the U.S. Army's 173rd Airborne Brigade. The unit was posted to one of the most remote and volatile parts of Afghanistan - the Korengal Valley.
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MARTIN: Today, almost a year since his death, Tim Hetherington's friends and family are still mourning their loss.
MIKE KAMBER: Come on in.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Good to meet you.
MARTIN: Pleased to meet you. I met with one of Hetherington's closest friends and fellow photographer, Mike Kamber, recently in Washington, D.C. We met at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, just a few blocks from the White House. Have you seen this exhibit?
KAMBER: I have not.
MARTIN: Kamber and I toured an exhibition of Hetherington's work featuring photographs that he took over the many months he spent living with American soldiers in the Korengal.
KAMBER: That's one of my favorites.
MARTIN: This one?
KAMBER: Yeah, it's one of my all-time favorites. It's on a combat outpost in Afghanistan, but a guy is practicing his golf swing. I mean, he's actually golfing off the top of a mountain, an American soldier. I mean, there's something a little bit kind of "Apocalypse Now" about it, you know?
MARTIN: And this one.
KAMBER: Yeah, that's another one of my all-time favorites.
MARTIN: Describe this. This is...
KAMBER: It's a soldier. He's got his head back. He's naked from the waist up. He's in a room with beds. You can see it's where they sleep, and it's just sort of raw and rough. And he's either screaming or laughing.
MARTIN: It's hard to tell which.
KAMBER: Yeah, which is interesting. And his belly is all red. And Tim told me that basically when it - usually if it was your birthday or some event, the other soldiers, they would hold you down and they would slap your belly really almost until you bled, and it was kind of an act of love. And...
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MARTIN: Kind of primal.
KAMBER: It's very primal. You know, Tim was fascinated by these bonds, you know, the bonds between men. And he talked about, you know, war being one of the few places where men could show affection for each other.
MARTIN: I think I read that he and Sebastian Junger believed that this was less of an expose about war than it was really an exploration of young men.
KAMBER: Yes. Male bonding and young men and, you know, American men, American culture, but really as it pertains to men and machismo and love and affection and brotherhood.
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MARTIN: Besides the still photographs, there's also a video installation Hetherington put together which he called "Sleeping Soldiers."
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MARTIN: Scenes of combat flash next to still images of soldiers asleep - grenade blasts and the voices of soldiers create a surreal, dream-like soundtrack. Kamber says the installation shows what made Hetherington stand apart from other war photographers who were just looking for that quintessential combat shot.
KAMBER: I mean, I went over there to take pictures of guys doing raids and firing guns, but Tim was interested in their interior lives. He was interested in what was going on in their heads. And so he did this amazing series of portraits of these soldiers at sleep in their bunks, and then he came back and created this whole multimedia piece based on their dream states, sort of tying in, you know, their interior worlds and the exterior violence that they faced every day. And I don't think there's any other, you know, photojournalist in the world that could have done a piece like that or who has done a piece like that.
MARTIN: Why? What was exceptional about him?
KAMBER: He was incredibly curious. He was just insanely curious. You know, he was constantly digging deeper. He wasn't content with the traditions. He wasn't content with putting the pictures where people expected them to be put. He didn't just want a picture in a magazine. You know, he wanted to bring his work into art galleries. He wanted to bring it into schools. He would sometimes wheat paste his photos on walls outside, you know, in the cities. He was constantly trying to push boundaries in a way that I never seen before. Tim was different.
MARTIN: When do you get scared? I remember asking Tim in an interview that I did with him about fear, in particular this experience in the Korengal. And he just said flat-out, the only way I could keep going was to look through the lens and keep shooting, otherwise I'd be paralyzed with fear.
KAMBER: Right, right. I mean, I would say I'm pretty much scared all the time that I'm in a war zone, you know? I, you know, as with Tim, I think you keep focusing on your work because otherwise you do get paralyzed. You've got to keep shooting, you've got to keep thinking about, OK, I've come this far. I've got to come back with some images, otherwise there's no point in taking these risks. And especially from doing it from a lot of years, you realize a lot of times it's on the quiet days when nothing's happening, when nothing's expected, suddenly something will blow up. There will be either a car bomb or a mortar shell or a rocket will come out of nowhere, and you can't let your guard down. I mean, you have to minimize your risk every minute.
MARTIN: Describe what is so exhilarating, though, about being in the moment and you're so close, unlike reporters or correspondents who can do their work from a little bit of a distance?
KAMBER: Yeah, we have to be there. I mean, photographers have to be there. There's no other way. You can't recreate it in an article. You've got to be on the frontline. You know, it's a bit of a cliche, but if you're not there to photograph it, it really doesn't get told. It's just, it's almost like it doesn't exist. You know, you could be in some corner of the world and you'd come across a family, and they just lost their son. I mean, there would be these incredible scenes and you could bring these scenes to history. You know, you could record this and get this in a magazine or get this on the front page of The New York Times. And that made all the difference. I mean, it really, really made the difference. And if you weren't there, it was just going to pass away into history as if it had never happened. And it's an extraordinary thing to be able to go and do that, to be, you know, the eyes and ears for people. I don't regret it but I'm sorry Tim is gone.
MARTIN: Mike Kamber, photojournalist and friend of the late Tim Hetherington. I spoke with Hetherington in 2008 after one of his photographs from Afghanistan was named World Press photo of the year.
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MARTIN: Were you ever at risk?
TIM HETHERINGTON: Yeah, of course, yeah. I mean, we, as a photographer, we live with the troops as closely as we can. I mean, they used to say to me, you know, they said just let people at home know what this is really like, what we're going through. That was the only thing that they really asked me to do. And they never controlled what I could and couldn't photograph; they just asked me that. And therefore, I had a responsibility to live as closely as possible to them and what happened to them.
MARTIN: Tim Hetherington, "Sleeping Soldiers" is on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through late May. And to see more of Hetherington's photos, go to NPR.org.
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MARTIN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.
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