In new HBO documentary, Sebastian Junger pays tribute to photojournalist killed in Libya

Tim Hetherington is trying to explain why he's drawn to documenting wars.

“There are all sorts of generalizations made up about [war]. But in going to these extremities, what’s interesting is that you see that—even in these terrible times, in these terrible moments and in these terrible extremities—people are still human. That for me is the redeeming factor of the human experience,” Hetherington says somberly before breaking into laughter. “No,” he adds, aware of how cliché he sounds. “That’s too f------ b-------.”

The footage, outtakes from a British television interview with Hetherington—who was killed while covering the uprising in Libya in April 2011—kicks off “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here," a posthumous documentary about the photojournalist’s life directed by his friend and colleague Sebastian Junger, author of the blockbuster book "The Perfect Storm."

When Hetherington was killed, Junger tried to make sense of the tragedy by seeking out and questioning the journalists who had been with him when he died.

“I had a lot of questions,” Junger told Yahoo News. “All I had known is that he had been killed. I didn’t even know what the wound was. My first impulse was to interview the journalists who had been with him to answer those questions. Very quickly I realized I was making a film.”

While Hetherington laughed off his answer, the film shows how invested he was in seeking out the "human experience." It quickly shifts to footage Hetherington shot himself while covering the Libyan uprising.

Sitting inside a car on a dusty road in Misrata, Hetherington slowly pans around the vehicle to film a normal-looking scene with his colleagues—including Getty Images photographer Chris Hondros, who seems to be bobbing his head to the song on the radio: “How Deep Is Your Love?” by the Bee Gees.

But you soon realize this is no ordinary car ride. Their driver, who calmly smokes a cigarette, sits close to his machine gun as he speeds along a deserted road littered with bombed-out cars and buildings. In a nearby car, two little kids hang out a back window and flash peace signs to the camera.

“Which way is the front line from here?” Hetherington asks at one point. He doesn’t get an answer, but just hours later, he and Hondros would be dead, killed in a mortar attack on the very front line they'd been looking for.

Nearly two years later, Junger is still struggling to understand why Hetherington died. The two barely knew each other when they were paired by Vanity Fair magazine in 2007 to embed with a platoon of soldiers in a remote area of Afghanistan. Junger was basically a celebrity, while Hetherington was a veteran war photographer, known for his coverage of conflicts in West Africa. Together, they made a film about the war called "Restrepo," which was nominated for an Oscar in 2011. Along the way, the two had become as close as brothers.

But as they attended the Academy Award ceremony that year, Hetherington was antsy. Overseas, the Arab world was in flames. A revolution was overtaking Egypt, and rebel forces were rising up against Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi.

“He wanted to be there,” Junger told Yahoo News.

So just weeks after walking the Oscars red carpet, Hetherington was on the ground in Libya, back in his element and aiming to document what had been a long theme in his work: Why are young men so drawn to war?

Junger’s documentary is influenced by Hetherington’s quest to understand that question. But Junger’s inquiry seems to be: Why was Hetherington so drawn to war?

That exploration leads to an examination of Hetherington’s life and work—dating back to his 2003 coverage of the political upheaval in Liberia, where he was one of only a handful of foreign journalists behind rebel lines during the country’s civil war.

The film includes harrowing footage of Hetherington under fire. But it also includes footage and photographs Hetherington took when he paused to engage with his subjects.

His desire to talk that made Hetherington unique among photojournalists, said Junger, since many combat photographers tend to keep their distance from their subjects. In the footage, Hetherington is shown laughing with children in Sri Lanka and joking around with the soldiers he was embedded with in Afghanistan. His sense of humor and joy for life is evident, even in what were often difficult circumstances.

“He was not interested in war, but he was really interested in people and what happens to people in war,” Junger said.

In the film, James Brabazon, who covered the Liberian civil war alongside Hetherington, says of his friend, “He didn’t see a division between being a photographer or a videographer or a journalist or a humanitarian or a participant. He was just Tim. It’s very hard to find that.”

But Junger’s film also seems to question whether Hetherington took his desire to be on the front line too far. According to the documentary, Hetherington, who was 40 when he died, was conflicted about his desire to settle down with his girlfriend, Idil Ibrahim, and his quest to tell the story of war. In the documentary he even acknowledges that war photography can be a “very destructive thing to carry on beyond a certain age.”

The film ends with footage Hetherington shot in Misrata before he and Hondros were killed, including a visit inside a building where rebel soldiers were trying to smoke out enemy snipers by sending burning tires into rooms where they were barricaded.

The area felt unsafe to some journalists who had been with Hetherington and his group earlier that day, including photographer Andre Liohn, who questions in the film whether the group had put themselves in unnecessary danger.

“In the war you lose a lot of things, (and) one of the things that you lose can be the original connection that took you there,” Liohn says. “I felt they were not paying the proper attention and the proper respect to everything that was happening around. They were trying to get in front of the rebels.”

Junger said he included Liohn’s comments because he still struggles with the question of whether Hetherington took too much of a risk that day.

“The decision to go out to the front line is inherently risky. It’s inherently understandable because front lines are compelling. And it’s inherently stupid. It’s all of them at the same time,” Junger said. “Everyone makes that decision, and most of the time it goes fine. And when it doesn’t go fine everyone goes, ‘What the hell were you thinking?’”

Junger added, “That said, I do wonder why after the intensity of fighting that Tim was part of in the morning, why he felt compelled to go out for a second dose, a second helping? That I don’t quite get. But had I been there, I think I would have been perfectly capable of doing the same thing. So I don’t want to be too judgmental about it. But I do wonder.”

Hetherington and Hondros were standing near each other when Gadhafi forces lobbed an artillery shell at the group of rebels they were photographing. Hondros died from severe head trauma, while Hetherington died from massive blood loss from an injury near his groin.

After Hetherington’s death, Junger launched a nonprofit called Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC) to give reporters and photographers combat medical training that some say could have saved Hetherington’s life. The training is free.

Junger said he hopes the documentary will help Hetherington’s memory live on and help viewers appreciate the risks that photojournalists take in covering conflict. But it’s also an inherent lesson for journalists in how to cover war—not just visually, but also in how to stay safe while doing so.

The film premieres on HBO just two days before the second anniversary of Hetherington’s death. In the film, Junger recalls an email he received from a Vietnam veteran about Hetherington being killed, who told him that the “reality of war” is that you’re “guaranteed to lose your brothers.”

Junger admitted he still struggles with his friend's death.

“He was my brother,” Junger said. “And I miss him.”