Book review: Here I Am, by Alan Huffman

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 28 April, 2013, 4:41pm

Here I Am: the Story of Tim Hetherington, War Photographer

by Alan Huffman

Grove Press

War photographer Robert Capa once said: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." Tim Hetherington, who died on assignment in Libya in 2011 after being hit by a mortar blast, was always close enough.

Hetherington covered conflicts in Liberia, Afghanistan and Libya, and was always on the frontline. This biography, by Alan Huffman, is a delicate and thoughtful telling of the photographer's life. Literary in style, Here I Am also explores the questions asked about those who risk their lives to document wars: why do they do it, do they manage to stay uninvolved in the events they see, how do they cope with civilian life, and so on.

War photography has existed since the 1930s, when photojournalism was at its height, and photographers such as Capa covered conflicts such as the Spanish civil war for the Magnum agency. It takes a special kind of bravery to do the job although, Huffman notes, war photographers are generally ordinary people - they have just chosen to work in danger zones for a living. Some fly in and out of the conflict to shoot a story, while others choose to stay in the war zone for extended periods.

Hetherington was one of the latter. His first major war assignment was in 2003, when he went to Liberia to cover its second civil war. Hetherington and filmmaker James Brabazon attached themselves to the Lurd rebels who were fighting the government of corrupt president Charles Taylor. Fighting in the country was cruel, with mass murders, systematic rape and cannibalism taking place.

Hetherington, who had a strong knowledge of aesthetics and art photography, realised he could use his skills to bring attention to the plight of the people suffering under Taylor's regime. (He and Brabazon had to flee the country when Taylor, maddened by their news coverage, placed a bounty on their heads.)

Hetherington later went to Afghanistan and Libya, and along the way, got an Oscar nomination for his documentary, Restrepo.

Hetherington, says Huffman, was brave, but he was not a thrill seeker - like any seasoned war photographer, he knew how to assess the risks of a situation. His special quality was empathy. He took pictures of people who were often ignored by war photographers, like children, and took time to get to know his subjects. He was always himself, says Huffman, and never played up to the stereotypical role of a war photographer, a description he disliked. He was objective in his coverage, but would help people he encountered when they needed it.

Readers interested in those who pursue this dangerous profession will find much insight in this book.