Photographers' Focus Was On Other Side Of Lens

April 23, 2011

Scott Simon

I think people in war zones sometimes speak more freely to photographers than they do to reporters. Microphones and notepads can make people conscious of what they're saying. But photographers can talk to them as people, not names in their stories. Photographers ask things like, "Do you have children? Do you like Katy Perry?" instead of, "What political faction do you belong to?"

A couple of great photographers died in a rocket attack of government forces on Misrata, Libya, this week.

Chris Hondros of New York had also worked in Kosovo, Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Liberia for Getty Images. Mr. Hondros was 41, and told colleagues on a rocky 20-hour boat ride into Misrata that he had recently gotten engaged.

"I don't want to be a really old dad," he said.

Doctors Without Borders had a remembrance on their website which said, "Chris never just took photos, he was always thinking about who was on the other side of his lens and what they were experiencing. He wanted his photographs to make a difference."

Tim Hetherington was 40, from Birkenhead, England. He had also seen conflicts around the world, but as his collaborator, Sebastian Junger, told ABC News, "Tim with his camera wanted to understand life. Life includes war, unfortunately. He would say, 'Look, war is terrible. Terrible things happen in war. But people also love really profoundly in war and they laugh in war.' "

Mr. Junger and Tim Hetherington made the film Restrepo, about a year in the life of a U.S. infantry regiment in a deadly forward base in Afghanistan. It won this year's Sundance award for Best Documentary.

As rockets rained down this week, Tim Hetherington sent a message over Twitter: "In besieged Libyan city of Misrata. Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO."

That last remark poses an uncomfortable question. If NATO has pledged to try to keep Muammar Gadafi from slaughtering his own people, where is NATO while civilians in Misrata are being massacred in front of the watching world?

The most conscientious Western war reporters and photographers are usually modest in remembering risks. Those of us who've reported wars understand that a bullet or blast may catch up with us. But most of us will live to go home, eat well, and sleep safely. A few of us will get recognition and rewards. The people besieged in Misrata today are imperiled and hungry. They may feel abandoned.

Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros tried to take photos to pierce our hearts and move us to care. It would honor them to pay attention not only to their pictures, but the brave, grieving, and embattled people that they died to show us. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.