Thursday, June 9, 2011

Tim Hetherington - A Celebration of Life Departed - May 24, 2011

"There is no way to express my devastation and sorrow at the death of my dear friend, Tim Hetherington in Misrata, Libya.  Tim was one of the most courageous and principled journalists I have ever known. The good that he accomplished – both with his camera, and simply as a concerned person in some of the most devastated countries in the world – cannot be measured. I can’t believe he is truly gone." Sebastian Junger; April 20, 2011

Tim Hetherington
December 5, 1970 to April 20, 2011

Like so many who knew Tim I'll never forget the morning of April 20, 2011.  About mid morning I got a text message from someone wanting to know "where is Sebastian?"  I thought that was an odd text message.  I replied that I knew he'd been in New York a couple of days prior.  Then I got a message that their was "chatter" that Tim Hetherington had been killed in Libya.  I replied back that I didn't believe that could be true as Sebastian had told me Tim had left Libya and was on his way home.  But then I got a message that their were definitely reports that Tim "may" have died in Libya.  So I called Sebastian.  To be quite honest I remember very little about our short conversation other than him confirming it to be true.  Within a half hour the media exploded with news of Tim and Chris Hondros' death.  I, like many, was devastated.

On Tuesday May 24, 2011 a Celebration of Life Departed was held for Tim Hetherington at The First Presbyterian Church in New York City.  I was honored and grateful that Sebastian invited me to attend.  The Gothic style church built in the mid 1800s was packed; even the balconies were filled, with friends and colleagues.  Tim's parents, sister and brother from England were in attendance.  It was a somber, joyous, moving and painfully emotional celebration.

After the Welcome and Invocation followed by a time of Meditation, Moonlight Sonata by Ludwig van Beethoven was played on the church's grand piano.  Sebastian Junger left his seat to stand before the crowd and eulogize Tim.  I had spoken briefly with Sebastian a few times since Tim's death and his voice always gave away his sorrow and anguish.  But seeing him that day really brought it all home how deeply Tim's death was affecting him.  His grief was visible.  In true Sebastian style when he spotted me he came over to give me a hug.  I didn't want to let go.

As Sebastian walked up the steps and to the pulpit I couldn't stop the tears.  I was grateful to have a dear friend, Jo Lombardi, sitting next to me.  In part he said, “He was terrifyingly brave, and he made them laugh. If you can do only those two things and not fall behind on patrol they [the soldiers] are good to you.”

Junger said, “Tim changed the world with his work, and the world changed him. He was seeking those changes.” He said Hetherington “allowed people access to his heart.” In his work in Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Sri Lanka, Junger said, Hetherington was a better journalist thanks to his openness to experiences and people.

At one point in his eulogy Sebastian recommended to all those who knew and loved Tim to "talk to him."  He said he had done a lot of talking to Tim over the past weeks and it had helped him immeasurably. 

Franz Schubert's Piano Trio in E Flat Andante conmoto  was played by a trio of piano, cello and violin. The musical interludes were an incredible touch throughout the service. They allow time to reflect on what each speaker had said and for most of us it allowed time to pull ourselves together.

Brendan O'Byrne, Aron Hijar, Santana Rueda and Marc Solowski quietly moved from their seats to the pulpit.  All four men are former Paratroopers of Battle Company, 2-503rd, 173rd.  Tim and Sebastian spent many months with these men and their battle buddies at OP Restrepo in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan.  As Brendan approached the microphone the other 3 men quietly stood shoulder to shoulder in support of him.  Brendan began to deliver a speech he had written on behalf of the Soldiers.  Not long into his speech he paused and said something along the lines of "this prepared speech doesn't feel right.  I'd like to just speak about what Tim meant to all of us." 

“He came a stranger and left a brother,”  said O’Byrne. “He went out there again and again and again. He didn’t have to.” He noted, “If it weren’t for him, our stories would have been lost in the chaos of war.”

O’Byrne said Hetherington continued their friendship after their time in Afghanistan. “I came home with a massive amount of PTSD. Tim let me stay in his house,” and asked for nothing in return. “He said, ‘Get your feet on the ground, and don’t drink.’ ” O’Byrne said he had no words to describe what Hetherington meant to the platoon. “We cared about him so much.”

There wasn't a dry eye in the church at the end of Brendan's eulogy.  As the four men quietly walked back to their seats I couldn't help but notice how they had allowed the "Warrior" to take over.  Total professionals.  No outward showing of emotion but their eyes gave them each away.  I've never been so proud of four men in my life.  My heart was physically hurting for them and there was nothing I could do.

After another musical interlude the love of Tim's life, Idil Ibrahim, stepped to the pulpit.  Idil's

Among many things, Idil said of Tim, "many mourned him as a talented photographer, filmmaker, teacher, colleague, friend, “and brother from the front line.” To Ibrahim, however, Hetherington was, among other things, “partner, love, future, friend,” as well as “movie star,” “preferred dance partner,” “poet,” and “fashion stylist.” Though she said, “I mourn the loss of our future together” and “the children we’ll never have,” she noted that shortly before Hetherington left for Libya, they had a conversation about death. “I’ve truly lived,” Hetherington told her. She said Hetherington “exuded joie de vivre,” and was “the most brilliant person I know.” She said, “He taught me most about love and for that I’m truly grateful.”

Christopher Anderson was next to eulogize Tim.  He and Mike Kamber (who followed Christopher) are both photographers who have known and worked with Tim.  Christopher said "that while poring over Hetherington’s work recently, he forgot about photographic craft, and felt that he was seeing into people’s lives. “His work was not about reporting a story but about recording an experience he shared with people,” Anderson said, before reading an impressionistic passage from the foreword to Hetherington’s first book, "Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold," in which he had described the sights and rhythms of a street in Monrovia."

I am fortunate to have an autographed copy of "Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold".  It is a moving and powerful work about the people of Liberia during their civil war.  It already was a cherished item but is even more so now.

Between Christopher and Mike, Meta Dia and Shahar Mintz sang Redemption Song by Bob Marley.  I struggled to remain composed as I watch Sebastian's shoulders shake from grief as the two men were singing.

Mike Kamber told "that for a generation of photographers, Hetherington seemed to be “leading us forward. He was changing photojournalism. He was also leading us forward as a human being” through his humility and imagination. Hetherington, he said, was capable of “flights of fancy,” like an idea he had to do a piece on soldiers sleeping in their outpost in Afghanistan. The idea became Hetherington’s acclaimed multimedia installation, “Sleeping Soldiers.”

After Mike spoke there was a video tribute to Tim.  A selection of photos that Tim had taken as well as photos of him throughout his professional life filled a large screen that was wheeled to the center of the church.  Stay Together for the Kids by Blink 182 played as the imagines by Tim and of Tim passed one by one.

Tim's sister, Victoria, and his brother, Guy, made their way to the pulpit.  They, along with Tim's parents, had flown in from London for the service.  Victoria stepped to the pulpit and told story after story about growing up with Tim.  She had us all laughing and smiling as we remembered him. 

She spoke of how Tim's energy, curiosity and desire to engage with people were evident even at a young age. Both siblings emphasized that Hetherington, who was born in England, “loved his life in New York,” and in particular, Victoria noted, “the lifelong friends” he made there. Victoria noted how much Hetherington enjoyed the company of his friends’ children and his own nephew and niece. After she informed her children of their uncle’s death, she said, her four-year-old daughter worried that God wouldn’t let him into heaven: “Because he’s the naughtiest person. He throws us in the swimming pool with all our clothes on.”

Victoria quoted a line attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “In the end it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years,” and expressed her gratitude that her brother had experienced so much in his 40 years.

Meta Dia and Shahar Mintz again stepped forward.  This time it was to perform One Love by Bob Marley.  It was next to impossible but some how I kept from making a fool of myself as the emotion took over.  As I sat there thinking of Tim, listening to the lyrics and watching Sebastian, Tim's siblings and parents and those who had worked with him give in to the emotion it was overwhelming.

Towards the middle of the song Brendan, Santana, Marc and Aron quietly moved from their seats, stepped towards the front of the church them, single file, made their way around the side and to the back.  Thankfully I knew what was coming but I still found myself ill prepared.  I turned to look towards the back of the church and saw them moving silently up the aisle.  Santana and Marc were each holding a folded American flag. (I apologize for the poor quality of the photo)

Sebastian described this part of the service best in a recent Vanity Fair article:

"Finally four American vets stood up, men from Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne who had been under fire with Tim and me many times in eastern Afghanistan. They filed out of their pew carrying two folded American flags that had been sent by Senator John McCain, himself a veteran of Vietnam. The young men presented my country’s flag to the Hetherington family and then to Idil.  (Note by blog author - the men didn't file from their seats with the flag - rather they came from the rear of the church).

I missed most of that beautiful moment because I was crying too hard, but later I did savor one comforting thought: this may be one of the few countries in the world where a senator would see fit to present the national flag to a woman of Somali origin in honor of an Englishman killed in Libya. Whatever criticisms one might level at our county, we are sometimes capable of including the entire world in our embrace. In the midst of our painful debate about immigration, about war, and about our responsibility to other countries, it is an important thing to remember. It was perhaps one of the reasons that Tim had moved here—to escape what he felt to be the stultifying atmosphere of London."

Santana and Aron presented a flag to Idil:

While Marc and Brendan presented one to Tim's parents, sister and Brother.  (This photo is awful but it's all I have)

I am grateful to Andi Fehl for contacting Senator McCain's office and hand delivering the flags.  VERY GRATEFUL.  Thank you Andi.

After the service concluded the crowd made its way quietly out of the church.  There were many hugs exchanged but very little in the way of conversation.  It was an exceptionally somber time and evident that Tim Hetherington was missed as much that day - if not even more - than the day the news of his terribly early and untimely death raced around the globe.

After the service a reception was held at aperture gallery where Tim's works of "Sleeping Soldiers" and his introspective film "Diary" are still on display.

A friend of Tim's from their high school (boarding school) years had brought along a stack of photos from those early years.  I wish I had written his name down but didn't.  He shared photo after photo with us (including Aron, Marc, Santana and Brendan) while telling very animated stories about each photo.

Photos of Tim in High School:

Sebastian graciously introduced me to Tim's father, Alistair, at the reception.  I cannot even begin to tell you what a privilege it was to speak with him for a few minutes.  The sadness in his eyes was immeasurable and struck me to the core of my heart. As I conveyed condolences to he and his family from a number of people who had asked me to do so his composure, thankfulness and  graciousness were comforting.  He expressed his thankfulness to all of those who are mourning Tim's loss and for all of the kind words and support.

I really don't know how to end this post.  I think of Tim, Idil and Sebastian every day.  Even though I attended the celebration of life departed for Tim it still just doesn't seem real or possible that he is gone.  And in so many ways, so very many ways, it just seems so wrong and unfair.  He did so much for so many- many who don't even know him .  I know that his legacy will carry on forever.  But to think of what he would have done if given more years on this earth, well, I cannot comprehend all that he would have accomplished and all of the lives he would have touched.

So I guess I'll just close with this photo of the men of Restrepo, the ROCK Paratroopers, who were there to represent their Platoon and Regiment.  Beyond that they were there to remember and mourn one of their brothers - another one of their brothers taken way too soon.

Marc, Brendan, Aron and Santana


Coffeypot said...

Damn! I got something in my eyes and they are watering so much I almost didn't finish this great tribute to Tim. Only time will heal your heart, though a scar will always remain. What I would give to have a true friend like you. Tim was a lucky man in knowing you.

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