Tim Hetherington: Photojournalist and film-maker whose award-winning reportage exposed the human cost of war

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The Independent Online

On 21 April a band of photographers covering the war in Misrata, Libya, came under fire while they were in the city to document and broadcast the unfolding story of human loss. Within hours it was apparent that two of them, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros had died in hospital, another, Guy Martin, was undergoing life-saving surgery and a fourth, Michael Christopher Brown, was recovering from his injuries.

Tim Hetherington and I had been friends since 1999, when we worked on photographic projects together. We were soon sharing an office in the back end of Great Portland Street in London. To me, he was a trailblazer. In March of this year he had just completed a busy year, touring his film Restrepo about a band of US servicemen in a remote outpost in Afghanistan. A year earlier the film had won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Festival and since that night, when he called me from the dance floor of what definitely sounded like a film-festival after-party, he had been all over the US speaking about the film and the war in Afghanistan.

A few weeks ago this culminated in the Oscars, where Restrepo was nominated for Best Documentary. Tim spoke with pride of attending the ceremony with his co-director Sebastian Junger and a number of the men who made it home from the front. From his original brief – to tell the story of the Americans living and fighting in Afghanistan, and the two years he spent visiting the Restrepo outpost – he compiled four separate visual narratives: the documentary itself; a video installation, Sleeping Soldiers; a Deutsche Börse-nominated photographic exhibition at HOST Gallery in London; and the book Infidel published by Chris Boot.

In 2007 Tim had been awarded the World Press Photo of the Year for his portrait of one of the Restrepo soldiers wiping his brow in the bunker during a firefight. The lonely figure is illuminated by the murky light of the Afghan evening and it was often referred to as a "painterly" picture. I remember Tim was disappointed by this; there was a danger that simplistic aesthetic analysis deflected from the meaning of what he was showing, a man in the midst of a barely questioned war.

That his image paid homage to others made previously in wars by great photographers was a welcome aside if it meant people would look at it. He had shot news video at the same time and I recall him extinguishing his momentary preoccupation with industry gossip when he calculated that in that week alone more than 20 million magazine readers, television viewers and visitors to the World Press touring exhibition would have seen his photographs and reports from the war.

Tim had begun to cut the path for his future with the new digital media and multi-layered production of his photographs while studying in 1996-97 with Daniel Meadows and Colin Jacobson at Newport College in Wales for a BA in documentary photography. Multi-media was fast becoming the byword for the new visual journalism and his influences were wide: reading John Maeda and following Bill Viola's video work, as well influential films such as Chris Marker's La Jetée, which he spoke of eloquently as a great inspiration. Yet after his Afghanistan work he had asserted that he really didn't care about photography any more, but was fascinated by form. He embraced all media and experimented to understand how image-based work could add power to his storytelling. When I interviewed him last year he spoke of how being labelled as a photojournalist or war photographer was unhelpful, even inaccurate.

From 2002, working first with Network Photographers and later with Panos Pictures, he spent more than seven years living between London, Freetown in Sierra Leone and Monrovia in Liberia. A photo-essay about the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown led him to seek out a similar school in Surrey, England. He set up a pen-pal scheme between the schools and was involved in a project photographing the environment the children navigated: water, leaves, concrete, a wooden grand staircase in Surrey, brightly coloured plastic mugs on a dining hall table in Freetown.

He developed a Braille book and learnt multi-media editing and production with the assistance of a fellowship grant from NESTA – the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts – and in making another photo story, "Training for Tomorrow", he photographed and travelled with a team of ex-combatant footballers in Sierra Leone, bringing them to the UK on tour. He also photographed in Sudan, Nigeria, Chad and other areas of conflict, always questioning the stories he found, always making friends.

His experience and connections in Sierra Leone and neighbouring Liberia paved the way for him and the acclaimed film-maker James Brabazon to document the rebel advance on Charles Taylor's brutal regime in Monrovia. Material from their film Uncivil War was nominated for the 2003 Rory Peck Award for Hard News, and went on to win several awards, including the Independent Documentary Association's discretionary Courage Under Fire Award, awarded to Brabazon, Hetherington and co-director Jonathan Stack. It was only the second time it had been awarded.

While living in Monrovia he worked on a photo book about the war and the ensuing transition of power: Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold was published by Umbrage Editions, NY in 2009. The exhibition of this work was shown at HOST Gallery in London and featured a wall of war graffiti and a rogues' gallery of fighters-turned-politicians, cronies who had risen to government posts. He spoke of his friends in Liberia who had thanked him for the book saying that their children and future generations would now have an authentic document with which to understand this period of their country's history.

In 2009 Tim exhibited the "Sleeping Soldiers" video installation as part of the Foto8 exhibition at the New York Photo Festival. It quickly drew attention and became recognised as a seminal piece of multi-media storytelling. Spread over three screens, it brought images of the soldiers at Restrepo at rest in their bunks, interwoven with the day-to-day fighting they endured. The piece, only four minutes long, left all who saw it moved by the intensity and raw emotion of the soldiers' experience and the imaginative space Tim had created around the sleeping men.

His upbringing, with his parents Alistair and Judith, sister Victoria and brother Guy, set the tone for a life of bold ambition, self-deprecation and warm humour that made him a joy to be around. He was born in Birkenhead and brought up in Southport, across the Mersey. He attended the Catholic boarding school, Stonyhurst College, and went on to read English and Classics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. A £5,000 legacy from his grandmother enabled him to spend two years travelling round India, China and Tibet, before he joined the photography course at Newport.

The closest he came to admitting he may have done enough – at least for a while – came when he said it was probably time to settle down and start a family with his partner, the film-maker Idil Ibrahim, in New York, the city that became his home early last year. It is often the case that friends who remain unmarried or childless become distant and out of tune with family life. Tim, however, was always the honorary uncle, and sometimes godfather, to the growing numbers of his friends' children. He loved to be with them and I knew when he was with us at home in London that he was always struggling to reconcile the extremes in his life. He saw a strong connection between the suffering he witnessed in his work over the years and the joy and desire of all people to live, love and laugh together.

Recently he put the finishing touches to Diary, a short film he had originally made for himself then shared to a small, enthralled audience in London last year. In many ways it is a confessional piece in which he lays bare the full spectrum of his life – the margins of humanity in Liberia, the military machine in Afghanistan, interspersed with from his visits back home to London, to New York and to the English countryside with his friends and family. One clip shows his niece stepping through a meadow in the evening sunlight of an early autumnal day. A voice says, "This is as good as it gets, this is England... ". It is terribly sad watching it now, so peaceful and beautiful and so full of hope.

Timothy Alistair Telemachus Hetherington, photojournalist and film-maker: born Birkenhead 5 December 1970; died Misrata, Libya 20 April 2011.

Jon Levy is the Founder and Director of Foto8, the magazine and photography publishing company, and HOST Gallery in London.