By Whitney Jones
Two photojournalists died while covering the continuing violence in Libya April 20, leaving behind mourning families and colleagues and providing a visual of the sacrifices and dangers photographers and journalists face while reporting on war.
Tim Hetherington, contributing photographer for Vanity Fair, and Chris Hondros, staff photographer for Getty Images, were struck by a mortar round while covering the armed conflict in Misrata.
Hetherington received much acclaim for his Academy Award-nominated documentary “Restrepo,” which followed a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, nicknamed the Valley of Death. The region considered one of the most dangerous places for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan, was closed in April, 2010. The film and the secluded 15-man outpost Hetherington chronicled were named after a platoon medic who was killed in action, along with 41 others in the course of the outpost’s existence.
Hetherington’s family released a statement mourning the loss of their “son and brother,” who was killed by a rocket-propelled grenade while covering the war between the Libyan rebels and the country’s leader, Col. Muammar el-Quaddafi.
“Tim was in Libya to continue his ongoing multimedia project to highlight humanitarian issues during times of war and conflict,” the statement said. “He will be forever missed.”
Jonathan Klein, co-founder and CEO of Getty Images, said in a statement that only weeks before Hondros had accompanied his colleague Joe Raedle, who had been held in captivity in Libya, back to the United States.
Klein said Hondros wanted to go back to Libya even after escorting Raedle home.
“He sat with me and told me in no uncertain terms that he had to cover the stories and take the pictures — so that the world could know what was really happening and could act to prevent more human suffering,” Klein said.
According to a White House statement, other journalists who were with Hetherington and Hondros in Misrata were wounded while covering the armed conflict.
“Journalists across the globe risk their lives each day to keep us informed, demand accountability from world leaders and give a voice to those who would not otherwise be heard,” the White House statement said.
Gary Fong, founder of Genesis Photo Agency, echoed this statement and said both photojournalists and journalists expose themselves to danger as part of their jobs.
“Journalists are just out there recording history, and they are vulnerable to attack by riot situations and war-zone situations,” he said. “They are vulnerable to being killed.”
Kevin Vandivier, photojournalist who worked in Israel and Lebanon in the 1980s, said his first reaction to the deaths of Hetherington and Hondros was grief for the men’s families and colleagues, but that quickly turned into anger toward the violence of war.
“First, my heart breaks for them,” Vandivier said. “As a Christian, I’m also thinking, ‘I sure hope they knew Christ.’ … Then anger always flashes through you.”
Vandivier said the biggest danger of working in unfamiliar and especially violent places is not knowing what is around the corner. He also said Hetherington, Hondros and the other journalists with them faced additional danger because they were easily identified as Westerners.
“What makes it worse now is that these guys are Westerners,” Vandivier said. “As Westerners they have to struggle … do I trust the hotel clerk, body guards and interpreters?”
In addition to being easily identified as Westerners, Fong said photojournalists’ equipment makes them a distinguishable target for people who do not want the stories of war to be heard.
“Photographers are like sitting ducks, really,” he said. “They have their equipment out, (and) they’re concentrating on the camera.”
Even in light of Hetherington’s and Hondros’s deaths, Fong said the work of men like them is highly valuable because if no one is able to report on the ills of the world people would not know about them.
“The reason why you’re in a country is to illuminate the story,” he said. “If for one reason or another you get injured or killed and you were the only source there, the story wouldn’t get out.”
In the case of Hetherington and Hondros, other journalists were present, which is why the American public has heard their story.
“It’s a tragic situation and the story is getting out because there were other guys they were traveling with,” Fong said.