Masters of War

In his work, Tim Hetherington tried to avoid the question of whether the war is justified as such.

On Sunday, May 1, 2011, almost 10 years after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, U.S. forces killed Osama bin Laden at the house in which he was hiding, about an hour's drive north of Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. President Obama made the announcement in a special address to the nation. The killing of Bin Laden might give Obama a second term in office, might stir a wave of revenge attacks and might bring about the end of the longest war in U.S. history - the war in Afghanistan. It's a complex war, rife with contradictory interests, which Obama pursued in continuation of the policy of his predecessor, George W. Bush. One of its soldiers, seen here in this photograph by Tim Hetherington, seems to have been pulled out of the trenches of the First World War.

Hetherington's photograph at the Restrepo outpost in Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, won the World Press Photo of the Year Award for 2007. It is an image of a despairing, exhausted, lost and shell-shocked soldier, mouth agape, simultaneously rejected by and swallowed up by the folds of canvas at his back. The large ring on his left hand, the punctum of the photograph, seems to pulse like a wound. Hetherington's documentary film about the army base won the Sundance prize in 2010 and was a candidate for an Oscar. But his series of photos of sleeping soldiers at Restrepo, which can be seen on his website, will haunt every viewer. It is a masterful series, accessible as a highly effective, moving work of art because of its infusion of Christian compassion, action-film toughness, vulnerability and eroticism. Hetherington was with the rebels in Misurata, Libya, when he was killed by gunfire from Gadhafi's forces on April 20. He was 41 and is survived by his parents and a brother.

American soldier in Afghanistan 2007 (Tim Hetherington)
Tim Hetherington for Vanity Fair

In an impressive interview with Max Foster of CNN in October 2010, he explained why he photographs soldiers rather than other images of the war. With the restrained articulateness of an Oxford graduate, he said he hopes that people will look at the portraits of soldiers with engagement, openness and empathy, and make these images an opening for discussion about the complexity of the war in Afghanistan.

His face in the interview is very tense, his dark blue eyes focused. Looking at him, and thinking about both his accomplishments and his unrealized potential, it is difficult to avoid doing what he himself sought to avoid in his photographs of the soldiers: to reduce him to a symbol of heroism.

At one point, Foster asks if he has time for a "personal life." Hetherington falls silent. His expression changes. His jaw locks. In an article in his memory in The Guardian, a friend said Hetherington had been planning to "slow down" and start a family with his Somali partner. In the CNN interview, he finally says something to the effect that even traumatized people manage to have a life. It's a safe guess that the very fact the question was asked bothered him. But it's hard to know exactly why. After all, what can we know about a person without being personally acquainted with him?

In his work, Hetherington tried to avoid the question of whether the war is justified as such. A few weeks after his death, it now seems, following the killing of bin Laden, that there is an answer from American public opinion. As far as they are concerned, despite the pain of this soldier and the intolerable, ongoing hurt and loss of others, the answer is yes.