Sue Turton is senior correspondence of Al Jazeera.
We were at the eastern gate to the Libyan city of Ajdabiya 10 days ago trying to figure out which way the frontline was going when I first spotted Tim Hetherington out here.
He came bounding over, grinning broadly, cameras dripping from his neck. I teased him about his huge success with ‘Restrepo’, his gritty documentary about life embedded with a US unit in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan.
“So what’s fame and fortune like big man?”
His grin broadened even wider. “Well, clearly I’ve come direct from the red carpet!”
He commented on my light blue flak jacket: “always looking glamorous on the frontline Sue”.
It was typical Tim, switching the conversation away from himself, always humble, never crowing about his amazing talent or the recognition it had gotten recently.
I first met him in a ‘greasy spoon’ cafe next to the ITN studios in central London. We were about to head to Liberia together for Channel 4 News, his first assignment as a cameraman as opposed to a stills photographer. Tim was very tall and very skinny but he quickly demolished a full English breakfast at top speed. After all, he was freelance and ITN was paying.
He talked about this West African country that he knew intimately, having lived there for many years, embedded with the rebels in the dirt as they advanced on Monrovia. It was clear from that first meeting that he had great affection for its people.
In Monrovia, Tim checked us into a hotel far from the one the rest of the press pack stayed at. But this was where the local politicians ate and Tim knew the Lebanese owner who was well briefed to sound the alarm bells back with the newsdesk if we didn’t call in at certain times. And the Lebanese meze was great – food always a priority.
One afternoon we headed deep into a rubber plantation to try to talk to some of the child soldiers. The further into the jungle we went the more nervous I got. It was a shocking road, all pot holes and rocks, and I kept glimpsing faces in the undergrowth.
Zubin, our local fixer, who was sitting next to me in the back of our old pick-up truck, suddenly produced a very large knife from his trouser leg and laid it on his lap. Now I was quietly thinking “where the hell did I put our medical kit?”
We rounded a tight bend and pulled up sharpish. The road was blocked by a very old and shot-up Landrover with four serious-looking, AK-47-wearing dudes sitting inside. Tim got out of the front seat and walked towards them. Their driver turned to say something to his buddies. Rubin shuffled in the backseat, hand gripping his knife a little tighter. I said a very quick prayer. The driver flung open the door and jumped out of the Landy and yelled, “Mister Tim…how are you brother?”
We laughed a lot on that trip. At one point we went into the Executive Mansion, Charles Taylor’s former pad, to try to get permission to film. As we were taken deep into this cavernous building Tim joked that Taylor had kept a tiger in the basement and fed it on his political opponents. He roared loudly as we walked down one hollow corridor, frightening the life out of me.
Permission was denied but we decided to film the mansion anyway. Our old pick-up pulled up in front, midway between two army checkpoints and we darted out to record me quickly talking to the camera. Once in the can we leapt back into the truck and yelled the driver to move – the soldiers had spotted us and were running at us from both ends of the street. The driver turned the key. Silence.
He turned the key again. Again silence. Our trusty pick-up had decided to break down in the worst place imaginable. Twenty seconds felt like two hours as again the vehicle refused to spark into life. Fourth time lucky. We skidded away, laughing nervously at such a ridiculously close shave.
We went back to Liberia after Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was elected president, the first ever female African president. The country still had a long way to go to recover from such a devastating civil war but it was a fitting conclusion to the years Tim had devoted to that country. We both warmed to Ellen. Her reputation wasn’t squeaky clean but her heart was in the right place.
When ‘Restrepo’ was released I told him that I’d watched it in Kabul with a bunch of former SAS blokes and they were blown away by his footage. His immediate response wasn’t to bask in the compliment but to ask if it was on sale in the supermarkets in Kabul and whether it was a blackmarket copy. Most filmmakers would see that as a bad thing as it would reduce their profits. Not Tim. He was chuffed that the bootleggers were copying his film.
Tim cared about the people he filmed or photographed and it showed in his work. We’ve lost one of the world’s greatest photojournalists and one of the industry’s nicest guys. God bless you mate.
PS: The doctor at the hospital in Ajdabiya has rung me to say they are naming a street after Tim in Ajdabiya. There will be prayers said in the main square in Benghazi for him later on Thursday.