Witnesses by choice

Last week, the news of the deaths of two photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros raced around the world of photojournalism (and the larger media world.) I read the various pieces and mostly I was saddened by the loss. I grieve for their families, for our profession and for our world as a whole. During a presentation I gave Thursday night, I paused and asked the audience to remember the two photographers. As I was reading the various articles on their deaths, one thing caught my attention and it may be nitpicking but I think it is important. The two are frequently described as having died “in the line of duty.” They were not under any obligation to be there. It was not part of any military term or enlistment they had made. They were there by choice. That in no way negates what they were doing, or the tragedy of their deaths, but they put themselves in harm’s way by choice.

It was an important choice that they made. They wanted to be witnesses on our behalf. They put themselves at great risk to tell what they thought were important stories, that the world needed to see. I respect them for having made that choice but it was a choice. Which contradicts the various pieces I have read about their deaths, as well as other articles on injuries to their peers in the same incident. In those pieces, that phrase keeps coming up, “…in the line of duty.” It was used on www.huffingtonpost.com, www.npr.org/blogs, http://lens.blogs.nytimes.com/ and many others.

I did not know either photographer personally, but I knew of their work. I knew that they were experienced photojournalists and that they knew the risks of what they were doing. What little I know of Hetherington, it seems he had a great deal of respect for the soldiers he worked along side of, as seen through his movie RESTREPO. It is a feature-length documentary that chronicles the deployment of a platoon of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, which he made with the author, Sebastian Junger.

I have learned more than I initially knew about Hetherington from pieces I have read, including one by a friend and former intern, Nathan Fitch who is working currently in Micronesia. Nathan knew Hetherington. You can read his piece at:
http://www.micronesiaproject.org/2011/04/in-mtim-hetherington.html One of the better pieces appeared in the New York Times this week. That article put these two tragic deaths in a larger historical context. Read more at: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/25/business/media/25carr.html

I have blogged about my brief experience as a war photographer, including:
http://thewellspoint.com/2010/07/12/war-stories-part-one/ and http://thewellspoint.com/2010/07/16/war-stories-part-two/ One of the many lessons I remember from my brief efforts at being a war photographer was the realization that war photographers are defined by their choices. You choose which road to go down, when to push forward and when to back off. Which soldier do you follow and which advice do you ignore. Like in most of life, you never really know what might have happened.

In that same process, I learned that I was neither that passionate about nor was I all that interested in conflict photography. I also learned that I was capable of doing it reasonably well, but in the end I chose not to do that kind of work. Witnessing, and then sharing the resulting reportage of that kind of horror is important and it needs to be done, but by better photojournalists than myself, such as Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros.

Writers who are much more eloquent than I, have explored the experiences of people who choose act, voluntarily rather out of obligation. Those who “choose” to act apparently approach their chosen tasks differently. Religious converts are often the most zealous since they have chosen their faith with intention as compared to most people who are simply born into their religious identity.

From my brief time among the military (and law enforcement,) I have learned that those professionals have a special respect for journalists who choose to put themselves in harm’s way in order to tell the stories of the men and women who fight our wars (and enforce our laws.) I have no doubt that Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros had earned the respect of the soldiers they worked along side of in the various conflicts they covered.

I am also equally sure they would like to be remembered for the work they did. Although I am guessing, I am pretty sure they would not like to be remembered for having died in the “line of duty.” They were not soldiers nor did they ever pretend to be, as far as I know. They made their choices, they took their chances and they did it out of free will, not some obligation. From what little I know of them, and their important work, that is how they would like to be remembered, as witnesses by their own choice.

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