On the night of the day that the worst possible thing had happened, the friends of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros assembled at the Half King amid confused happy-hour revelers for a makeshift wake. The acclaimed war photographers, both based in New York, had been killed in an RPG strike in the besieged Libyan city of Misurata.
As the TV above the bar showed Nightline anchor Terry Moran giving a report about the deaths, Times photographer Lynsey Addario, who’d just survived a kidnapping in Libya, huddled with her husband, who hadn’t left her side since she got home. Sebastian Junger, Half King co-proprietor and Hetherington’s co-director on the Oscar-nominated Afghan war documentary Restrepo, fielded hugs and condolences while watching himself onscreen talking about his fallen colleague. Chris’s fiancée, Christina, who a friend said had just picked out her dress for their August wedding, later joined his Getty colleagues at their favorite haunt from their twenties, Toad Hall. Tim’s girlfriend, Idil, who had spent the day with her family as well as Junger and Junger’s wife, showed up near the very end.
Why Tim and Chris had gone to Libya, and whether it was worth it, were the questions that need not be asked among this crowd. More wine. More tears. More stories. The saddest eating of shepherd’s pie you’ve ever seen.
Tim was 40 and Chris 41, both members of a tight-knit crew of 20 or 30 photojournalists and correspondents who’d come of age chasing conflicts and crises in the post-9/11 world, then retreating back to New York to shake off what they’d seen. Within that crew, Lynsey, Times photographer Tyler Hicks (kidnapped with Lynsey in Libya), and Getty photographer Spencer Platt all went to the same high school in Westport, Connecticut. Tim lived in a Williamsburg apartment building so full of photographers that their friends nicknamed it “the Kibbutz.”
On the rare occasions when members of the crew were back in the city at the same time, they’d get together at bars and dinner parties to swap stories and trade recommendations on body armor. “When you do what we do, there’s home time and on-the-road time,” explains Christopher Anderson, also a neighbor of Tim in “the Kibbutz.” “Home time is compressed, by necessity. To have any sense of continuity, you need a sense of picking up right when you left off the last time.”
“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been to some place at the other end of the world and I’m in a small town amidst rubble and I look around and the three or four people around me are all New Yorkers, and mostly from Brooklyn,” says Spencer. “I remember during the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, I was sitting down for dinner at this warlord’s residence with fifteen other journalists, and I just happened to sit next to Mike Kamber and we both realized we were next-door neighbors on Front Street.”
In February, eager to get back in the field after taking time off to make and promote Restrepo, Tim went to Eastern Libya. He came back frustrated. “He said there wasn’t much of a story, visually. You know, he had moved way past guys with guns being interesting,” Sebastian Junger says. “I think he was pretty disappointed with the quality of the rebels. They were disorganized and they didn’t know how to dig a foxhole, and if someone throws a mortar at them, they’d run away. It felt dangerous and uninteresting and not worth the risk to him.” But Tim became fascinated with the the idea of what he called the theater of war, of inexperienced young Libyans imitating what they’ve seen in war photos and video footage. When he got the chance to go to Misurata, he found out Getty had just assigned Chris to go there, too, and they made plans to meet in Benghazi and team up for safety.
Before Tim’s final Libya trip, he had a long talk with Christopher Anderson about the Libyan conflict, and how Tyler and Lynsey’s kidnapping had given him pause. “A lot of us in Tim’s generation are on the cusp of going, ‘Well, maybe it’s time to hang it up.’” Anderson said. “You start punching the numbers, and the law of averages says that this is a young person’s sport. But the thing is, the longer we do this, the better we get at doing this.
On Thursday, the day after the day it all happened, the friends of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were shaking off hangovers. As Sebastian Junger replayed the events of the previous day, he couldn’t shake the thought that if he had been by Tim’s side, he might have been able to stop his arterial bleeding long enough to get him to the clinic. Christopher Anderson made his way to the studio he shared with Tim, where he paced outside, not yet ready to turn on Tim’s computer and sort through his things. And Lynsey, for whom Tim and Chris’s deaths had opened a floodgate of repressed emotions from her own detainment, started looking for a shrink.