Two Western photojournalists, including an Oscar-nominated film director, were killed Wednesday in the besieged city of Misrata while covering battles between rebels and Libyan government forces. Two others working alongside them were wounded.
MISRATA, Libya — Barely two months ago, combat photographer Tim Hetherington sent out a tweet from the Academy Awards ceremony, where his Afghanistan War film “Restrepo” was up for the best documentary trophy.
“At the Oscars w/ Josh Fox of @gaslandmovie and director of Wasteland,” he messaged, referring to two of his fellow nominees in the category. The message was accompanied by a photo of Hetherington, beaming, in a tuxedo.
His last Twitter post, Tuesday, was a report from the shattered and besieged Libyan city of Misrata: “Indiscriminate shelling by (Gadhafi) forces. No sign of NATO.”
Those dispatches reflected two disparate but complementary sides of Hetherington, 41, who was killed Wednesday in an explosion believed to have been caused by a mortar round in Misrata. The rebel-held city in western Libya has been under siege for several weeks by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi.
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The same mortar blast fatally wounded Chris Hondros of Getty Images, a veteran combat photographer.
Hondros, 41, suffered a severe head injury in the blast and was taken to a hospital, where he died soon after. Hondros, the father of a 3-year-old boy and soon to be married, had received multiple awards, including war photography’s highest honor, the 2005 Robert Capa gold medal. His work in Liberia had earned him a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
Two other photojournalists were injured in Wednesday’s blast: Michael Brown of the Corbis Agency and Guy Martin of Panos Pictures. Doctors at Misrata’s Hikma Hospital said that seven rebel fighters and a Ukrainian doctor also were killed Wednesday in shellings, and 120 people were wounded.
Hondros had been taking photographs in Misrata on Wednesday morning under the protection of a rebel militia commanded by a fighter named Salahidin. His photos captured the militia in action as it tried to flush snipers loyal to Gadhafi from their hiding spots. After transmitting the images to his employers at Getty Images, he returned to the front lines with Salahidin and his men.
Hetherington, Hondros and four other photographers made their way up a dangerous strip of Tripoli Street, a front line where Gadhafi snipers hide inside buildings in the rebel-held city. At some point, at least some of the photographers broke away from Salahidin to get to a safer position, according to Guillermo Cervera, a freelance photographer in the group. They were hit by shrapnel from a mortar.
“We were trying to get to a safe place. It was too quiet. It felt dangerous,” said Cervera, who was a few yards away at the time of the blast. “I heard the whoosh of an explosion, and everybody was on the ground.”
Rebels took the photographers to Hikma Hospital.
Hetherington was pallid and bleeding from a bad leg wound, and he had also been hit in the head, Cervera said.
Martin suffered a severe pelvic wound, said Andre Liohn, a colleague who was at the hospital where the photographers were taken after they were struck.
Martin, a British citizen, underwent surgery Wednesday night, according to the same account. Liohn said Martin’s bleeding had been stopped and his prospects had improved, although a doctor said his condition was not yet stable.
The fourth photographer, Brown, suffered shrapnel wounds to his left shoulder, but his life was not in danger.
Through his photos, which sometimes straddled the line between journalism and fine art photography, Hetherington sought to bridge the perceptual gap between chaotic events in developing countries and the more privileged worlds of his Western readers. His projects had included multiscreen installations and handheld-device downloads.
Born in Liverpool, England, he studied literature at Oxford University and later returned to college to study photography, according to a biography on his website. A contributing photographer to Vanity Fair, he lived for eight years in West Africa before making his first trips to Afghanistan a few years ago.
“Restrepo,” which he codirected with author Sebastian Junger, is about a platoon of U.S. soldiers serving in the remote and dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. It won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year. The title refers to the platoon outpost, named after a soldier, Juan Restrepo, who was killed early in the fighting.
“Tim was one of the most courageous and principled journalists I have ever known,” Junger said.
In Los Angeles, Hetherington’s publicist, Cathy Saypol, said she spoke with him Tuesday night. He told her he was staying in a “safe house” with other journalists and not to worry. Saypol said hundreds of phone calls and emails had been received from soldiers who knew Hetherington from the Korengal Valley.
Mohammed Zawwam, a local journalist, said Hetherington had talked of wanting to help Misrata’s people and of doing a video project on the conflict.
Most of Misrata, Libya’s third-largest city, is in rebel hands, though it is ringed by Gadhafi’s forces, which have superior firepower. It has been the scene of intensive, close-quarters fighting for weeks. Hundreds of Libyans have been confirmed killed.
“He was just a good guy, an amazing guy to me,” Zawwam said.
David Courier, a programmer for the Sundance Film Festival who chose “Restrepo” to open last year’s event, said the movie gave “the experience of what it’s like to be at war.” He described Hetherington as “a really humble guy. … Grace is a really good word to describe Tim Hetherington. There was humility and none of that false humility which can sometimes permeate the entertainment industry.”
The Hetherington family said in a statement: “Tim was in Libya to continue his ongoing multimedia project to highlight humanitarian issues during time of war and conflict. He will be forever missed.”
In an interview last November with PBS “NewsHour,” Hetherington discussed the challenges of reporting on war in “Restrepo.”
“It’s a very slippery thing to try to get out any truisms about war,” he said. “You know, war is hell, but it’s more than that. And rather than lay down any kind of definitiveness, I just wanted to — to show the texture of it. And that meant not just photographing just the combat, but, as you say, the guys, their time off, when war is often very boring. And it’s boredom punctuated by sheer terror. And I wanted to capture all of that.”
Hondros, who has covered conflicts in Iraq and elsewhere, was perhaps best known for a series of images he made of shrieking, blood-splattered Iraqi children whose parents had been shot to death by a U.S. Army patrol, reportedly by mistake.
Rick Loomis, a Los Angeles Times photographer who had known Hondros for a decade and worked alongside him on several occasions, most recently covering the uprisings in Egypt, described him as “one of the best war photographers of this generation.”
“His images made you stop and made you think about what you were witnessing with him,” Loomis said.
Two other journalists have been killed in the Libyan conflict, according to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. A gunman killed Mohammed al-Nabbous, founder of the online Libya Al-Hurra TV, in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi on March 19. Cameraman Ali Hassan al-Jaber was shot when his Al-Jazeera crew was ambushed near Benghazi on March 13.
Parker reported from Misrata, Johnson and Sperling from Los Angeles. Material from The Associated Press and The New York Times is included in this report.