Hetherington, Hondros, and the risks journalists take

The two photojournalists Hetherington and Hondros, both men at the top of their craft, were among 10 people killed in the western Libyan city of Misurata yesterday.

By , Staff writer

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    Photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington (R) and Getty Images photojournalist Chris Hondros are seen in this combination photo April 21. The two photojournalists were killed on Wednesday after coming under fire in the besieged Libyan town of Misurata.
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Tim Hetherington, a photojournalist and director of the Academy Award-nominated documentary Restrepo, and Chris Hondros, an award-winning photographer, were killed in a mortar strike yesterday in the besieged Libyan city of Misurata.

Also killed in the city yesterday were seven local civilians and a Ukrainian doctor.

Both Mr. Hetherington and Mr. Hondros dedicated their adult lives to recording conflict.

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Hetherington spent a year in Afghanistan's Korengal valley, and his work there formed the basis of "Restrepo," which he made with the journalist Sebastian Junger. It's without a doubt the finest documentary about the US military effort in Afghanistan, and one of the finest films about America at war, period.

Hondros was a senior photographer for Getty Images who'd covered more than a half-dozen conflicts, most notably Iraq, where his arresting images earned him the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa award in 2005.

I knew both men only slightly. The Getty Images bureau in Baghdad was at the Hamra Hotel, where the Monitor was based for the first few years of the Iraq war. I saw Hondros occasionally during those days. As for Hetherington, I chatted with him just a few weeks ago over coffee at the Uzu Hotel in Libya's second-largest city of Benghazi.

I left Benghazi over a week ago now, and in the days before I left photographers were growing nervous about the increasing volume and lethality of indirect fire from Qaddafi's troops. Was trying to make a great picture of an explosion, or a dying rebel's last moments, really worth the risk?

As a writer, I go to dangerous places, but usually limit my time at the front lines. In Libya, I went up to the fighting to have a sniff from time to time, but high-tailed it whenever mortar fire threatened to get in range. For the photographers, the luxury of piecing together what happened by visiting hospitals and interviewing survivors just isn't there. Every time I pulled back from the fighting in towns like Ras Lanuf, Brega, and Ajdabiya in eastern Libya, there were photographers in my rear-view mirror.

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Take the morning of March 19: the night before the UN Security Council had passed resolution 1973, extending a no-fly zone over Libya, and touched off a party of epic proportions in Benghazi that involved the firing of thousands upon thousands of anti-aircraft and and rifle fire over the city (I hesitated to go out and cover the celebration, for fear of falling bullets). That Saturday morning, Benghazi was filled with rumors that Qaddafi's tanks and infantry were moving into the city, and tens of thousands of Benghazi's residents were fleeing.

I was skeptical. At about 8 a.m., a jet fighter was shot down about 3 miles from our hotel. I ran into the Wall Street Journal's Yaroslav Trofimov, an old friend, in the hotel lobby and we decided to drive to the crash site and figure out whose plane it was and what had happened (it turned out later the rebels had shot down one of their two planes). As we pulled away from the hotel, two photojournalists hopped in to the backseat to ride with us.

We never made it to the crash site.

After parking in a side-street about a mile from the crash, with the plan to approach slowly on foot, we turned a corner and into a full-blown firefight, with heavy machine guns and rifles chattering towards us and panicked rebel defenders shouting that Qaddafi's tanks were a few hundred yards up the road.

Yaroslav, I, and our driver took off. The photojournalists? They waved us on, said they'd be fine and took cover as we pulled away. They made it out OK, but how big was the risk they took? A short while later in the same location, Mohammed Nabbous, a young Libyan videographer who'd set up an online TV station to cover the revolution, was shot and killed while filming the combat.

There's always a risk/reward calculation. The adage may be "no story is worth dying for," but in practice, reporters and photographers take greater risks if the story seems important enough.

"Important" is of course subjective, but documenting what's happening in the western city of Misurata, where a band of rebels and terrified civilians have been holding out against Qaddafi's rocket and mortar fire for over a month, has become crucial to understanding how effective NATO is in its mission to protect Libya's civilians.

Alan Kuperman, a professor at the University of Texas and a critic of humanitarian interventions, argued a week ago that casualties in Misurata to that point (257 dead) showed that Qaddafi was not indiscriminately targeting civilians and so the argument for the NATO intervention was flawed. He wrote that the presumption of many that residents of both Misurata and Benghazi would suffer severe government reprisals if the cities fell, was likely wrong.

Misurata has only really opened up to reporters in the past couple of weeks. The rebels still control the port there, and humanitarian aid ships have been bringing reporters in from Benghazi and other points east (they usually leave loaded with refugees from the city and many foreign workers who were trapped there when the fighting began). What those reporters have documented is intensifying fire on the civilian quarters of the city and a furious rebel holding action even as NATO planes take occasional shots at Qaddafi's tank and missile positions on the fringes of town.

Also injured yesterday were the photographers Michael Brown and Guy Martin. Mr. Brown apparently took shrapnel in his shoulder, while Mr. Martin has more serious injuries. I don't know Martin, but I met and got to know Michael in Benghazi – a personable and athletic young American. A few weeks ago, as we were talking about the increasingly dangerous environment for photographers, he pulled up his pants leg to show me the exit and entry scars from a bullet wound he got while covering the fighting near Ras Lanuf in early March.

Thankfully for him, the injury was slight compared with what it could have been. He only limped about for a few days. Even so, had it been me, I would have probably packed up and left Libya, at least for a while. But Brown and Martin, like Hondros and Hetherington, lept at the chance to document what's happening in Misurata. It's what they do.

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