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Libya blast kills photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros

'Restrepo' co-director Tim Hetherington and Getty photographer Chris Hondros are hit by a mortar strike in Misurata, Libya.

April 21, 2011|By Ned Parker and Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • Tim Hetherington, left, is helped into a building by a rebel in Misurata, Libya, hours before he was killed. Chris Hondros, right, on assignment in Misurata this week.
Tim Hetherington, left, is helped into a building by a rebel in Misurata,… (AFP/Getty Images; Associated…)

Reporting from Misurata, Libya, and Los Angeles -- 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 tweet was accompanied by a photo of Hetherington, beaming, in a tuxedo.

On Tuesday, Hetherington sent out a very different report from the shattered and besieged Libyan city of Misurata: "Indiscriminate shelling by Qaddafi forces. No sign of NATO."

Those starkly dissimilar 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 Misurata. The rebel-held city in western Libya has been under siege for several weeks by forces loyal to Libyan leader Moammar Kadafi.

The same mortar blast fatally wounded Chris Hondros of Getty Images, a veteran combat photographer whose work appeared on the front page of Wednesday's edition of the Los Angeles Times, and appears in today's edition as well.

Hondros, 41, suffered a severe head injury in the blast and was taken to a hospital, where he died several hours later.

Hondros had received multiple awards, including war photography's highest honor, the 2005 Robert Capa gold medal. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his work in Liberia.

Two other photojournalists were injured in the blast: Michael Brown of the Corbis Agency and Guy Martin of Panos Pictures.

Doctors at Misurata'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 Misurata 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 Kadafi 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 in the afternoon.

Hetherington and Hondros were part of a group of six photographers who made their way up a dangerous strip of Tripoli Street, a front line where Kadafi snipers hide in 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, said Guillermo Cervera, a freelance photographer who was among the group. They were hit by shrapnel from a mortar round.

"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.

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 multi-screen installations and hand-held 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 co-directed with author Sebastian Junger, about a platoon of U.S. soldiers serving in the remote and highly dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival last year.

"There is no way to express my devastation and sorrow at the death of my dear friend Tim Hetherington," Junger said in a statement. "Tim was one of the most courageous and principled journalists I have ever known."

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 Misurata's people and of doing a video project on the conflict.

Most of Misurata is in rebel hands, though it is ringed by Kadafi's forces, which have superior firepower.

"He was just a good guy, an amazing guy to me," Zawwam said.

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