On the Front Lines in Libya

In 2011, Muammar Gaddafi had been in charge in Libya for 42 years. That year, a revolutionary wave swept across North Africa and the Middle East known as the Arab Spring. The outbreak of civil war opened up Libya’s borders, and allowed many journalists to access the country for the first time in over four decades. Photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros travelled with anti-Gaddafi fighters across the country to document the Libyan revolution. Tim’s work captures the events that were unfolding, but there is also a deeper perspective in his work that went beyond reporting on world events: he wanted to reveal the real people who were caught in this conflict.

This footage was taken by photojournalist Tim Hetherington in Libya. It captures the civil unrest that took hold across the country in 2011. Tim travelled with anti-Gaddafi fighters across Libya to capture events as they unfolded. He aimed to go beyond the news coverage and reveal the real people caught in this civil war. Just weeks later Tim was mortally wounded whilst documenting the fighting in Misrata.

In 2011 Muammar Gaddafi had been in charge in Libya for 42 years, since 1969. That year a revolutionary wave was sweeping through north Africa and the middle east known as the Arab Spring. The outbreak of civil war opened up Libya's borders and allowed many journalists to access the country for the first time in over four decades.

Greg Brockett: “Organisations actually claimed that Libya was one of the most dangerous places for journalists to be working at that time. The situation there was very unpredictable and escalated very rapidly. The anti-Gaddafi fighters on the ground were often very untrained and inexperienced. There was a very strict control measure put on media coverage of any sort and reaching the front lines in Libya was often extremely hazardous as well.”

The eastern city of Benghazi was at the centre of the anti-Gaddafi uprising, with street protests and open public descent quickly becoming widespread. Journalists flooded into the city to report on and document events as they unfolded, among them was journalist and photographer, Tim Hetherington. Tim had spent the last decade working in conflict zones. His photojournalism had taken him to countries such as Liberia Afghanistan and Nigeria. In war zones such as Afghanistan, journalists were required to remain embedded with NATO and coalition forces. This restricted their movements and made access to the front lines very difficult, but it did ensure a measure of protection. But the situation in Libya was different, some journalists were able to move freely with anti-Gaddafi forces.

Greg Brockett: “A photojournalist who might have been working in Afghanistan around about that time, they were essentially living with the armed forces day-to-day and so they would have had appropriate shelter given to them and they wouldn't have been allowed to take unnecessary risks in quite the same way.”

Tim first went to Libya in March 2011 as part of a commission for a human rights charity. Documentary work and awards had taken him away from the country but as Tim watched events unfold, he felt compelled to return to Libya to document the situation on the ground as it dominated headlines around the world.

Greg Brockett: “We can't be totally sure how he wanted to use the work that he made there but from his diaries and from the conversations he had with some of his colleagues it seems that what he wanted to do was to further explore how his presence as a photojournalist may affect the subjects and the people he photographed. So, he was really interested in how his presence might affect their behaviour and appearance and how the soldiers who he photographed might have taken inspiration from images they'd seen previously of the conflicts.”

Many of the anti-Gaddafi fighters Tim travelled with had no formal training and were poorly equipped, being largely made up of volunteers. Tim's portraits captured them as ordinary people that had felt compelled to take up arms and fight. Unlike a lot of journalists who were in Libya at that time, Tim Hetherington had a different approach because he wasn't as interested in breaking news stories. He wanted to get under the surface of conflict and to explore its many different layers.

Greg Brockett: “He was interested in, as he would say real people in real situations, and I think this often meant that his projects were more long-term and, in many ways, more thoughtful. I think it's also important to look at the photographs themselves and you can see from his photographs that he's taken very brightly lit portraits which are quite different from what you expect to see in a conflict zone, and I think maybe the reason he did this was because he wanted to show his audiences that he had a connection with his subjects and he actually described the sort of setup he used there in his diary as being a bit more like a wedding photographer just because of how well-lit they were and because of the engagement he had with his subjects.”

In 2011 the UN Security Council passed a resolution authorising western powers to undertake necessary measures to protect civilians in the country. A coalition of forces targeted Libyan air defences and military targets. These operations were known by NATO forces as Operation Unify Protector, and in the British military as Operation Ellamy.

The British government contributed air strikes and surveillance from Typhoon and Tornado GR4 aircraft. Tim photographed the apparent remnants of these strikes, showing blackened remains of Libyan army vehicles abandoned at the side of the desert road as he travelled alongside the anti-Gaddafi fighters. The front line in Libya was a dangerous one because it was so fluid, and journalists had to make their way around the country by traveling with the anti-Gaddafi forces but also finding fixes and contact on the ground.

Along with a small group of photographers and journalists, Tim documented the street-to-street fighting in the city of Misurata. This was a strategically important city as it had been besieged by loyalist Gaddafi forces. Despite airstrikes from above, fighting on the ground in Misrata continued centering on Tripoli Street.

Tim and other journalists worked in close proximity to the anti-Gaddafi forces as they fought to remove loyalist troops from positions in shops, office blocks and rooftops. Tim took still photos and video footage capturing the human perspective of this fighting.

Greg Brockett: “Tim went with a group of other journalists to what was considered the front line in Misrata, which was a besieged city at that time, and a lot of the fighting going on there on the ground was street to street building to building. And so, the journalists themselves were quite vulnerable in that situation. On the 20th of April 2011, a mortar round struck a street just off Tripoli Street in Misrata and he was mortally wounded along with fellow photojournalist Chris Hondros. Obviously, the nature of photojournalism in conflict zones is especially dangerous and carries extremely high risks and I think it's a really pertinent reminder of that.”

The equipment Tim used and the photographs he shot in Libya are being preserved at IWM along with the rest of his archive, forming a complete record of his output as a conflict photographer and trans-media journalist. The distinctly self-aware and visionary approach of his work offers a unique insight into the events of 2011 and a conflict which would lead to years of turmoil.

Greg Brockett: “Tim and his work was really much more interested in themes within conflict which are less focused on in the news media. So, he was interested in for example the relationship between young men and violence and he was interested in his presence and the effect that had on the ground, but also the long and very varied consequences of conflict as well. So, there was very many different levels to what he was wanting to explore. I think that's going to be the main legacy of his work as we go forward and keep looking at it in its different forms.”

Tim Hetherington: “I think the important thing for me is to connect with real people you know, to document them in these extreme circumstances. You know where there aren't any kind of neat solutions or where you can't put any kind of neat guidelines and say this is what it's about or this is what it's about, it's not. I hope that my work kind of shows that.”

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The equipment Tim used and the photographs he shot in Libya are being preserved at IWM along with the rest of his archive. The distinct approach of his work offers a unique insight into the events of 2011 and a conflict which would lead to years of turmoil. The Hetherington Archive will be made available for research, and highlights from the collection will added to IWM’s displays in the years to come, allowing our visitors to explore new perspectives of contemporary conflict through Tim’s exceptional vision.

Explore the Hetherington Archive.

For information about access to the Tim Hetherington collection, please contact the media sales & licensing team.

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