When I was in Misrata in May, there were still drag marks on the sidewalk outside a car wash at the end of Tripoli Street, where shrapnel from a mortar shell had hit photographers Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros, Guy Martin and Michael Brown in the early evening of April 20. Next door was the burned hulk of Al-Beit Beitak, or The Home is Yours, a furniture store where Hondros and Brown had photographed rebels flushing out Gaddafi’s snipers earlier that day.
This is the last street corner before the overpass to Misrata airport, a spot that was, in the words of another journalist who was in the city that day, “way, way out there”. In fact, the photographers had passed what little front line there was and were under fire from at least two directions. According to Brown, things were getting “too sketchy”, and the men were about to head back when the shell exploded. The impact crater I found some 20 metres from the bloodstains was small, but since the sidewalk is concrete, the hail of shrapnel must have been horrendous. Martin and Brown suffered serious injuries; Hondros and Hetherington did not survive.
Why were they there? I find this question a little strange, particularly coming from fellow journalists, as it implies that, since there was fierce fighting all along Tripoli Street that day, they could have somehow accomplished the same by risking less. It also suggests that they made the beginner’s mistake of not paying attention to one’s surroundings and ventured too far. That may be true — it’s all too easy to wander past one street corner too many in the confusing battlefields of Libya. But documenting wars, whether by pen or camera, has never been a business where you carefully set goals and then try to reach them by expending as little of your luck as possible. In fact, it’s wasteful as hell. Often you have to roam far and wide just to witness one brief moment that may later prove significant but probably won’t. You’re not looking for the generic; you’re looking for the one-time only. That is why, to be able to shoot his pictures of the battle for Al-Beit Beitak, Chris Hondros needed to be right there at the end of Tripoli Street that day. The events were unique. They were there to see the tree fall.
There is a tendency, at least where I live, to ascribe ulterior motives to almost anything that journalists do. Sure, there are plenty of self-aggrandising dabblers around; and I’m pretty certain most of us have at some point been driven by greed or ambition or a pure, blind lust for thrills. But as motives go, simply wanting to see, “feeling the need to go with it”, as Brown says, is noble enough for me.
There are no heroes in our line of work; some just master the craft better than others. Here’s to you, guys.