Tim Hetherington

Tim Hetherington
(Photo by Justin Hoch)

The tragic death of war photographer and documentarian Tim Hetherington last month in Libya was widely covered in the press. Deserved honorifics came to him for his work, particularly his fantastic 2010 documentary, Restrepo, which he co-directed with Sebastian Junger. If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend you give it a viewing and, come to think of it, see War Photographer, a 2001 documentary mostly about James Nachtwey, one of the revered veterans of Hetherington’s trade. It’s a great doc that provides a compelling look at what these guys are like, what they do, and why.
Hetherington’s death continues to have a hold on me. I’ve been thinking about it, and couldn’t help but wonder about other documentarians who’ve died on the job. Journalists are killed frequently — 863 have been killed since 1992, according to the website of Committee to Protect Journalists — but what about feature doc filmmakers? I was relieved to find that there have not been as many deaths as I feared, considering all of the documentary filmmakers out there, crawling around the world, getting so close to trouble.

Before Hethington was killed, I’d heard the story of Karen Woo, a surgeon from England whose compassion had led her to work in Afghanistan. She was in the middle of production on a documentary telling the stories of regular Afghans — her patients. Last year, she joined one last perilous mission to bring aid to people in Afghanistan’s Nuristan region. She, and almost everyone from her group, was killed in an ambush. Her wedding was set to happen two weeks later. The Life and Loss of Karen Woo, which recently aired on ITV in England, was compiled by Woo’s family and friends from her footage.

The Life and Loss of Karen Woo (clip) from The Place on Vimeo.

Probably the best-known documentary filmmaker killed in action is James Miller, another Brit. Miller was making a film for HBO in 2003 in Rafah (in the Gaza Strip) when he was shot by an Israeli soldier. The death was reported as an accident, but the completed film, Death in Gaza, shows the filmmakers holding up a white flag and announcing their intention to leave the area. After a warning shot, Miller was shot and killed. His death was made part of the final film.

Christian Poveda was a French filmmaker who had just finished a documentary about violent street gangs in El Salvador in 2009. He was found shot dead by, one can only assume, some of the criminal element that he had been covering.

Another professional I found in my research was Rick Lomba, an award-winning South African nature documentarian. A Bengal tiger killed Lomba in 1994, while he was filming in a zoo enclosure in Angola. (An example of Lomba’s work, the 1986 film The End of Eden, is available as 10 minute clips on YouTube. Its first clip is embedded below.)

But the story that strikes me as the most tragic is that of Justin Amorratanasuchad, a 21-year-old film student at Emerson College. He had won a student Emmy while in high school, and had a promising career ahead of him. Just a couple of days before Hetherington’s death in April, he was working on a project in Boston when he fell off a roof and died. One can only imagine that Amorratanasuchad was taking those initial steps in a career, pushing boundaries to get a good shot. Awful.
His death, like each of these, is terribly sad, but at least there’s some small consolation in that these documentary filmmakers died doing what they loved doing.
As much as I don’t want to hear about more documentarians who’ve lost their lives while pursuing their work, I know I must have missed many. You can share them with me or leave their stories in the comments.

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Tom Roston
Tom Roston is a guest columnist for POV's documentary blog. He is a former Premiere magazine senior editor, who graduated from Brown University and started his career in journalism at The Nation and then Vanity Fair. Tom's freelance work has appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, The Hollywood Reporter and other publications. He has written several Kindle Singles, including the bestselling Kindle Singles Interview: Ken Burns. Tom's current list of favorite documentaries are: 1. Koyanisqaatsi by Godfrey Reggio; 2. Hoop Dreams by Steve James; 3.Stories We Tell by Sarah Polley; 4.Crumb by Terry Zwigoff; 5. Montage of Heck by Brett Morgen