From Liberia to Libya, Tim Hetherington Set the Bar of Photojournalism

How the late Tim Hetherington made me look at photography in a new light and raised the bar for photojournalists everywhere...
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How the late Tim Hetherington made me look at photography in a new light and raised the bar for photojournalists everywhere...

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Since his death on last year, Tim Hetherington – ‘a brilliant journalist and a radical, courageous film-maker’, according to The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw – has become another statistic of the civilian deaths in war-torn Misrata, Libya. Alongside his colleague Chris Hondros, he was travelling with a group of rebel fighters when he was killed in a rocket-propelled grenade attack; he was working on a multi-media project to document the crisis in the country and hoped to ‘shed light’  on the ‘confusing’ situation there.

I first became familiar with Tim Hetherington when I finally returned to University in 2008 to finish my long-abandoned Theatre degree. Bored with performance and ‘shock-factor’ of many of the contemporary playwrights, I developed an interest in photography that originated with Cindy Sherman and Diane Arbus, and moved onto documentary photojournalists such as Henry Cartier-Bresson, Eddie Adams and, more contemporary, Hetherington himself. The image that first piqued my interest in his work was the 2007 World Press winning photograph of a weary American soldier covering his face after a day fighting in Afghanistan. Hetherington captures crushing humanity, failing and strength, a lone American soldier reclining on a rock, his left arm cradling his helmet and his right pressed to his forehead. What perhaps is most perturbing is his expression. His gaze falling just to the left of the photographer, his mouth open, he displays a complex mixture of emotion which is hard to articulate; despair, surprise, fear, disbelief; these all seem a little too trite to do any justice to the image. Surrounded by colleagues and students with strong political views on the war, Bush, Blair, this photograph intrigued me, confused me. Still does. It portrays human frailty, courage, disbelief, uncertainty - but do I feel sorry for the soldier? That’s probably the wrong question. I’m certainly fascinated by him. Generic uniform aside, I want to know what he felt then, now. What he thought and thinks. How his role would shape his life to come. I want to know about his family; who was missing him then, and who was (or still is) waiting for him. I want to know his name.

Hetherington absorbed himself into the unerring chaos and danger of war, making his documentary ‘Restrepo’ about the lives of American soldiers fighting in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. His process involved getting as close as possible to his subjects; sleeping in the same conditions as them, travelling in helicopters with them. He often said he didn’t want to cover war as ‘a whole’, but rather work to establish links between himself and the soldiers, the people he was documenting and the stories and viewpoints they had to share. Through this he draws the viewer in, forces them to experience the same horrors and fears as we move through their – his - journey. The intimacy of his ‘Sleeping Soldiers’ documentary – intended as a supplement to ‘Restrepo’ -  is both disturbing and touching, the exposed teeth of the subjects and yellowy lighting often lending a distinctly corpse-like feel to the images. One young lad is curled into a foetal position, his hand protectively between his legs and his expression tight.  Another sleeps confidently on his back, his arms splayed back exposing his armpits and bare chest. Stripped of uniform they are fathers, sons, uncles, brothers, half-naked and vulnerable somewhere else.

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There are two Hetherington images I find equally affecting. The first is that of grenades secured in an American soldier’s belt. Each one is written on in thin black marker, a message to the victims they find. ‘9-11’, says one. ‘4 Mom’, says another. Another spells out simply ‘FREE’ in block capitals. The second image is of an Afghan villager carrying an injured child to army medics in the aftermath of the American Apache helicopter attack. The man is dressed in white, the baby hopelessly limp in his arms and covered with cloths from the waist up. In the background the American soldiers are blurred, a fissure of movement, shadows. They are barely there, yet they are, in many ways, the focal point of the photograph.  It is a startling image, the brilliant white of the man stepping out of the gloom holding a tiny body and the inscrutable look on his face as he regards the camera, the viewer, Hetherington.

Interestingly Hetherington questioned his status as a photojournalist. Such was his determination to highlight humanitarian issues, he felt the phrase belonged more the photographers who captured violence, fear, death without thinking beyond the image itself.

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“People are continually lumping things together,” he commented in a Seattle Times interview.

‘What I have a problem with is people putting me into the photojournalist expeditionary core of someone who is moving around the world taking pictures of violence without thinking about what I am doing”.