Photos by Tim Hetherington/Panos.
I neither knew Tim Hetherington, nor had we ever met. Yet, I do know his work, which meant the news of his death in Misrata last April, whilst covering the conflict in Libya, resonated with me deeply, even amidst the series of seismic and escalating headlines in the international press over the last year or so.
As we peer through a lens at the last ten years since the events of 11 September 2001, it seems an appropriate moment to reflect on the life and work of a man, whose own poignant pictures provided us with an intimate account of some of the most pivotal events that happened during this same timeframe. A visual communicator, Hetherington’s primary tools for his craft were photography and film, which he has deployed to great acclaim over the course of a glittering career.
Though it may seem an unlikely paradox for the medium, what distinguishes Hetherington’s work are the moments of stillness that he was, time and again, able to capture. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes provides us with a word for that familiar but often elusive moment when a photograph immediately transfixes and transports you into the scene, or into the eyes of the viewer of the scene. He calls this piercing jolt of emotion the ‘punctum’ and Hetherington’s work is riddled with them.
For instance, his long-running project on the landscape and politics of Liberia is chockfull of images that, after a moment, suddenly held my gaze so that I was unable to look away, facing its core. As I looked I found that each image contained a finely weighed contemplation of a given moment, in all its furious intensity.
This gives us some clues of Hetherington’s methods as a photographer, or maybe even hints at his personality. His unobtrusive lens is often deployed subtly to the very heart of a natural personal engagement with the environments and individuals he encountered on his assignments. One might imagine that in Sleeping Soldiers – a project Hetherington formed whilst positioned on the outpost Restrepo with US soldiers in 1998 – trust, camaraderie and understanding were carefully nurtured before such a discourse can commence. Soldiers are trained to extinguish or at least conceal vulnerability and intriguingly, in this series of photographs, Hetherington somehow captures these otherwise well concealed human traits. Our vulnerability, even the vulnerability of a soldier, can’t be kept from him. The images can lead you to consider the trauma and fallout consuming the emotional fabric of each of these individual fighter’s. Their subconscious desperately trying to make sense of the extremities of existence they have chosen to face head on. ‘Documentary photography’ has always served to describe accurately an incident or event, but the most distinctive photographers operating in this field lend their work a sense of poetry and narrative. These are things equally as integral to communicating with an image, as we all able to read certain emotions.
The assignment at the US outpost Restrepo also led to the impactful, award-winning, experiential documentary of the same name. Hetherington and co-director Sebastian Junger focus on the place, if any, of the individual within a conflict, their objectives, but also their fears and confusion are brought to light. What sets Restrepo apart from other documentaries particularly in the context of warfare, is its ‘hands off’ approach. The cameras rove silently, following the action, the pain, grief and defiance as one might experience on a deployment. Hetherington’s intention to bring us nose-to-nose with the world’s unrest at the risk of his own safety is lucidly brought to bear in the visceral film. Posing no questions, creating no answers: they elect instead to present you with the images and allow you to make up your own mind. Such an approach is undoubtedly innovative in its emphasis on the subjective experience of the viewer, but make no mistake, they are also providing a very specific viewpoint at all times: offering both freedom and control in equal measure.
The role of the photojournalist can be regarded as integral to the outcome of the incident being covered, with the disruption of a third party or ‘foreign’ presence circumstantially changing the course of events by their presence, but equally they play an important role in bringing us to the heart of the world’s political, social and environmental changes. Documentary photography itself is undergoing a rapid evolution, with technological developments making what were specialist vocations more accessible to each of us. Our world is becoming increasingly transparent. Anyone with a computer and an idea can create their own discourse or observations about the world today. I was riveted by #Libya, trawling through tweets as the conflict between rebel groups and Gaddafi unfolded. Mobile phone images instantly uploaded from the tumultuous ground, the energy of the uprising, unfiltered, immediately available for all of us to witness.
Nonetheless the photojournalist in the more traditional sense is still crucial to helping us properly see this planet, even with the perpetually shifting political and economical landscape mimicking the recent restlessness of our tectonic plates. Remember Tim Hetherington for being one who kept his feet on the ground regardless.