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Today marks three years since the death of Tim Hetherington. I published the following post not long after, but it still feels relevant today …

Yesterday I received the following email from a photographer and thinker whose work I really admire (not someone who has anything to prove). The subject was ‘Hetherington’s last photos’ as recently published in the Guardian.

This really frustrates me.

The ‘cult of the war photographer’ perfectly illustrated, exactly as raised on your blog post.

The photos are not that good (with the exception of image 8 and maybe 9). Why does the critic write about them as if they are?

Image 10 – shocking exploitation. Use a picture of an anonymous dead body (with no background contextualisation) as a means of enthusing about a photographer.

I started to wonder why is this such a sacrilegious point of view? (it’s worth pointing out the photographer is an admirer of Hetherington’s work. This post is about the presentation of the photos)

Here is image 10

We don’t know this man’s name. We don’t know his story. We don’t know how he lost his life (though chances are his family will have been alerted to this image). He’s merely an extra in a different story; the one about what a great war photographer Hetherington was.

The caption perfectly captures a different kind of conflict at the heart of much modern photojournalism.  This image, it’s claimed, encapsulates the ‘essence of Hetherington’, which enables us to ‘not only look, but see’.  But surely the more we see the hand of the photographer the more the stories of the people in the images become obscured?

It was this picture and caption that really made me think:

 

Hetherington’s comprehension of the condition of war was profound, and in losing him we understand less about war and what motivates young men to wage it. ‘

There’s no doubting Hetherington’s understanding of conflict and all the questions it raises, but do these photos, shorn of any meaningful context, really help us to understand the Libyan war any better? For me its a bit like suggesting that looking at a sequence of pictures of a woman giving birth means that you can somehow ‘understand’ what it is to give birth.

The photo above would, I think, have fallen foul of Hetherington’s own critique of much of the photography that came out of Libya, which he expressed to his friend Michael Kamber shortly before his death

He was upset at how some photographers presented the rag-tag rebels as heroic fighters, when in fact they were sometimes “kind of a joke.” Those pictures, he said, might win prizes, but not his respect. “We have to fight making propaganda,” he said to me one night at dinner. “The media has become such a part of the war machine now that we all have to be conscious of it more than ever before. ”(NYT LENS BLOG)

Infact the photo of the man above could have come straight out of a Hollywood movie. Young, fearless, good looking and toting a big gun. Remind you of anyone else?

 

In another interview published on the New York Times Lens blog last year Hetherington was asked by Michael Kamber if he still considered himself to be a photographer?

If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

Hetherington was wrong in stating that photography is no longer a form of mass communication, but I think his comment reflects his own understanding of  what his photography on its own could or couldn’t achieve. He was searching for better ways to tell the stories that he cared about, to challenge new audiences, which is why its so sad that the presentation of his images in this way seems part of a strategy to place Hetherington back into a world he’d seemingly moved on from.

In the film Restrepo, Hetherington, working alongside Sebastian Junger, was able to achieve something that the hundreds of thousands of photos from the Libya conflict were never able to do. Give voice to a group of men. That’s because Hetherington understood that the most profound, the most affecting stories are almost always told by the people that lived and experienced them. Maybe it’s for that very reason that we seem to have reached the point that the war photographer themselves have become an easier story to sell than their photos. And that’s how we’ve ended up with the photo of a dead man in a fridge ‘as a means of enthusing about a photographer.

 

Footnote

There seems to be a small minority of people in the photography world who feel threatened by criticism of the cult of the war photographer.  But is it not possible to agree that photography published in national newspapers, referencing a recent and ongoing political situation, of which the UK played a significant role, and in which up to 25000 people died, must be open to critical debate, irrespective of whether the photographer is alive or dead?

To say otherwise seems to me to be a claim that Hetherington was not involved in journalism, that nothing he did was open to interpretation and that the value of a photographer should be measured in the number of backslaps they can acquire.

I didn’t know Hetherington, but I’m pretty sure he was better than that.

 

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

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  • http://reciprocity-failure.blogspot.com Stan B.

    Most 20 yr olds who find themselves in the midst of war and battle don’t have a flyin’ of what they’re in or why. Those who live to tell the tale know it’s just serious crazy bullshit.

    How do we make sense of pictures of insanity?

  • http://www.john-macpherson-photography.com john macpherson

    I scrolled down expecting there to be some comments here, maybe a few observations, perhaps an irate “how dare you” and was surprised to see there are not. Maybe it’s because it’s the holidays? Maybe it’s not.

    I watched the Tim Hetherington documentary a few weeks ago, and as I remarked at the time in a previous post, I was profoundly moved by it. I was moved not (just) by his work, but more by the man described by his friends, his lover, his family, and simply those other ‘nameless’ people he encountered as he worked.

    In a couple of decades working in Social Work Disability Services and dealing with some difficult people, I met a few other SW staff whose work, and (even more testing) client groups, made me stop and take a sharp intake of breath. Their jobs were incredibly difficult, their client group immensely challenging, in ways most of us can’t imagine. But these rare individuals could see beyond those difficulties and discern somewhere within, the kernel of normality that they could work with, use as a lever to effect (sometimes small) changes.

    Watching Tim Hetherington on screen I was reminded of that insightful ability to reach people, to simply connect with them. If he had chosen another path in life, as a Social Worker, or as a Doctor, I’m sure he would have been someone whose uncanny ability to make that most humane of connections would have made him a sought-after practitioner.

    It was obvious from listening to the words of those who shared their reminiscences of him that he had touched them with his concern for the plight of his fellow man, and how he strived to find ways that he might best translate that into a story which we armchair warriors might take heed of.

    When I see the images as shown above shorn of the context and story of the subject I am utterly dismayed by the ‘betrayal’ this represents of Hetherington.

    Your comment:

    “Hetherington was wrong in stating that photography is no longer a form of mass communication, but I think his comment reflects his own understanding of what his photography on its own could or couldn’t achieve. He was searching for better ways to tell the stories that he cared about, to challenge new audiences, which is why its so sad that the presentation of his images in this way seems part of a strategy to place Hetherington back into a world he’d seemingly moved on from.”

    ….is one I thoroughly agree with.

    As I watched the Hetherington documentary my overwhelming sense was of a life unfinished, a journey that may have led to some revelations and insights that he might have teased out of conflict that we may all have benefited from. We’re all the poorer for that loss.

    And its the profoundest of ironies that the very communication tool, photography, that he perhaps felt was so lacking as a means of communication when he was alive, has in death enabled him to reach far more people but, I suspect, for all the wrong reasons (if the examples above are any guide).

    After watching both Restrepo, and the recent documentary about his life I think I can say ‘yes he was better than that’ in life, and that he deserves ‘better’ in death even more. And so do his subjects.

  • tonemeister

    Beautifully put, John. Agree completely with what you say in regards what was said about TH in the documentary about him. Duck nailed it again with his original post.