Tim Hetherington’s last photos and their presentation on the Guardian

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.

 

Author — duckrabbit

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

Discussion (13 Comments)

  1. MrC says:

    Captions clearly written by an intern.

    “These pictures reveal by turn its bravery, beauty, bravado, boredom, banality.”

    What about its bathos, blankness, body bagginess and general all-round ba-da bing?

    “Hetherington understood the brutality of war.”

    Hardly a leap-out-of-the-bath eureka! insight, is it?

    Poor bastard must be cringing in his grave. Still, it does demonstrate how tricky it is to annotate images – which is presumably why Hetherington chose to work with Junger.

  2. Is war photography ever relevant? I mean the pictures that are published are sanitised polished version of the total chaos and pointlessness of a real war.
    In many respects it can been seen as war porn. Journos stuck in boring offices seeing these powerful images coming across their desks showing them a life that they either reminisce about or haven’t the courage to follow.
    Not unlike the depiction of Prostitution which of course is the accurate definition of Porn.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi John,

      I think the term ‘war photography’ is pretty unhelpful because it comes with such baggage. But yes, of course I believe the images can be important for many different reasons, even if only to inform us about the propaganda of war.

      Despite that the role of the photographer in a war-zone has become less important as technology shifts.

  3. Peter says:

    Good post. I thought that the caption to the first photo in the Guardian set is telling. It says;

    “Imagine for a moment that the man who took these photographs in Libya is not dead. Try, if you can, to forget that these are the last pictures that Tim Hetherington made: the mortar bomb is still in the air over Misrata; the shrapnel still in its casing; Hetherington’s heart still pumping blood that has not been spilled.”

    Very odd caption that shouldn’t have made it through the Guardian’s editorial process. The sort of romanticism and sentimentality which tells me nothing about either war or photography. Unlike Hetherington and Junger’s ‘Restrepo’ which is a mature, nuanced and balanced exploration of men at war. Neither Hetherington and Junger feature in Restrepo – they knew that the story wasn’t about them.

  4. no one says:

    He was not a victim of war. He is a victim of magnum and of the idea of being a war photographer. It’a all about glory and a hand full of money. Who in the right mind would ever care if the pictures are award wining when people risk their life to get them?

    He was no better, nor worst, as a photographer, than the hero he tried to be. This is what they should salute, not the more valuable idea of ‘the last pictures of Tim’. I am not sure he would like to be remembered for these last photos he took.

  5. I have to confess to feeling more than a little unease at reading these captions.

    I think the author means well, but meaning well and capturing the meaning of the images well are two very different things. I think these words, however well intentioned, do the work of Tim Hetherington a grave disservice. (Pun intended.)

    And I think this caption quote demands closer examination:

    “Hetherington was rapt by these young men and in turn by their own attraction to war, but as close as he got to the fighting and the fighters, he never became one of them, nor wanted to.”

    In fact, in my humble, naive, sitting-at-home opinion, he DID. He became a fighter. He fought for a justice of sorts, he fought to tell the stories of oppressed people, he fought to tell the stories of the dispossessed, the stories we need to see to understand the horrors of war, and the effect it has on ordinary people like us, the sit-at-homes. And the effect it has on the people who deliver war on our behalf.

    Restrepo clearly demonstrates that fact.

    The ultimate indignity in all of this is that he had also to fight against a media ‘system’ that denied him the ‘voice’ that he has ultimately found in death. I think we need to ask ourselves why.

    A beautifully eloquent, and I think far more insightful epitaph for Mr Hetherington, is this, a few words from a ‘humble’ movie review in the New York Times by A.O. Scott:

    “The filmmakers are circumspect in what they show, taking care to avoid focusing on the wounded and the dead, but the impact of battlefield death and injury has rarely been captured so unsparingly. And though it is composed in the prose of hand-held video, “Restrepo” has the spare, lyrical force of an elegy, inscribing a place for its characters in a tradition of war poetry stretching back to the epics of the ancient world.”

    It would have been a fitting tribute to the deceased filmmaker had the media afforded him a similar degree of circumspection.

  6. Jenny Lynn Walker says:

    What a topic to be writing on here on the last day of the year – on New Year’s eve – for those of us lucky enough to see the start of another year…

    I agree with “No One” when he states he believes Tim Hetherington would very likely not wish to be remembered for the images he took in Libya, and indeed wonder, if he had lived long enough to edit them, whether some of those being shown would have made the grade at all for he was for sure a critical editor.

    To my mind, the images from Libya are far from his best work but this is possibly not the time to go into detail on what is, or is not, the best of Tim Hetherington’s work. For anyone who is not well acquainted with it, this short trailer shows not only the brilliance of his imagery but the mind behind it. For he clearly DID understand war in a way that many others do not, or rather, had the extraordinary capability of being able to convey to others (myself included) how it actually “feels” to be, to be right there, in the minds of those in midst of it. Nobody else has come close to it, nor will they be able to repeat what he did, nor should anyone attempt to for he did it once and for all time imo. The fact of the matter is that he created what are arguably among the most powerful messages about war ever made, but I am no expert on war photography and history itself will decide, as it always does…

    Thinking on the final image in the Guardian sequence that is allegedly “shocking exploitation”, I’m finding that I’m not in agreement for two main reasons. First off, if I were a relative of the deceased, his brother, sister or a friend, and believed that by showing the image of my relative that it might help bring an end to a conflict, I would most likely accept it and would PREFER for the name of my loved one to be kept secret.

    Secondly, it seems to me that what is being missed is indeed well summed up in the caption of the same image: “Making pictures like that was the essence of Hetherington: in Libya he placed himself at the centre of the world’s biggest news story, and chose to shoot photographs in such a way that they had no immediate news value. By separating himself from the more reactive work of his colleagues, he freed himself, and us, so that we might not only look, but SEE.”

    What exactly does it mean “to see”? “To see” means that any one of us could BE that dead man lying in the morgue if we find ourselves on the ground in a war zone – the NATO airforce, drone operators and overseas commanders including our politicians were not… “To see” means that the man lying in the morgue could also be our brother, our relative or a person that we love because the very kind of images that Tim made connected us, had us “inside their skin” – he made us feel, he let us “see” the pain and suffering of men in action, of people in war zones, their greatest trials and tribulations – and he saw the craziness of war itself.

    So I don’t see this matter in exactly the same way. But what I DO see when I read: “Imagine for a moment that the man who took these photographs in Libya is not dead. Try, if you can, to forget that these are the last pictures that Tim Hetherington made: the mortar bomb is still in the air over Misrata; the shrapnel still in its casing; Hetherington’s heart still pumping blood that has not been spilled,” is the kind of propaganda that keeps our young men signing up to get themselves killed on the ground, and photojournalists coming forward to document it, each one putting their lives on the line to fight or to document what would never take place IF we had made greater efforts to create peace and not war.

    Peter is right when he says the caption should NOT have made it through the Guardian’s editorial process. It is the sort of romanticism of war that is entirely at odds with the maturity, understanding and work of this particular author. May he be resting in peace.

    I can see shimmering fireworks lighting up the night sky from where I am writing and I’m thinking of Tim Hetherington and of all who lost their lives around the world in 2011 in conflicts and war. Happy New Year everyone! May we work far harder at being peace-makers, rather than resorting – as our country and so many others often do – so quickly to the use of force.

    Jenny

  7. Jenny Lynn Walker says:

    Sleeping Soldiers by Tim Hetheringon…

    http://vimeo.com/18395855

  8. Jenny Lynn Walker says:

    Tim Hetherington’s “Sleeping Soldiers”. May he be resting in peace.. and his legacy be used to help bring an end to war, NOT glorify it or the job of documenting confict and all the lives lost or destroyed by war.

    http://vimeo.com/18395855

  9. Tom White says:

    I’ve said it before, there’s nothing romantic about getting killed in a war, and this seems to be an attempt to do just that; to romanticise. I never met Tim Hetherington, but I am well acquainted with several people who were close to him, and as such his death became personal. I saw people I care about hurt by the loss of a friend. If this slideshow is supposed to be a eulogy, it feels rather jarring, maybe because it is so poorly written.

    I once heard it said that it’s not how you die that matters, it’s how you lived. For those of us who never met him, let us remember him for the work that he did, much of which was outstanding. Let us raise our own standards and push for greater depth and and breadth in our own work, something he was clearly doing. That I think would be a more fitting tribute than any attempt to lionise him as a hero. For those who knew him personally, may you remember him for how he lived, and the times that he shared with you that we will never know.

  10. Kanani Fong says:

    Who knew what Tim would have thought of these photographs? I think Mike Kamber is the person who could probably guess the best. I also know that if you had an opinion about them to share, he would have listened to you carefully. More than likely, Tim would have been the first critic of his own work. There is a tendency to lionize the dead, sometimes creating a quasi-fiction against a non-fiction background.

    And really, I think Tim would have hated that.

    What he meant to those who knew him runs pretty deep, in a way that can’t always be put into words. Hopefully, his life inspires us to chase those creative efforts we’ve always wanted to try. What he meant to the men who were portrayed in Restrepo goes so deep, no one expects anyone outside the military to understand. If there’s something to be said about Tim, it was this: he gave so much of himself, and because of this, we miss his gifts very much. For his friends, losing him was a tough thing. I think we’re all doing things with him on our mind as we forge ahead.

    • duckrabbit says:

      Hi Kanani,

      thanks for your comment.

      I’m sorry for the loss of your friend.

      My words are about the way the images have been presented in the Guardian and in particular how they have been captioned. How Tim would have felt about their usuage here is for others to speculate.

      Thanks again for your comment.

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