“to take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability. precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
– Susan Sontag
Susan Sontag, American novelist, essayist and critic, wrote this despairing analysis of photography and its role in ‘regarding the pain of others’. Sontag’s statement, regardless of whether we are in agreement or not, is accurate in its diagnosis. Photographs, or the act of making one, is for one to become fully invested in the subject – as Sontag states, ‘it is to participate in another person’s mortality…’, it is a factor that in theory should be second nature to those who do indeed cross land and sea to portray, regard, and disclose ‘the pain of others’, but I am sure that I’m not alone in saying that in practice, it is not.
All too often we see youthful arts graduates trot off optimistically to find war – what the classic photojournalists called the ‘bang-bang’ – the motto ‘if it bleeds it sells’ is still relevant today in an industry that seems to be facing its first major struggle with digitilisation and low demand. But how many of these, regardless of their status (be they freelance or Magnum-sponsored), do truly accept and embrace this arguably grim reality, as articulated by Sontag some 20 years ago?
On the 6th year after his death, Tim Hetherington is still remembered as one of those who did indeed see this reality as a photojournalist, but also sought to go beyond the lens to truly interact with the human in front of him. His dedication to the human subject and their identity beyond what it is perceived to be, is perhaps best demonstrated through his choice of camera: Hetherington frequently used a medium-format Hasselblad (no small weight to carry when under fire from armed children in Liberia). To those who may not know, the Medium Format camera allows the photographer to look away from the viewfinder and rather concentrate on their subject and engage in conversation. This can be seen in Hethington’s work at a Liberian school for the blind, where his photos show not only warmth but also time. From a personal opinion, whenever I look at his work from Liberia I feel time almost come to a stand still – you see the blind children look into the middle distance, but you can immediately tell it is not a blank look, but one of depth and concentration. Hetherington shows no fear, awkwardness or inability to cope in testing circumstances: many of his photographs in this series show a genuine and unique artistic sensibility in the most basic of frames.
His work is not the work of a man with a smart-phone or with a simple point and shoot – you can see photographs that are carefully arranged in terms of light and composition, the hallmarks of a trained photographer. But what Hetherington managed to do, and what Sontag wrote, goes beyond being professionally trained. I believe it is not something that one can be taught, but rather it is an openness and dedication that is either innate or developed by way of direct experience. Hetherington famously defended a doctor about to be executed by the notorious LURD in Liberia by putting himself between the victim and the weapon – this alone should be remembered as emblematic of Hetherington’s character and determination.
Hetherington’s eye was one that can be easily considered unique: despite his official title as ‘photojournalist and war photographer’, his work shows a man who was not motivated by a voyeuristic desire to freeze death and destruction into a single frame, but rather by a need to beyond the ‘bang-bang’. Regardless of sympathies for sides in the War on Terror, I challenge anyone to not be moved by Infidel, his most famous book containing photographs of the famous sleeping U.S soldiers in Afghanistan. You see no blood, you see no screaming, you see no destruction – what you do see are frailty, vulnerability and distorted notions of masculinity incarnated.
The most important trait in a photographer is to know where to look. Even in times of desperation, brutality and violence, Hetherington always knew where to turn his gaze next. Perhaps it was this unique sensibility for the strife of others that ultimately led to Hetherington’s death.
I’ve chosen to write about Hetherington since he is the photographer whose work I most admire; but he was not alone in being a great artist, nor was he alone in death. Along with him died Chris Hondros, twice-finalist for the Pulitzer, yet another excellent artist claimed by the tragedy of war. I also think that when one remembers war photographers, one immediately calls to mind their subjects.
In remembering Hetherington, let us also remember those children who had their childhood taken away and replaced by a Kalashnikov.