Tim Hetherington: The humanity of war

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Photographer Tim Hetherington was killed on assignment. But his legacy, an extraordinary portfolio that captures everyday life in the heat of battle in Afghanistan, lives on – as a new exhibition shows. By Rob Sharp

In 2007, the war photographer Tim Hetherington accompanied the journalist Sebastian Junger to Afghanistan's Korengal Valley – in the north-east of the country, and a scene of intense fighting – to follow, and photograph, a platoon of US soldiers. After a time, when the frenetic torrents of shooting abated, Hetherington focused his lens on slumbering soldiers instead of flying bullets.

“Tim had become desensitised to combat and sensitised to the emotional realities out there,” says Junger. “That was partly because the Taliban attacks died down, partly because we were getting bored. Things were starting to repeat themselves and his mind was looking for other things. What came along was quieter, and easier to overlook initially.”

Click here to launch a gallery of Tim Hetherington's photos

Next month around 30 of the resulting photographs and accompanying digital video – slumbering troops, along with wrestling comrades-in-arms, and combatants kicking back to play golf – are set to go on show at Liverpool's Open Eye Gallery, the biggest British exhibition of Hetherington's work since his death on assignment in Libya in April 2011. The pictures, all sourced from Afghanistan and showing the camaraderie as well as the violence of war, are vintage Hetherington, in that they speak of the bonds that the intensely affable photojournalist was able to forge with his subjects over 12 months in the field.

Three years ago, I spoke to Hetherington for this newspaper about these photographs and he was typically down-to-earth about their appeal. “You can get bored taking pictures of fighting,” he said. And while others may discuss their chiaroscuro effects, say, or how his portraits of shell-shocked subjects are reminiscent of Don McCullin's work in Vietnam, what's obvious is he was mainly preoccupied by people, and what made them tick.

“He realised that combat is repetitious and ultimately shallow,” agrees Junger. “It doesn't illuminate much about war or life. That's something he got to understand out there because there was so much combat.”

This sentiment, and how Hetherington ended up in Afghanistan, is explored in Junger's intensely moving documentary about Hetherington's life, Which Way is the Front Line From Here? released in Britain this October. Through interviews with the photographer's collaborators, friends and family, there are few better resources for understanding the context of Hetherington's time in the Korengal, which also provided the raw material for the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo, released in 2010, as well as an accompanying book, Infidel, published the same year.

Junger's documentary shows how Hetherington learned his trade photographing the human rights repercussions of the Liberian civil war, which ended in 2003. War reporter James Brabazon, who collaborated with the photographer during this period, says that Hetheringon didn't “give a Western audience the images they expect to see… he came back with an in-depth personal profile... he wanted to understand how war could be caused in the first place”. Hetherington's use of a medium-format Rolleiflex camera forced him to slow down, to “look for the moment”, says Brabazon, to take considered portraiture when others were hankering after action.

“It changes the dynamic of my relationship to people… it means I can talk to people when I photograph them,” he explains in the documentary. “I've got to talk to people.” In Afghanistan, this emotional engagement sometimes blurred the lines between Hetherington's life and work. He was known to break down in tears when recalling an incident when he was admonished by a member of the Korengal platoon for shooting video footage at the moment one of the soldiers was killed – the pay-off, one might say, for spending a lifetime shooting war.

“We're making our living out of death, that's the truth,” says Junger. “God forbid the tragedies of the world don't get reported. But for the people who do that there's an accumulated moral burden.” After Hetherington's death, Junger gave up war reporting for good.

These bonds, between documenter and the documented – and the protectiveness Hetherington felt towards the men – are obvious in these photographs. The lives of men like God-fearing Sergeant Brendan O'Byrne are writ large especially in Liverpool's large-scale prints, showing the tattoos, the poker, the pornography. Shots of the men sleeping, far from the usual contexts in which they are usually framed, render them human. At the Open Eye show, video footage of Korengal combat will be displayed as part of a three-screen installation, along with excerpts of a video diary Hetherington made about the contrast between his personal and professional lives.

Even if the photographer was modest about the art-historical relevance of his work, the universality of its themes makes it appropriate gallery material. “Looking at this work, you could go back as far as [Renaissance artist] Andrea Mantegna's Lamentation of Christ,” says Open Eye Gallery's artistic director Lorenzo Fusi. “It's very Flemish with its use of colour and the wood components, there are also elements of Wolfgang Tillmans and Sam Taylor-Wood. But most of all it addresses the need for love when you are isolated for a year in a war zone. The soldiers have recreated familiarity and domesticity and taken on board someone who is taking photographs and they act as if no one is there.” This naturalness of their behaviour, almost tangible in every shot, pays tribute to Hetherington's abilities.

There is a moving scene at the beginning of Junger's documentary where Hetherington tries to sum up why he takes photographs, but he keeps breaking off his monologue with bursts of embarrassed laughter. The sincerity of his motivation shines through his self-effacement. “What's interesting about war is there's lots of generalisations made up about it,” he says. “But in these terrible moments people are still human and that for me is the redeeming factor of the human experience… it's important for me to make work that is connected to people.”

Tim Hetherington: You Never See Them Like This, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (0151 236 6768; www.openeye.org.uk) 6 September to 25 November

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