Capturing the trauma of war close up

Photojournalist Tim Hetherington embeds himself in his subject’s world – and the results are too close for comfort.
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The Independent Online

A photograph of an American soldier in Afghanistan wiping the sweat from his brow as he lies back in his bunker at the end of a day, dirty and exhausted from the relentlessness of war, won first prize at World Press Photo this year.

The photograph captures an unguarded expression on the face of one man yet there is a wider resonance of an entire nation, exhausted by war. It was taken by Tim Hetherington, the first British photographer to win the award since 1980.

Hetherington has spent most of |the past year embedded with American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, an area of intense combat – where men have been shot by insurgents while they are sleeping. The photographer’s work was published in two issues of Vanity Fair this year and he became the first photojournalist to sign a contract with the magazine.

As much as they are images of war, they are about a group of young men and their daily life inside Afghanistan. A series of individual portraits reveals the young soldiers, many of them barely men, attending to each other when wounded, such as the soldier lying on the ground amid rubble, gripping the hand of a comrade as another checks him over. There is a disturbing image of a belt of live grenades on which a soldier has written in marker pen: “4 Mom, 4 Free, 4 9/11”.

Hetherington lived with the soldiers in a small makeshift enclosure on the side of a mountain in the Korengal Valley, sleeping outside on an army camp bed or beneath thick walls hastily assembled from mud and rubble. It was stressful, claustrophobic and frightening.

“I work consciously to find ways to close the gap between me and the person in the photograph,” he says. “It’s also about my involvement with the story. I’m interested in stories to which I can bring some degree of personalisation, an intimacy. I’m not so interested in covering the whole war in Afghanistan. I’m interested in this one place and I like to get very close to the subjects.”

During his time with the soldiers, he formed close relationships. He talked to them about their reasons for fighting and discovered the complexities of the way each man perceived the war. In the same way the soldiers in Vietnam believed they were fighting to stop communism taking over America, Hetherington realised that some of these young men believed they were fighting to thwart the domination of America by Islamists.

“I spoke to one soldier who was only 11 years old when 9/11 happened. I asked him if he remembered it and how he felt at the time. He told me that it made him feel as though he wanted to kill someone. I think it’s interesting because he was so young and it suggests that personal memory seems to be conditioned by institutional memory.”

Hetherington took moving pictures as well as stills, having been commissioned by the American network ABC. He filmed the moment when out on patrol one of the soldiers was found dead, having just been shot by insurgents. Despite the shock and grief of the tragedy, Hetherington kept working. It was a decision which he admits he found difficult and distressing yet he stands by it, believing that professionally it was the right thing to do – the other soldiers accepted his decision although one of them refused to speak to him again.

For an outsider, the footage of this moment gives an intense insight into what it is like for soldiers fighting in Afghanistan. These soldiers may have been trained to fight and to kill but when their friend is shot, their reaction is as confused and grief stricken as any human being’s would be in such a tragic situation. And within the grief, there is fear because the insurgents who killed their friend are still nearby.

Hetherington’s work is extraordinary in that the complexities of the politics of the war in Afghanistan are brought down to the most human level and there is no redemption amid the destruction.

His Afghan footage was shown on ABC news where 22 million people watched it. It won the Overseas Press Club award for the best spot news and has been nominated for this year’s Rory Peck award, which will be held in London next month. But he is less well-known in the UK.

“It’s a difficult market for documentary photojournalism in the UK,” he says. “The advertising world has been very successful in creating an illusion to support consumerism and inevitably work about uncomfortable issues can struggle to reach an audience. People are very responsive to stories that they know to be real because I think, ultimately, documentary images have the power to move people – to challenge and inform them – in ways that advertising can’t.”

Hetherington has embraced new technology in his work and has found ways to show his work outside of traditional media: on fly posters and digital projections. He invests time in his subject matter. He spent eight years in West Africa covering the Liberian civil war and the dismantling of Charles Taylor’s regime. He has been a year in Afghanistan and is planning to go back to the Korengal Valley next year where he hopes to photograph local Korengalis to get their story of the war and make a film about life in the valley. After that he’s thinking about coming home to work on a project in England although, at this point, he is keeping the subject matter to himself.

World Press Photo Exhibition is at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre from 13 November to 8 December. A book of Tim Hetherington’s photographs ‘Long Story Bit by Bit’ will be published by Umbrage next spring