Text by Georgina Wright
Open Eye gallery pays tribute to the Liverpool-born, photojournalist Tim Hetherington in the largest exhibition since his tragic death during the Libyan civil war in 2011. The exhibition presents an intimate portrait of the experiences of war, focusing on his own encounters in West Africa and the Middle East. With a background in literature Tim Hetherington had a profound insight into the human condition, as suggested by the exhibition title, a quote by Tim, You Never See Them Like This, describing the revelation he had when viewing the images of sleeping soldiers presented within the exhibition. As explained by Open Eye director Lorenzo Fusi, Tim’s career had ended at a crucial point; he had achieved his full professional and personal maturity, which gave him the confidence to radically rethink his practice and the conventions of photojournalism. This particular exhibition demonstrates how his involvements were becoming more aesthetic and ethical with time. Furthermore, the lack of explanatory content within the exhibition reveals Tim’s recognition that an image displayed in an art gallery must speak for itself, the moment it requires explanatory text indicates that it is the wrong image for that particular context.
The exhibition comprises of three parallel collections of work acting as a peculiar narrative for the experience of war. Firstly Infidel (2007-2008), a word frequently used in intercepted communication and the mildest of names used by Afghans when speaking with the American contingent. Tim and the soldiers identified themselves with this ‘label’, tattooing themselves with the word. This group of work demonstrates that the apparent clash of civilizations works both ways. Images of tattoos, war symbols, religious and national symbolism used within the military language and which soldiers use to commemorate their colleagues, marks their progressions and also reveals the attachment, intimacy and the sense of togetherness Tim and the soldiers experienced. This collection of work also includes Tim’s world press winning photo, a weary, disheveled and “emotionally embedded” image of a soldier. Tim, in an interview revealed, “Getting close to people is the hard bit – once you’re close to someone then making an image is not hard.”
The second part of the exhibition Sleeping Soldiers (2009 -2011) includes images of soldiers sleeping and juxtaposes the intimate, tender moment of sleep with action of war and emphasises an uncertainty and vulnerability, the fragility of being asleep and the fetal-like positions act as a metaphor for childhood. Tim’s photographs express camaraderie, affection, solitude, homesickness and male vulnerability. They also intrinsically refer to the traumatic experience of war, which is markedly evident in his video installation within this section of the exhibition. The horrific sound of military action and gunshots pervade the gallery space, motionless images of the sleeping soldiers perceptibly contrasted with footage of military combat, generating an unquestionably disturbing yet insightful piece with reference to the experiences of the men at war.
Lastly, Diary (2010) an extremely personal and experimental film that expresses and dissects the subjective experience of documenting war. Once more there is a discussion between still and moving image. There is hazy, impressionist style in the formation of the footage, a kaleidoscope and overlapping of images, aligning western reality to the seemingly distant worlds we see in the media. Diary is the last film work that Tim completed before he was killed. With regards to Diary, Stephen Mayes, a friend of Tim’s states that “This immersive reportage stands, as a manifesto for a different way to see, feel and understand the world we live in”. I suggest this statement is true of the entire exhibition and although disturbing in parts, the intimacy and dedication of Tim Hetherington is unmistakably touching.
Georgina Wright is a writer based in Liverpool.