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Tim Hetherington: Transforming Horror into Beauty

Tim Hetherington was frequently preoccupied with time, a persistent concern that plagued him during every photography assignment. His primary source of contention revolved around the allocation of time: why did writers receive a full hour with their subjects while photographers like him had to make do with mere snippets of time around the margins? He adamantly resisted any attempts to rush him, emphasizing the importance of the work he was engaged in and the need for meticulous attention to detail.

Back in the late 1990s, Tim and I worked together as colleagues at the Big Issue magazine. The editorial environment resembled a dysfunctional family, with everyone fiercely defending their positions and navigating through a steep learning curve. While some considered the office their home, Tim was merely passing through, destined for more adventurous pursuits and greater achievements. His journeys led him to rebel convoys in west Africa, bunking alongside GIs in Afghanistan, and documenting the early stages of the war. His methodical and deliberate approach to assignments contrasted with his full-speed engagement with life, as if he were constantly racing against an internal clock, aware of the preciousness of each moment.Fighting spirit … war veterans pull on false limbs for a football match in Angola.

The current exhibition, Storyteller, at the Imperial War Museum in London, intricately weaves Tim Hetherington’s legacy into the annals of history. Showcasing his photographs, films, journals, and cameras, the exhibition narrates compelling stories of individuals on the frontlines. Yet, beyond the vivid narratives depicted in his pictures, there lies an implicit tale of Tim himself. The retrospective seamlessly guides visitors through his early work in Liberia, his experiences in Sierra Leone, and his final days in Misrata during the Libyan civil war.Brothers in arms … GIs wrestling in Afghanistan.

Contrary to the stereotypical image of a war photographer as a thrill-seeker or a chaotic presence, Tim embodied seriousness, idealism, diligence, and principles. His path to conflict photography stemmed from humanitarian endeavors, evident in his focus on the human elements within the military landscape. Tim’s images delved into the intricate relationships and subtle nuances amidst the chaos, capturing poignant moments that transcended conventional war narratives.

Renowned show curator Greg Brockett acknowledges Tim’s profound influence on fellow photographers and industry insiders, contrasting it with his relatively limited recognition among the general public. The exhibition aims to introduce Tim to a broader audience, portraying him not just as a visual storyteller of conflict but as a nuanced communicator who challenges conventional perspectives on war.

Tim’s unique approach to photography, particularly during the early 2000s when digital transition was rampant, involved shooting color negative film on an analog camera, restricting him to 10 frames per roll. This deliberate choice forced him to meticulously compose each shot, elevating his work beyond the frenetic pace of the news cycle and steering him towards long-term thematic projects like his contemplative series on servicemen at rest. His affinity for revisiting subjects and immersing himself in group dynamics is evident in his collaborative efforts with Sebastian Junger in creating the documentary Restrepo.Died minutes from hospital … Hetherington.

The tragic circumstances of Tim’s untimely death in Misrata in 2011 have cemented his legacy, freezing him in time as a perpetual 40-year-old, forever intertwined with the frontline narratives he captured. His friends humorously reflect on the hypothetical scenarios of “Tim would have,” underscoring the enigmatic nature of Tim’s persona and the uncertainties surrounding his unrealized potential. Despite the tragedy, Tim’s enduring impact on the world of photography and storytelling remains indelible, leaving a void of unfulfilled possibilities and uncharted territories that only his creative spirit could have ventured into.

In conclusion, Tim Hetherington’s indelible mark on the realm of conflict photography and visual storytelling resonates through the ages, transcending mere documentation to encapsulate the essence of humanity amidst turmoil and strife. The exhibition serves as a poignant tribute to his unwavering commitment to capturing the human experience in its rawest form, immortalizing his legacy as a visionary storyteller who traversed the boundaries of time and history.

Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington is showcased at the Imperial War Museum in London, running from April 20 to September 29.