by Edward Rackley
The occasion to commemorate Tim Hetherington's life and work is now upon us; let it not pass in silence. He died on April 20, 2011 from a Libyan mortar on the streets of Misrata. I didn't know him personally, as did many friends and colleagues, but followed his work from the early 2000s in Liberia through the Oscar-nominated Restrepo in 2010. Even in his earliest published work, a new creative force was clearly behind the lens.
An uncanny talent for capturing the grace of strangers amidst the peril of explosive circumstances, he framed them not as cannon fodder or cardboard victims but as dignified members of a forlorn species. “Often we see scenes of disaster and forget that the people imaged are individuals with individual stories and lives,” Tim explained in this clip on his working process. The moral complexity of his subjects matched my own experiences in crumbling dictatorships and nations rent asunder by grievance and the promises of insurrection. From Liberia to Darfur and Afghanistan, Hetherington's different media projects untapped their own turgid fount of memories sweet and sour.
His early Liberia photos were memorable for their fleeting dignity and searing panic of private moments in battle, serendipitous snaps of civilians and combatants with poignant acumen. Others miraculously wove the social, political and economic threads of a conflict into a single image–a West African Breughel sans folly or satire. Child soldiers lording over diamond diggers sprawled in open mud flats, sifting for riverbed gems to fund campaigns of mass amputation, beheading and rape. Portraits of human industry absent any social or political aim beyond self-serving blood and lucre.
This was early Hetherington: still mystified by the paroxysms of humanity in the throes of war. Not a bad start, but embedding in warzones is not hard to do, after all. Anyone can become cannon fodder, and journalists have been accessing armies and frontlines for over a century.