Liverpool, iPhone image, definitely not by Tim Hetherington!
On Saturday, I attended an OCA Study Visit to the Liverpool Open Eye Gallery, where there is an exhibition of the work of conflict photographer, Tim Hetherington, who was killed whilst working during the Libyan conflict, in 2011. The show is entitled 'You Never See Them Like This' and comprises still images, video and audio visual presentations taken mainly from his book, 'Infidel', published in 2010 and originating from his time embedded with American troops in the Korengal Valley, Afghanistan. I am not, let me say from the start, greatly interested in or by war photography; and studies and reflections on truth and photography leave me with a degree of cynicism and concern about the genre of documentary photography - so I went along to the gallery expecting not to be particularly moved or inspired by what I saw. In the event, whilst that basic assumption turned out to be broadly correct, there was more to take away from it than I had expected and I'm glad that I have seen it.
The exhibition is in three rooms. In the first is a series of still images that provide a hint of the context but are chiefly about the young soldiers away from actual conflict. They may be wrestling with each other; displaying unexplained wound-like marks on a bare stomach; slouched in full combat gear, clearly utterly exhausted; or curled up on small, uncomfortable-looking beds, fast asleep - but they are not, in these images, engaged with 'the enemy'. One shows a roughly cut wooden outline of a 'well-endowed' naked man, propped at what looks like a sentry post or look-out point. There are no captions with any of these images, and so we are left to read them as we see fit. The second room is devoted to an audio visual display comprising three sizeable screens, side by side, the centre of which mainly displays a series of further still images of 'Soldiers Sleeping' (the title of this piece), whilst the outer screens, and the accompanying soundtrack, show images of the men out on patrol, or of shell/rocket fire onto hillsides. In one sequence, a soldier is confronted with the news of his friends death and we see/hear his distress and despair. There is no text or commentary; we have only the images and the soundtrack; and we are left to draw our own conclusions, respond with our own emotions. The third room has further stills of the young men away from conflict - almost always tightly framed images of more than one person, in close proximity, playing video 'games' on child-size plastic guitars, leafing (with no great enthusiasm) through magazine photos of naked women. There are some close-ups e.g. of a tattooed arm, of a bullet lying on the ground in a strange red light - and more of young men 'larking about' e.g. one with a handwritten sign 'I love you' held in front of his face. Again, there are no captions, but also in this room is a TV screen displaying Hetherington's video 'Diary' - a loosely assembled montage of stills and moving images, with soundtrack, providing a kind of 'stream of consciousness' narrative of the nature of his life as a conflict journalist. There is, I should mention, an introductory text board at the start of the exhibition, in the first room, and a short video, that includes Hetherington himself speaking about his work and comments from some of his friends and associates.
· My impression - based partly on comments in the introductory video but also in response to the images themselves - is that Tim Hetherington was genuinely trying to do something different here. He more or less said that he was not interested in photographing the conflict but in capturing what it was like to be a group of young American blokes spending this time, together, in a combat zone. That might partly have been a response to the restrictions associated with the policy of 'embedding' journalists, but the outcome, for me, was a more interesting and more human piece of work. I was left, strangely enough, with the thought that images resulting from a period 'embedded' with an urban 'gang', or even with the local football club, might have produced a not dissimilar set. It isn't necessarily a particularly surprising outcome - that these young men share many similar characteristics with other young men - but it is, perhaps, worth saying in the context.
· There have been suggestions that the photographs of these soldiers sleeping lends them a kind of innocence. That I didn't see and don't accept. They did not come across as any more or less innocent than any other group of their peers. We never see 'the enemy' and we never see the global or local context of the conflict in which they're involved - so, in that sense, they are presented as 'innocent' of what might be perceived in some quarters as brutal acts of international bullying, meddling or whatever - but taking this exhibition at its face value, they are not innocent, just normal.
· I referred to the lack of accompanying text earlier; there are no captions, titles, or anything with the still images. It was very clearly the intention of the curators to allow viewers to respond to the images in whatever way they chose - a sound approach, I'd say, in this case. It does encourage the viewer to dwell on their visual and emotional response, I think, rather than focussing on a particular narrative directed by the photographer or curator.
· The 'Sleeping Soldiers', audio visual piece was the outstanding work, for me - and clear evidence that Hetherington was working with a broad range of media and techniques. This was confirmed by his colleagues speaking in the introductory video, who suggested that he was ahead of most others in his thinking about conflict image-making and presentation, with, probably, plenty more to deliver when he was killed. Which leads to another thought - the iconic status that an early death brings to artists; rock and pop musicians being the classic, but not only, example. Would this exhibition have been different if he was still alive? Well it would obviously have had more input from him - but would it have taken place at all? How is our reading of his work changed by his death? Do we judge it more or less harshly? One hopes it might make no difference, but I sense that it does. For one thing, there is an end to his oeuvre, a completeness, a box of work to look at and form a judgement, uninterrupted by new and ongoing activity. It probably doesn't make a huge amount of difference, but it inevitably came up in discussion on Saturday.
· But also inevitable, I guess, are questions about the whole genre of war or conflict photography. Is it necessary? What does it achieve? How meaningful is it in the context of 'embedding'? Is it sometimes more about the photographer than the message/subject? As I said above, it has never been an area that greatly appealed to me and I could easily take the more 'negative' line in responding to all these questions. This exhibition didn't change any of that - but then I'm not entirely sure I would classify it as 'conflict'. What it did change, I think, was my view of Tim Hetherington. Presented in the media as a war/conflict journalist of high standing and bravery, somewhat glorified after his death, he had, I admit, seemed like an 'alien' type of artist to me. That was wrong. Better informed and having seen his work at close quarters, I can see that he was a thoughtful, creative and caring individual - addicted to conflict, yes, by his own admission; inevitably sanctified by an early death, yes, probably; but deserving of the praise and respect that others have bestowed on him, yes, I think so.