Tim Hetherington, You Never See Them Like This – Reviewed

Tim Hetherington

The current exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery is challenging and insightful in its questioning of war…

To an outsider at least, the motivations and intent of a combat photographer can be hard to come to terms with.

As with their cousins the war reporter, they are open to accusations of bravado, or worse, producing subjective results, even when that wasn’t the intent; embedded journalism (and by extension the associated connotations), just as with the stray bullets, is a constant danger.

It was with those thoughts that we approached the current exhibition at the Open Eye Gallery, Tim Hetherington, You Never See Them Like This – a collection of the work of the Liverpool-born photojournalist.

That and the inescapable fact that Hetherington died in 2011 (along with fellow photographer Chris Hondros) while covering the Libyan civil war in Misrata, caught on the front lines in a mortar attack.

“What we found was much more interesting than the gung-ho images that may more readily spring to mind”

What we found in the first solo UK exhibition of Hetherington’s work since his death, bequeathed us by this cruelly short career, was something much more interesting, more questioning than the assumptive gung-ho images that may more readily spring to mind.

Indeed (and increasingly), it seems Hetherington had been thinking deeply about what it was to be a combat photographer – “what is it about war that really draws men?” he asked – and certainly that there must be more to it than the simple binary it at first suggests.

Some of the results of that thinking are clear to see here: taken from his 2010 book Infidel, we see images of young men, more often than not in repose; playing video games, leafing through porn mags and sleeping, the latter moving Hetherington to observe that they look like “little boys [as] their mothers probably remember them”.

Tim Hetherington

It is this normalcy and stark fragility juxtaposed with the soldiers’ occupational realities that elevates this exhibition, and when his friend, the fellow photographer Stephen Mayes contends “Tim Hetherington helped shape a change in our understanding of conflict reporting,” he’s not wrong.

Across three galleries, in both stills and video works, we are shown time and again, perhaps at odds with personal expectations of de-humanised automata, that these are just men after-all, and very young, sometimes vulnerable, men at that.

“We see soldiers in a combat situation – one of whom sobs with disbelief on learning that a comrade in arms has been shot”

The three-channel video installation, Sleeping Soldiers, is deeply affecting; we see soldiers in a combat situation – one of whom sobs with disbelief on learning that a comrade in arms has been shot – juxtaposed with portraits of uniformed men in their bunks, asleep. As a people, we’re just not used to seeing such depictions of our defenders.

The film expertly drives home one of the achievements of this exhibition (for there are many); it subtly fills in the gaps in the soldiers’ lives in-between the sleeping and the fighting; the surely horrible time spent absorbing what had just have occurred and reflecting on what might be in store next time it’s their turn for a patrol.

Another video piece, Diary, also provides deep insight, but this time it is into the life and work not of his subjects but of Hetherington himself. We see the photographer in bed on the phone, seemingly to a newspaper or magazine editor, or another potential publisher.

Talking about images he’d shot and presumably sent for consideration, we hear him having to justify their use: “I make pictures to try to understand what is happening there for myself.”

It is that very quest for personal understanding he had embarked upon which, ultimately, has left us with a challenging and, at times, astonishing body of work – make no mistake, Tim Hetherington, You Never See Them Like This is a significant exhibition worthy of its creator.

Mike Pinnington

Images courtesy Tim Hetherington / Magnum Photos

Tim Hetherington, You Never See Them Like This continues @ the Open Eye Gallery until 24th November

Posted on 18/10/2013 by thedoublenegative