Your Idea is Bigger Than Your Media

Text: Yumiko Sakuma / Photography: Ports Bishop

It has been a full year since Tim Hetherington was killed while covering the front lines in the city of Misrata, Libya during the civil war. But today he continues to inspire many of us through the work he left behind and the stories his friends and colleagues keep telling. His solo show is on view at Yossi Milo Gallery in New York through May 19th.

When we started to prepare for the 0 issue of PERISCOPE, Tim Hetherington was one of the first people we went to. That was because we thought his approach to his work in conflict zones was so much more than what we think of "photo journalism." I had met him in 2008 through a mutual friend and subsequently asked him for an interview. He had just come back from Afghanistan where he and Sebastian Junger shot a feature-length documentary Restrepo. After his life was taken away, we revisited the recording of the interview.

Q. How did you come to your occupation? Photography or travel, which one came first?
The travel came first. I was brought up pretty much on the move. We lived in 12 different pl aces growing up. My parents by nature they moved around a lot. It gets into your blood. Then, in 1992, there was a recession in Britain and there was no job, so I left the country and started traveling. I got into photography because of that. I have travelled to about 70 or 80 countries. Around 2005 and 2006, I lived in West Africa and worked in 25 to 30 countries in Africa. That is because while I travel for assignment work, people ask "Will you go do this?." But I am not interested in being a war photographer who flies from hot zone to hot zone. That is not what I do. My work is in depth. So my personal work is focused on long-term projects and for that, I've lived in Sierra Leone and Liberia, and now Afghanistan.
Q. How do you distinguish yourself from "war photographers"?
Really my works are narratives, I am really interested in stories. I find different visual ways to talk about narratives, political narratives. My work is about conflicts and politics, but it links in very kind of intimacy like soldier sleeping. I am interested in getting very close to my subjects, and I live how they live, or share things with them.
Q. Your tell stories by using different media.
Somebody said to me last night “Your idea is bigger than your media.” It was about one person, but I liked that quote. In the past we defined ourselves by being a writer or being a photographer. And with technology being so flexible, you can be so much more. What should define me is my subjects. People who see my work in the press think I am a photojournalist. People who see my installation think I am an artist. I am both of these things but what connect them is my subjects. I never fitted in the photography community or film community. And that is who I am. I am on the outside.
Q. How did you come to that realization?
I just stopped being able to fit in, I think. Also, the difference between digital media and print changed all of my thinking. Between what you could do in print and when you see light scanning pictures and moving along to digital and flexibility of projection, digital changed a lot of how I think about what I can do.
Q. What do you think makes you good at connecting with your subjects?
I am a chameleon in who I am. You have to be. I am a chameleon because moving around makes you a chameleon and you learn to adapt. You are taken to a new country, new town and you don’t have any friends there. So you have to adapt. You have to fit in and you feel awkward. I feel awkward when I kind of get into a subject, because I am on the outside. So the question is how you get onto the inside?
You have to learn how to connect with people. And I think honesty is the most important thing. You can see someone being honest in their work. You can sense it. People also sense the honesty when you deal with them. We are humans, we pick up all sorts of subtle body language. If you drop me in a foreign country anywhere, I will survive OK because I will adapt. Over the years you intuitively learn how to relate to people on a much more intuitive level. You have a gut feeling. Is this a good situation or bad situation, do I need to leave here or not? You may not speak the language, but you start to pick up from the situation, the body language, the vibes. So intuitively you start to connect with people. Ultimately if you are honest with somebody and they feel that honesty because you feel they are being honest with you, they will also feel the same way deep down. So the only way to be is to be honest to somebody. And if you are honest with them then you are going to connect with them. That is how you create a connection, and then if your work is honest, it connect the people in the same way. It is pretty straightforward.
Q. You are white and really tall. I imagine you stand out?
Yes. That is why in Africa I use the Hasselblad. I shot all the work in Liberia in medium format. Because if I put my camera to my face, because I am quite tall, it looks quite aggressive especially if it is in a war zone. So by taking the Hasselblad or Rolleiflex and holding the camera lower, it totally changes the dynamics of how you relate to people. I am talking to you and photographing you, but you can see me.
Q. Are there any commonalities in subjects you find yourself drawn to?
Figuring out what your work is about takes a long time it is always changing. But by looking at the projects you’ve done, you can examine your footsteps. So now I can say my work is something that has intimacy in it. It is really important for me to connect to the subjects and show them the work. It is about connecting them to the world. I am connected to some in Liberia as you are and we all are connected inevitably. This happens in the cycles of human behaviors. A lot of it is political because I am interested in conflicts. I am interested in conflicts in the way the very edge of human experiences like in a war, that there is something human there. People assume I cover war because I want to show the war is bad. People who have never been to a war think wars are bad. I mean a war is kind of bad but it is also there is something else about war they don’t know because they have never been there. If you look at this photo, this is in the middle of war and you have a moment of real tenderness between two people, which is about the love. There are all the terrible things about war. But it is interesting to go to a war situation and to show that, even in the extremities of human activity like war there can be a moment of tenderness. And it is important as a human to say “you know what? The evil does exist all the way to the edges. But even in a war you can find moments of love. People are still people even in these extreme acts. And it is much more nuance than “this is good and this is bad”. And that interests me. So if I can show that, then I can connect you to this picture. And that is important because then you connect to Liberia where you have never been connected before. You can’t say, “there is people in Liberia. They are just kind of crazy killing each other.” That is what I want to do.
Q. Why do you think you are interested in conflicts?
The war is fascinating because in very few other human occupations can you see emotions with such clarity. Human emotions in war is extreme clarity. What other situation can you see such extreme version of love or hate or greed or forgiveness? You see stuff, and it is incredible. That is what I find addicted to and what you feel by seeing that stuff. You yourself experience it, too, fear, complete terror, complete happiness that you are alive, and that is like a drug in itself. I spent years with soldiers in Afghanistan recently one of them said to me, “You came out and you are on leave and I feel nothing. I don’t feel anything.” Because being in a war your feeling is so heightened that when you come out everything seems gray after that.
Q. How do you deal with it when you come back to New York or London?
I have a friend who calls himself a war photographer, I don’t call myself a war photographer. And I asked him once, “How do you deal with the depression when you come out?” and he said to me, “You just have to embrace it. You feel depressed and you just got to go home, lock the door, put some really melancholic music, take a cognac and just really get into it, just really go for it.” I thought, what a great way to deal with it. Put on Nick Cave, or Tom Waits, and be sad. I think it is a funny occupation because in some way I want to resist it. It is kind of difficult because in some way it is quite destructive. You are putting yourself through situations that could be very stressful. It is difficult on those who are around you. But this is what I do, and that is a part of who I am.
  • © Tim Hetherington
  • © Tim Hetherington
  • © Tim Hetherington
  • Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold
  • © Tim Hetherington
  • © Tim Hetherington
  • © Tim Hetherington
  • © Tim Hetherington


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