In memory of Tim Hetherington: “I really don’t care about photography”

Tim Hetherington (© Eddy Risch/Keystone)

Tim Hetherington (© Eddy Risch/Keystone)

(Photo by Eddy Risch/Keystone)

In 2008 photographer Tim Hetherington won the world press photo award. We were lucky to publish an interview with him afterwards. About three years later in April 2011 Tim Hetherington died in Misrata, Libya. In memory of him the photo and video blog ARC pusblished a moving and inspiring video interview.

In this interview Hetherington talked about how digital technology is changing how we think about images, about who we are as image makers and what we can do with images. He said: “Sometimes I have been provocative about that. In an interview when I won the world press image I said I am not interested in photography.”

When I heard that I tought: That was our interview. But nobody ever had the posibilty to read it in English because it was just published in German in the swiss newspaper “Tagesanzeiger” and on Flare.

So I asked the interviewers, Swiss journalists Olivia Kühni and David Bauer, if we could publish the English version. They only got the raw transcription of the conversation. I read it and was really impressed: It is such an interesting talk with many, many aspects that didn’t make it into the short German version of the interview.

So I edited the 14 pages transcript and transformed it into an interview of 7 pages. It’s still very long but I think it’s worth the time. I hope you enjoy it and while reading it remember a great man and photographer:

The world press photo jury commented on your image: It represents the exhaustion of a man and the exhaustion of a nation. Is that something you can relate to?

Tim Hetherington: Yes, I can. It doesn’t bother me. Because you have to understand that images have a life of their own. I can’t always control the meaning of an image. I can try to protect that meaning and as a documentary photographer, you certainly try to have control over an image to a certain extent. After a while the image will have a life of its own. I can control what I think, but after a certain while it’s up to everybody else what they also think. And that’s part of the discussion, you have to let go.

Looking at the discussion, can you still relate to what is being said there about your image?

I can relate to the stuff that’s being said about the exhaustion and the political commentary. Some of the discussion is very interesting. When we made a film from the time in Afghanistan that was released on Veteran’s day on November 12th in the States, it was on ABC. The comments that followed were very interesting, because it was a real kind of fight. The right wing said the military were fighting the wrong people, they should be killing the journalists rather than the taleban. You know, journalists are left wing, liberal left wing and nothing good comes of having journalists with the military.

Then you have the liberal journalists saying that we were glorifying war, saying that was totally sympathetic to the men. The real left wing said this was right wing war propaganda. And the only people on the blogs on the ABC newspiece that for me felt vindicated were the soldier’s families. I had mothers writing to me saying that was such a difficult thing to watch that piece, to see my son there, to see him so scared or so upset in that situation. But then they say: “I’m so happy that you showed it. It’s important that people see these things.” That’s what I mean: Conversation is something that is interesting, whether you should really care about it, I don’t know.

But you follow these political discussion?

I’m interested, I’m not a photographer, I really don’t care about photography. I care about communication. So yes of course I follow them.

So the interest in politics, in justice, in conversations was before photography? Photography is a means to communicate for you?

I was a writer before. I worked with words before I worked with pictures. Images or words are communication-tools. Being with images, I decided I wanted to explore communication with images. What’s interesting with images, especially with photography, is that you have to be close to people. And if you’re close to people, you necessarily learn about them and the world – in more ways than you can do if you are a writer. Because usually writers are a bit more distanced. And if you are that close to somebody, then you learn about the world and you necessarily learn about social justice and politics, because one day you’re with someone that is very nice but very poor and you want to know: Why is that person bright, intelligent and poor? Then you realise, well it’s because they’re born here. So you learn about these things because of your interaction with society.

So it necessarily follows that I had my political consciousness developed very much so with photography. I think I always had something in me that was interested in the world, I was trying to find, inside my head, because you look at yourself in relation to the world. Photography helped me to explore that. It made the critique more acute.

So was it the need to be close to people that actually brought you to the medium of pictures?

No, I came close to pictures because I was tired of words.

Why was that?

Well because I think that words are sometimes very unsatisfactory. And they’re also (hesitates) hijacked by power. In a way that it’s very controlled. Like if you look at law: If you read legal paperwork, it’s words twisted and contorted to the most extreme and therefore privileged only by the few.

Definatory power?

People hijack words so they control words. Because then words become powerful. Pictures are also powerful, but they are more accessible. They’re not so elitist. Words are very elitist. If you’ve gone to university and studied law, then you have access to that sort of power.

Do you think people can understand and read photography easier than words?

It’s interesting, I taught all around the world in different places and I also understand that there is an education to images as well. I used to think a picture I show here to be as easily understood as if I went to show it to a poor farmer in India with no education. Now I understand that that is not necessarily the case. That there are different levels of visual literacy. And that is interesting. But I still think that pictures are more accessible than words. The very fact that I can show a poor farmer whose language I don’t speak a picture and he will understand something, more than if I spoke to him in English. Necessarily, images have greater reach than words.

We spoke about being close. Now you worked very closely with the American soldiers in Afghanistan. Could you imagine working with the Taleban as well?

Yeah, why not? I wouldn’t have a problem with that. Well, it depends. I’d find it hard to work on the other side of the lines straight away. It’d be difficult to be with the American soldiers who I had a great relationship with and then to go to the Taleban, the same ones in the valley, attacking the soldiers. Yeah, I think I would find that difficult. I mean that’s only human. It’s like (ponders for a long time) being married and then leaving your wife and going out with someone in her office. So it’s only natural you’re gonna feel like: I don’t know whether this is a really good idea.

You were embedded with those soldiers. How did that influence your work?

I was not just embedded with the soldiers in Afghanistan. I think the “embedded-discussion” is interesting. People had problems with embedding because you have journalists that go to cover the war in Afghanistan who really wanted to talk to Afghan locals but they have to be embedded in the military for their own safety. They want to tell the other side of the story, and they try and do it, but it’s from an embedded point of view. That’s problematic. I never sought to do that. I sought to tell the story of a group of soldiers on the side of a mountain in Afghanistan. So being embedded in fact made it very easy for me.

In fact, I spent most of my time as a documentary photographer or filmmaker trying to get embedded with a group of people. I was embedded in a rebel army in Liberia, I was embedded in a blind school in Britain and Sierra Leone. I seek to be embedded, because I really seek to be like a fly on a wall. I want to be accepted by those people, I want to live as close to them as possible. I want to do what they do. I want to be so close to them so that when I start to make the work there is no feeling like I’m coming in around. I want to understand them. So being embedded in a group of soldiers in Afghanistan was really easy because all I had to do is fill out some paperwork, then it happened. I find the soldiers, then I keep returning. Easy.

Why did you go to Afghanistan right at that time to stay with the soldiers?

I went for a number of different reasons. First, I went because Vanity Fair phoned me up and asked me did I wanna go to do this job in Afghanistan with an American writer, who I admire, whose work I admire [Sebastian Junger]. And I said yes. Secondly, I wanted to do that because I had worked and lived in Liberia for many years. After eight years of living and working in West-Africa, I just needed a break from Africa. I was also in danger of people thinking that that was all I could do or wanted to do.

What kind of people?

People in the industry. People who support my work, like foundations, TV, image-buyers at magazines and newspapers. You don’t want them to stop calling you up for jobs because they think, well it’s Tim, he’s only likes to work in West-Africa, we won’t contact him on this.

When you were in Afghanistan, did you sleep with the soldiers?

Yes. Everything the same. Except for shooting a gun.

Have you ever shot a gun?

Not in Afghanistan.


When I was in school, we used to fire air guns.

To shoot birds?

No. I didn’t go shoot birds, just paper targets.

And you’ll stay with the same group of soldiers?

Yes, always the same group. I’m only interested in them. It’s about these guys. In some ways it’s not even about Afghanistan, it could be in Iraq or anywhere in the world. It’s about what war does to these men, to young man. What is it like to be called on, you have to go and do this. What does war do to you. It’s a universal theme, and by picking a particular story it’s a way as well into the politics.

You said you’re interested in what war does to a man. You were very close to those soldiers. What does war do to you?

It does do something to you, that is obvious. I mean, what does life to you? You know the answer to that question. What does it do to you? It does a lot of different things.

Or asked differently: How has your view on humans changed since you’ve been working in war zones?

It’s not just war, it’s seeing and dealing with brutality, it can do something to you. It can damage a bit of you. Not just in me, think if you are a human rights investigator and have to watch videos, it’s going to affect how you think about people. And how you think about the world. You’re not going to walk around outside and think: Life is just wonderful, everything is great. Magazines like National Geographic, which I like very much, for them the world is kind of a wonderful place, where there are problems, but it’s a slightly more positive view. I think if you see a lot of war, it must slowly ebb that away. It’s difficult to say life is all positive. It’s: No, actually people are killing each other. And for what reason?

To have the conversation about war and what is it doing to the world, is very constructive. That is why I make the images. That’s why I’m interested in this. What it does to me? I don’t really care about it. It’s like: it does it to me, but it does it to everybody else, too. People are very keen on painting the picture of the war photographer and this and that. No. That is not of any interest to me.

Does it help you to have a camera with you in those situations to cope with what you see and experience

It does help, absolutely. Because you have a job to do. If you wouldn’t have a job to do in those situations, I’d be sitting there thinking: What am I going to do, am I supposed to sit behind this tree and hide? Everybody there has a job and I have a job. That’s also a way for me to blend with them. When I am filming and some of these guys say oh, no, listen, don’t, I say, “hey, I am just doing my job. You get on with your job, I get on with my job”.

Do you realise in those situation that there are actually people shooting at you?

Yes, you do. It’s a dangerous thing, but it’s also funny how it suddenly becomes an abstract. It can become like an abstract idea.

You know what’s happening but you don’t feel it?

Yes, because you’re focussing on something else: getting the pictures, getting the work. It’s the same for the soldiers. For them, sometimes – sometimes! – the fighting’s quite abstract. For soldiers, it’s about cover-fire: I am firing here, nobody’s protecting me here, but I’m covering your life and you’re over there and I’m covering this way and I know this man is covering here and this one’s covering there so it means I can get up and return the fire. And we protect each other. This is quite an abstract idea, about angles and so. You don’t really sit there and think I stand up now and a bullet hits me and this will happen. No. It’s an abstract. It helps them to function. Because if you don’t go with that, you go into shock.

What do you think is in their head in those very moments?

I think they’re just doing their job and they also limit how they think about it. Not that they limit consciously in a way that they would say: I’m not going to think about it today. It happens automatically. The default is that you don’t open up into these big areas in your head, because otherwise you go a bit crazy. Also it’s demoralising. You’re probably sleeping out somewhere, there’s no electricity and water, it’s a hard life already, and you’re being shot at and some of your friends are being killed. What do you do? It’s probably a bit like being in prison. You shrink the days down, you concentrate: Okay, today I’m only going to do this. I don’t care about tomorrow. I’m looking forward to go on my break. Keep it very simple. They have a great sense of humor. A dark sense of humor. They just get on with what they need to do there and they function and focus. I don’t think they’re gonna sit there and think. And they don’t go into politics.


They always say: We don’t care. They’re soldiers, they’re professional soldiers. People make soldiers out to be stupid, saying they don’t have political views because they’re too stupid. It’s for the domain of liberal intellectuals to have these thoughts about politics in Afghanistan. Well actually they don’t do it not because they’re stupid, but because they realise that if they did it would drive them insane: What are we doing this for, how much ground are we making is this worth it? So no, it’s: today. Build this wall, I do my fighting, I eat me things, I go to bed, I dream my girlfriend. That’s enough.

Is it the same for you then while you’re there?

No, not necessarily, because I know why I’m doing it. Not that they don’t know why they’re doing it. The bit I probably switch off is what happens if I was injured. That’s the question for me. Not in a political sense, but: is this worth being injured?

Where do you go when you come back, looking for a peaceful, easy place?

I come to the West. Everything works, the trains run on time. After I had lived in Liberia, that was wonderful. No, I work my business. I have an appartment in London. I have a studio there, my assistant, my computers, I pay my tax there. I am a UK-resident.

Do you ever feel when you come back that things start to defrag in your head without you being able to control it?

Yes, but that’s for me then. That’s more private stuff, that’s for me to know. You’re right, there is something going on. It would happen to you as well. In any emotional situation, these processes will always take place. Do they happen for me? Yes. Do I want to talk about them: No.

How do you make yourself feel home again when you come back?

It’s really important for me to have people that don’t make a big deal about what I do. I’m a very sociable person, I really enjoy friends and normal life. It’s important that I have a life that I can come back to. Because I need some break in my life. You need to come back to a place where you can breathe. I don’t walk out with the camera all the time. I don’t want to be around people that always see me as a war photographer hero, I have no interest in this war photographer, this hero myth.

Did winning the award, by putting you in the spotlight, change anything for you in regard to being able to keep your privacy and do normal stuff, connecting with people?

You have to fight for that place and for some boundaries that you still have, areas that you want to protect. I’m very careful about it as I go through the process because I see how it can get changed when people want to put you somewhere. A journalist interviewed me for a German news website and he was pushing this war photographer thing. I didn’t notice first, but he did. In the end he said something like: You must have been afraid, you broke your leg, you could have died! He was putting words in my mouth. And I said to him: Yeah, I could have died. But I said it in a way like, well, you can go out tomorrow and be run over by a bus. But so he took the thing that I broke my leg and could have died and used it as a headliner. That’s irresponsible journalism. It’s factually correct, but it’s untruthful. The truth is not just what you say, but how you say it. That was untruthful.

Who then actually brought photographs into your life?

I don’t know whether it was photographs. I’m not interested in photographs, I’m interested in images. There’s a very subtle difference. For me a photograph is something that has a black board around it and is like, well, a photograph. An image is more. I saw a film by Chris Marker, when I came back to Britain, a film called “Sans Soleil”. Chris Marker is a strong film maker, and that film really affected me. After that I realised I wanted to be an image maker. A film maker first of all, because he was a film maker. Then I realised after a while, hmm, you don’t wanna be a film maker. After I didn’t get the place at NY film school (laughs). You have to work with all those people, you have to negotiate the artistic merits of a project, you have to compromise with people a lot. So I was like: I don’t want to do that. So why photography. Because it’s easy. Photography is easy. I take a camera and go. And also it’s a way to travel. It’s only now in my life that I don’t want to travel so much. I spent all my life travelling.

And now it’s started to change?

Oh yes.

Because you get older?

Of course.

There could be other reasons.

No, it’s because you get older. It’s not so much age, but age is also experience. It’s not because you get physically older, it’s more because of the experience. I’ve travelled to so many countries, I’m tired of travelling. I spent a lot of time travelling and away from the people I love and I’m in airports and I don’t really care if I’m in that country. I was in Palau for four days and they told me about diving. I’m a diver and I love diving. But I was just so tired. They said, you must stay for two or three more days, because if you’re in Palau and don’t go diving, you’re crazy. It was beautiful, but you know what, I wanted to go home. To see my girlfriend and spend time, and I had things to do. Two more days in Palau, I go for a nice dive, well okay, but that’s what I want to do. So in the end you’re like, you know what? Travel … too much travel.

How did you come to your first project abroad, Healing Sports?

By the time I was working on UK based social issues for The Big Issue and The Independent, I found out that a team of Liberian footballers, ex-combattants, were coming to the UK on a football tour. I though this would make for a really good story, domestic UK story. So I contacted the organisers of the tour and when they looked at my work, they liked it and the told me they were looking for someone who can shoot videos and shoot still photographs to go to Liberia. I never dreamt of going to Liberia, to Africa. Never even been in my mind. So the next moment I find myself in Liberia.

Where you stayed quite a long time.

Well no, first I stayed for a month. Later, in 2003 I went back there in the war, worked during the war and then I stayed.

How do you usually decide where you go for your projects?

It’s like in life. How do you decide where you live? You may live somewhere because you decide to live there, or because you get married and your partner’s from there or it my be because there’s a job. It’s a lot of different decisions why I make a project. Now, though, it’s very important that I make work I can connect to. I now know what I don’t want to do.

What is that?

I’m really interested in work that has something psychologically extreme about it. Whether it’s about blind kids, whether it’s about living in Liberia which is quite an extreme psychological space with this war, so work about conflict. So if someone asked me if I wanted to go to Bolivia to do a story about the salt lakes. That’s nice, but I want to read about that, it’s not what I do. And it helps, it’s good to know: okay, I do this and don’t do this. I’m also interested in projects that have cross cultural relationships within them. Apart from the extremity, I think it’s important to have some personal connection to the work. If you asked me to do some work on whale killing in Iceland, puh, I don’t feel anything. I want to feel something, I want to feel some connection.

1.9.2011 · English · ·


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