The Realities of War

The American Civil War began in 1861. It lasted four years and would define the future of the nation. Photographer Mathew B. Brady (1822 – 1896) captured the grim realities of the conflict, bringing thousands of vivid images to the masses. His work paved the way for modern photojournalism, which has played a crucial role in shaping public perceptions of military action throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Photographers like Robert Capa, Wayne Miller and Lee Miller risked their lives during WWII to share the realities of combat. Nick Ut’s Pulitzer-prize winning Napalm Girl became emblematic of mass opposition to the Vietnam War. Recently, the invasion of Ukraine, genocide in Palestine and countless conflicts around the world have played out in an era of social media and smartphones. The ability to capture images is easier than ever, but questions around truth and trust in images, fake news and highly sophisticated editing has begun to change people’s relationship to photography. Tim Hetherington (1970 – 2011) dedicated his career to recording conflicts and ultimately lost his life whilst documenting the Libyan Civil War. Now, The Imperial War Museum presents the first exhibition of his work and brings together Hetherington’s personal experiences and his remarkable collection of work. 

Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington allows us to witness the artist’s firsthand experiences of an active frontline. It features 65 of his most striking photographs, alongside his cameras and diaries, to tell the story of photojournalism in the modern age. Hetherington began his career at The Big Issue, working on stories of human rights and inequalities. His first large scale project based in a warzone, Healing Sport (1999), explored the consequences of violence in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola. It looked at the power of sport in these African nations and laid the groundwork for the rest of his career. He would become known for his distinctly humanitarian lens and a fascination with the relationship between young men and violence. He received four World Press Photo awards and was nominated for an Oscar for the feature-length, Restrepo, which followed a US platoon in Afghanistan. Across a decade of life-threatening work, Hetherington captured the essence and truth of modern warfare and conflict.  

Hetherington stood apart from other war photojournalists due to his “long-term” approach. For most reporters working in the early 2000s, a few weeks was enough to get the content needed before moving on to new assignments, but Hetherington often returned to the same places over several months or years, embedding himself within communities and military platoons. His methodical and deliberate attitude towards image-making, and his desire to get to know those living on the frontlines, was mirrored by his choice of camera. He worked with vintage film throughout the early 2000s, despite major advancements in digital photography. This slowed down the process, giving him more freedom to interact with people and challenging him to take more carefully considered photographs. 

The resulting work has a profoundly human focus, developed through deep connections with the people with whom he spent time. In a recent Guardian article, journalist and former colleague of Hetherington, Xan Brooks, commented on his distinct style. “He came to conflict via humanitarian work and this shows in his pictures, which are…fascinated by the human cogs in the machine and the relationships between them. So he’s drawn to what might otherwise be dismissed as small details.” This deep sense of compassion is clear throughout Storyteller, especially in Sleeping Soldiers which features intimate portraits of a US Airborne Infantry platoon in moments of rest. In ‘Doc’ Kelso sleeping, he photographs a solider asleep on his bunk, removed of his uniform and curled on his side, there is a distinct feeling of peace and innocence to the image. Hetherington chose an alternative angle to contemporary news reporting, covering every nuance of behaviour from tension and fear to vulnerability and exhaustion. 

Hetherington witnessed historical moments across the world. His last would be in 2010, when anti-government protests and uprisings began in Tunisia in response to corruption and economic stagnation. Known as the “Arab Spring”, the movement spread to Libya, Egypt, Yemen, Syria and Bahrain. Hetherington set out to capture the civil war in Libya and was filming inside of the besieged city of Misrata when the rebel army was shelled. He was injured in the attack and sadly died of his injuries at the age of 40. Now, over a decade on, this retrospective seeks to reflect on his remarkable legacy and encourages visitors to ask themselves “what is the role and responsibility of the photojournalist when documenting conflict?”. The artists’ mother Judith Hetherington, founding trustee of the Tim Hetherington Trust, said that the exhibition “fulfills the Trust’s ambition that Tim’s visionary work should continue to inspire new generations of artists and journalists dedicated to bringing truth to the world. [It is] an inspiring opportunity for old friends and tomorrow’s emerging talent to catch a spark from recent history and to carry it forward in their telling of the urgent stories of our time.”

Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington, The Imperial War Museum, London until 29 September.

Words: Emma Jacob

Image Credits:

© IWM (DC 64010) A Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) combatant in Liberia, June 2003. On display in Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington at IWM London (20 April to 29 September 2024).

© IWM (DC 66178) The ‘Millennium Stars’: a football team comprising mainly of former combatants involved in the First Liberian Civil War. Liberia, 1999.

© IWM (DC 64035) A Liberian woman carries cassava leaves to the central market in Tubmanburg, Liberia, May 2003.

© IWM (DC 63058) An amputee about to take to the field for a friendly football match at a war veterans camp situated on the outskirts of Luanda, Angola. June 2002.