In the eye of the storms

Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington

Imperial War Museum, London

20 April 2024 – 29 September 2024

Reviewed by Paul Heron

Just occasionally when you’re flicking through Netflix you’ll come across something that immediately pulls you in, and when you watch it, you want to tell all your mates about it. For me that programme was  Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, a documentary by Sebastian Junger. The film is a heartfelt and insightful tribute to Tim Hetherington, the British photographer tragically killed in Misrata during the Libyan conflict in 2011.

The pair had worked together on a film, the Oscar nominated Restrepo. Both were embedded with raw US Army soldiers in the Korangal Valley, Afghanistan – known internationally as the ‘valley of death’ due to the intensity of the fighting there. I immediately tracked down the Restrepo DVD and watched that too. Therefore it was inevitable that I would carve a day off work to go down to the Imperial War Museum to see Storyteller – the photography of Tim Hetherington. It is a must see.

Tim Hetherington was born in Liverpool in 1970 to what he described as a “normal, working-class family”. The exhibition provides a rich display of his photography, films, and cherished belongings spanning his illustrious but sadly brief career. It covers some of his pivotal work from  the Liberian civil war (2003-2007) to the war in Afghanistan (2007-2008), and his poignant yet unfinished project in Libya (2011).

This exhibition unveils never-before-seen treasures, including trusted cameras and intimate diaries, offering a unique glimpse into Tim Hetherington’s journeys and artistic vision, enriching his renowned projects with his own lived experiences.

The exhibition provides the opportunity to understand not only his drive and determination, but also allows an immersive journey into the heart of conflict zones. From his pioneering documentation of the second Liberian civil war – marking his initiation into the intensity of frontline experiences – to his compelling exploration of post-war transitions towards peace, Tim Hetherington provides an insight into the human dimensions of conflict, aftermath and an opportunity of sorts at recovery.

In addition to his impactful coverage in Liberia, the exhibition showcases Tim Hetherington’s extended stays with US soldiers in Afghanistan. Here, he delves into an alternative narrative to mainstream news reporting by intimately portraying the lives of these young soldiers. Through his lens, he details their existence, fear, vulnerability, exhaustion, and also the pointlessness of war.  Indeed, outside of the bravado of these recruits, the conclusion of the soldiers to war is not to win, or lose – but to survive.

Unlike photojournalists who typically spend only a few weeks in conflict zones before moving on to their next assignments, Tim Hetherington diverged from this norm. Sticking to his own principles his approach was marked by a long-term commitment to projects, often revisiting the same places over and over again over the course of months or even years.

One of his projects, featured at the exhibition, highlighted through film and photography, is Healing Sport. This is an example of not just a long-term commitment to the work, but also to the people met and featured in his work. Covering post-war zones from Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola, Healing Sport illustrates not just the healing power of sport to bring people together but the unity and determination of ordinary people.  

Tim Hetherington’s dedication yielded work with a deep human perspective which was forged  by the connections and relationships built with the people. Interestingly, in the early 2000s he departed from the convention of digital, favouring vintage film cameras, permitting a slowed down photographic process. This contributed to his work and therefore allowed him to engage with people, and allowed for sympathetic images that portrayed humanity even in war zones.

The Imperial War Museum must be applauded for not only showcasing the work of Tim Hetherington, but also at a time where art galleries price out many working-class people, this exhibition is free and I can’t recommend it highly enough.