The late photojournalist and filmmaker talked about his work in Africa, his use of medium format for photojournalistic work, and his experience shooting the documentary Restrepo in this interview from Resource Magazine.
This article has been contributed from the Fall 2010 issue of Resource Magazine, courtesy of the publisher. To subscribe to the magazine and explore Resource’s online features, visit the Resource Magazine website.
Photograph by Stephen Kosloff.
Tim Hetherington is a British photojournalist and filmmaker. In 2007 he was paired with the author Sebastian Junger for an assignment to write an article about a platoon of U.S. soldiers serving in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. For ten months, sometimes together, sometimes separately, Hetherington and Junger lived with and documented the soldiers’ struggles at a time when the valley saw some of the hardest fighting of the war. In addition to the article, Junger and Hetherington directed and produced a documentary film, Restrepo. It’s possibly the best combat documentary to emerge from the war on terror so far and a contender for a best documentary nomination.
Hetherington has years of experience and multiple awards under his belt as a photojournalist, but multimedia and video are as much a part of his DNA as still photography is, if not more so. He was creating multimedia packages before there was a place for them on the Web, and he was the cinematographer on the documentary The Devil Came on Horseback, about the war and genocide in Sudan. Hetherington’s views about the future of still photography are bracingly unsentimental and contraindicated for the faint of heart. If you’re passionate about still photography or are merely in a good mood, you might want to read this sitting down. He spoke with Resource at his spacious, sparsely furnished apartment in South Williamsburgistan, Brooklyn.
You studied literature at Oxford then returned to school to study photojournalism. Why the switch?
I didn’t want to be in Britain after Oxford because it rains all the time and there was a recession, so I left. I spent nearly two years abroad, in India. When I came back to Britain, people asked me where I went and what I did. I had these amazing experiences but I found I couldn’t express what I had gone through in words. Then a friend took me to see Sans Soleil [a French film directed by Chris Marker, released in 1983], which blew my mind. It expressed on the screen everything that I felt inside that I couldn’t express in words.
What did your parents do?
My mom was a nurse in Liverpool, where I was born. My dad was an accountant for small shops and bodegas. Over the years, he became more successful. Class in Britain is a divisive issue . . . maybe that’s why I’m in America.
So you decided to study photography.
I started going to night school for it in London. A friend of mine who had done a course at the University of Cardiff introduced me to photojournalism. That’s where I did post-graduate school in photojournalism. It was a year course; I was twenty-seven when I finished. I left college expecting to live in the north of England, getting two pictures a week published in a local paper. After graduating, I got a job from the school’s bulletin board for a paper called The Big Issue, which was sold by homeless people in London. I was the first staff photographer for them and was the lowest-paid guy there, apart from the guys who sold it.
How did you get published in The Independent?
A photo editor from The Independent did the interviews for photographers for The Big Issue. That guy told me to come and talk to him.
How did you get into conflict photography?
I was working in the UK and I heard that a football team from Liberia of ex-combatants was coming to Britain for three weeks. I found out who was organizing the tour in Britain; it was actually an NGO. I said, “I want to get on the tour bus when they come around Britain.” They told me they were looking for someone to go to Liberia to photograph the guys playing, for press purposes. They sent me to Liberia, and it blew my mind. I made a set of pictures out there; one won second prize at the World Press Photo. I kept going back to West Africa and eventually I was basically living in Freetown as a freelancer. In the end, I worked in nearly thirty countries across Africa.
You started shooting medium format in Africa?
I also started moving to color; I started covering war in medium format in 2002. Black and white seemed like a clichéd view of Africa. The change was also a reaction against a very complicated black-and-white photography coming out the Danish school of photojournalism, using wide-angle lenses, depth lenses, and complicated framing. I was looking at photos on the computer and realized you expect something different from the screen. If you have very complicated photography on the screen, you’re not going to get it in the five seconds it’s up.
How did that prompt the switch to medium format?
I started getting interested in making pictures that represent the object in a more straightforward manner, in 2D almost. Also trying to work in metaphors with color. Some of the framing is complicated, but it was this idea of making a picture that would exist well on the screen as well as on the page. Medium format was a good way to do it because the square frame plays better. You can say complicated things with it but use more of an alphabetical language almost.
Who were some of your influences as a photojournalist?
I had seen Gilles Peress’ work in books as a student, and it really affected me.
Let’s move on to Restrepo. Did Vanity Fair pair you up with Sebastian Junger?
I did jobs for Vanity Fair in West Africa, and eventually they teamed me up with Sebastian. I met him for the first time in the airport lounge in Heathrow before our flight to Afghanistan. We got on like a house on fire. He’d told me that he wanted to follow the platoon during the course of the deployment. It was very inexpensive for Vanity Fair because we were embedded, so it didn’t cost any money on the ground. Sebastian wanted to write a book and do a documentary, but I don’t think he envisioned having one in the theaters. He didn’t know how to make a documentary and I did because by then, in Liberia, I was a cameraman on a feature film, and I directed and produced TV films. When we first went, the focus for me was still photography, because that’s what Vanity Fair hired me for, but I was also always filming. I carried two cameras attached to my vest.
What camera did you shoot with? How did you normally shoot?
For stills, I shot with the 5D. I usually shot with a 28-70, sometimes a 135 prime. I shoot manual sometimes; sometimes I shoot Program and under-rate it, depending on the light. I just do whatever works.
The 5D Mark II hadn’t come out yet. Would you have used that instead of your video camera?
No, because there’s still the problem with the live view. Plus you would have to build a rig for it. I like not having to hassle with a rig.
What video camera did you shoot with?
We shot on a Sony Z-1. We needed cameras that we could smash up and buy new ones, that wouldn’t break the bank to buy. In those days, they were about $5,000. I used a shotgun mic.
Do you think there will be a day when there won’t be dedicated still photographers?
If I am a newspaper editor, why am I going to hire you to take a photograph separately when I can take snippets out of your video and use them as stills? When people started writing to communicate, it was monks writing books. When the printing press was invented, it made the work of those monks partly redundant. If I make a project now with images taken out of a video stream, is that “photography”? Probably not. I don’t think we can protect the art form and idea of photography. When you look at a photography book, it’s very beautiful but you can feel the age of it. That is what I’m saying about living in a post-photographic age. Not that photography ceases to exist, but the art form has been delegated. Even Alec Soth, a still photographer whom people revere, has said that it’s not just about the good pictures anymore; it’s about the edit. The next step is that it’s about the idea. But still and motion are two distinct media. I’d argue that Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the U.S. flag being raised on Iwo Jima, for example, is more powerful than the film footage. The still image has power versus the video; but what isn’t important is the craft. Moving images allow us to be, for lack of a better word, lazy. We prefer moving images. A still image requires a creative interaction with it—you have to think. Moving images, contextualized with sound, drag you in—you’re fed it.
Still images will still be part of the conversation, but the way we make them is less important?
Absolutely. There are people with the nostalgia for the craft of photography. That’s getting in the way because at the end of the day I’m interested in talking about the war in Afghanistan, not preserving the craft of photography.
Check out Tim’s book, Infidel, released in October 2010.