Tim Hetherington was a photographer, artist and filmmaker who was murdered as the result of a mortar attack in Libya while covering the civil war there in 2011, the year his co-directed film Restrepo was nominated for an Academy Award. He was 40. This exhibition at WTF has been organised by his friend Chris Wise, the Bangkok-based photographer who also co-runs WTF, and comprises installations of photographs from Hetherington's book Infidel and screenings. Infidel covers the year he spent with a US battalion in northeast Afghanistan, described as "the deadliest place on Earth", as they fought against the Taliban, the same subject as Restrepo.
Hetherington's remarkable career included winning the 2007 World Press Competition, out of 81,000 entries. An essay written by two of the judges about their experience, the well-known artists Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, attests to some of the complexities or confusions that accompany inquiries into the role of documentary photography for the contemporary world.
Broomberg and Chanarin wrote of society's "insatiable hunger for images of suffering" as they ploughed their way through a conveyer-belt of photographs of charred human remains, animal fights, dereliction and junkies.
Hetherington's winning entry is a slightly blurred shot of a single soldier in a state of exhaustion, caught unaware as he holds his hand to his head while gripping a helmet in the other. The judges linked it to a history of important photographs of lone combat figures, from Robert Capa to Don McCullin, and considered it morally significant.
In formal terms, Hetherington's work carries a sense of urgency and spontaneity and, as the writers acknowledge, can also be described with the vague term "painterly", thus satisfying conventional aesthetic interest.
However, Broomberg and Chanarin also remark on legalities and self-censorship as it can govern the publication of contentious imagery in major newspapers and magazines. Such constraints not only affect the type of photographs that will be taken but also risk forcing a generalised view of the subject; where the specifics of time, place and experience are lost to the rhetorical blur of ever-familiar signs of war, impoverishment and corruption.
In this respect, when looking over an exhibition like "Infidel" we can wonder about greater forces that might have honed Hetherington's vision. Of course, we can ask this of any artist, but the matter seems to be particularly potent with reportage and inevitable implications of objectivity, truth and ethics.
"Infidel", as the accompanying notes state, is a series of photographs about male camaraderie and vulnerability against a backdrop of the horrors of war. The photographs are intensely homosocial; that is, they map a world of intimate but not erotic bonds between men. The men hold, grab and touch each other in performances of force and jest. They pose for the camera, play-act and are also depicted in states of languorousness and reverie.
One sub-series captures individual men while sleeping, their mostly topless bodies defined by a soft Caravaggesque light and suggesting a condensed set of references: rugged odalisques, a certain type of advertising imagery that was fashionable in the 90s or perhaps sleeping giants. Hetherington's camera is not one that pursues the pretensions of psychological depth, or seeks to reveal a core beyond the interest of surfaces.
On the contrary, "Infidel" is all about surfaces: of flesh, muscles, tattoos, dramatic landscapes and skies, military garb and detritus. Another series corresponds infra-red images of the men and insignia to photographs of the covers of magazines such as Playboy and Guns & Ammo. Here we become particularly aware of photography's acute capacity to select, frame and compose; to render relationships less represented than idiomatically formed by the image itself: between masculinity and heterosexuality; masculinity and violence; or, more abstractly, masculinity and the vicissitudes of power.
In short, we become aware of masculinity as a symbolic construct with only a tangential relationship to how most of us live our lives, most of the time.
According to "Infidel", Hetherington's achievement as a photographer is not in whatever we think he is telling us about the experience of men in zones of conflict or how anyone might function daily under the potential threat of violence. Rather, his achievement is in steadfastly acknowledging a fundamental fact of photography: it is a mirror, not the "thing" itself.
As a mirror, it reflects rather than articulates or narrates; and reflections typically function as projections of the person looking, our beliefs, desires, fantasies et al and, ultimately, our capacity to imagine the world differently or stay within its limits.
"Tim Hetherington: Infidel" continues at WTF Gallery, Sukhumvit Soi 51, until June 2. Visit www.wtfbangkok.com
About the author
- Writer: Brian Curtin
Position: An Irish-born artist and curator based in Bangkok.