Review – Infidel by Tim Hetherington at Photofusion

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Untitled, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan,
2008 © Tim Hetherington, Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery, New York and Magnum.

The plaudits for Tim Hetherington have been many since his death three years ago while covering the uprising in Libya. It seems tragically apt that a new exhibition of his work should open at London’s Photofusion right now, only a few days after another American photojournalist, James Foley, lost his life covering the Arab Spring (a spring which for many has started to feel more like a winter). This new exhibition mainly consists of photographs made while Hetherington was embedded with United States troops in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, a series of images which would become the celebrated book Infidel. In it, Hetherington took the inherently limited reporting opportunities created by the American practice of embedding journalists with frontline units, and used it as a way to examine the men fighting the war and their relationships with each other.

Hetherington’s dexterity as a journalist was remarkable, and he showed more talent as a writer, photographer and film maker than do many people who specialise in just one of these areas, not to speak of his humanitarian credentials. His portraits are particularly vivid and mesmerising, and they shine in a project like this which is so dependent on the personalities of the soldiers for it’s effect. One striking photograph is ‘Specialist Donohoe’ (viewable as the bottom left hand photograph in my earlier review of the Infidel book). The soldier’s blue-yellow eyes are all the more striking for the mud and dirt on his face, and it is strongly resonant of McCurry’s portrait of Sharbat Gula, the ‘Afghan Girl’. Except of course the differences are total, Donohoe is a male American soldier, and his look to the camera is boyish and charming where Gula’s is understandably harsh and almost defensive.

The size of the prints in the exhibition reveals a lot more detail than is visible in the original Infidel book. The brand names of food and cosmetics are visible, the strange mixing of domestic and military is all the more obvious in each scene. In the bigger prints this scale also leads to some very noticeable pixelation but this dosen’t bother me as much as it might have in other work, or another exhibition. I suppose in part this is because, old fashioned as it might be, I still find photographs of war masquerading as beautiful art works rather difficult, and this loss of fidelity, whether accidential or not, allays that sensation. Perhaps though it’s also because this sort of compromised image quality has become so familiar in contemporary amateur representations of war that it hardly even registers to see it in the work of a professional. Some will probably make more fuss of it, but I suspect their attention is focused in the wrong place.

More of an issue than image quality, I found that the same main problem I had with the book is even more noticeably present here. Specifically that is the total absence of the enemy in any of the pictures, an absence which becomes more glaringly obvious when looking at them printed so large. Hetherington qualified this absence by arguing his book was about brotherhood between soldiers, not about the war itself, but the war and the enemy seem to me to be a key part of that. It’s also problematic, because as I’ve said before the lack of any trace of an enemy gives you the feeling this could all be a sterile simulation, except in the book that sensation is at least shattered late on when a soldier is killed and reality comes crashing back. There is no moment like that in the exhibition, I suppose because the public nature of the space makes the required shocking image a difficult one to include.

The inclusion of Hetherington’s video piece Diary (viewable here) is maybe the closest I got to experiencing that crashing feeling. Diary is a brilliant inter-cutting of video from the front-lines of conflicts in countries like Liberia and Afghanistan with scenes of mundane ordinariness in western cities. A see-sawing between war and peace, third and first worlds, actors and observers, which is beautiful and unsettling. I’ve never experienced post-traumatic stress, but from what I’ve read and heard about it I imagine this video at least touches on the sensation of suddenly and unexpectedly being dropped back into an unpleasant experience. For me it’s one of the strongest pieces Hetherington made, and its inclusion here is a reminder of the immense talent that has been lost.

Infidel by Tim Hetherington is at Photofusion, 22 August – 17 September and then continuing: 1-31 October 2014.