Arts Post
Posted at 03:16 PM ET, 04/11/2012

Tim Hetherington’s legacy: A mother’s perspective on her son’s war photography

“We’re not ready for this.”

“I felt like I was like fish in a barrel.”

“Did everybody from the country come to this valley? Is nobody else fighting anymore? Is every bad guy in my face?”

These are the voices from conflict photographer and film director Tim Hetherington’s Oscar-nominated documentary, “Restrepo.” Fired upon daily, Restrepo was one of the most dangerous outposts in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. Soldiers descended into its treacherous folds fully believing they would never emerge.

Now, take that same fear, and imagine you haven’t had years of combat training. Then imagine you have no gun and that your field of vision is reduced to a pinhole. You are a war photographer.

“I didn’t really worry,” Judith Hetherington, mother of “Restrepo” co-director Tim Hetherington said. “I didn’t because I don’t think we can do anything about it. Tim had chosen his path.” In nine days, it will be the one-year anniversary of his death in Libya. Thursday will be the opening of his first posthumous solo exhibition.

Tim Hetherington, who won World Press Photo of the Year in 2007, made international headlines when he and Getty photojournalist Chris Hondros were killed during an attack by Moammar Gaddafi’s forces while photographing on rebel front lines in Misurata, Libya, on April 20, 2011.

Libya, April 9, 2011. (Self-portrait by Tim Hetherington. - ©TIM HETHERINGTON / MAGNUM)
“When someone dies, they die midsentence,” Judith said on the phone from her home in Manchester, England. From the day he passed away, Judith began carrying on not only his memory, but also his work. She has found an artist to remake his “sleeping soldier” series installation and found representation for his archive. A retired lawyer, she had begun a fine arts degree before he died.

Tim Hetherington on crutches in London on Dec. 20, 2007, after breaking his leg while shooting the Afghan war documentary “Restrepo.” He went back to Afghanistan and finished the film, which was nominated for an Academy Award. (Michael Kamber)
Judith brought Tim’s work to the attention of Magnum Photos, a cooperative of giants of photojournalism, which now manages his vast archive. His first major posthumous solo exhibition will be held at the Yossi Milo Gallery in New York. Tim’s “sleeping soldier” video installation is now on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

New York gallery owner Yossi Milo felt a huge responsibility for the work and wanted the show to be as closely aligned with Tim’s vision as possible. Because he only knew Tim briefly before his death, Milo did so by following sample prints and crops and with input from Magnum photographer and friend Chris Anderson. The result is a stunning view of Tim at his best.

First, there are Tim’s photos of rebels and civilians caught in the dragnet of the Liberian civil war. (It should be noted that for his four years of coverage, former president Charles Taylor issued an execution order for him and fellow journalist James Brabazon. This could be read as a sign that you are doing important work.)

Elliott Alcantara, Korengal Valley, Afghanistan, 2008. (Tim Hetherington - COURTESY OF YOSSI MILO GALLERY, NEW YORK)
However, the real jewel of the exhibition is Tim’s “sleeping soldier” series. Warmth envelops these soldiers set in plywood cocoons with a fetal vulnerability. The photos run directly against the grain of an often clinical portrayal of war. “I think soldiers are used as symbols and often misunderstood,” Tim told the Independent in 2010.

Michael Kamber, a close friend and fellow war photographer, said Tim was always looking at the bigger picture. “A lot of us were looking at guys shooting guns, and he was doing a much broader thing. I think in Afghanistan, too, Tim was taking photos that were just as much about manhood, brotherhood.”

Milo said that future exhibitions of Tim’s photography and video work in Libya and the rest of his vast body of work would be forthcoming.

Although Tim was a brilliant visual mind, many will remember him foremost for his humanitarianism and selflessness. “I certainly would like to emulate him,” Judith said. “I find myself in his shoes all the time.”

By May-Ying Lam  |  03:16 PM ET, 04/11/2012

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