War Story

At the Corcoran, works by late war photographer Tim Hetherington find flashes of humanity in combat zones

February 1, 2012
Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, 2007: Hetherington captured some happy moments amid combat. Here, Spc. Tad Donoho howls with pain after receiving a series of playful slaps on the belly from members of his platoon for his birthday.

For more than a decade, photojournalist Tim Hetherington was a regular in war zones: Liberia, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and his final stop, Libya. Unlike more traditional war photogs, Hetherington wasn’t concerned simply with freezing the action at its most explosive moments. He also wanted to show the humanity of the participants. That was his inspiration for “Sleeping Soldiers,” a video installation and photograph series opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

“He didn’t just show up, take a few pictures and leave,” says Corcoran chief curator and head of research Philip Brookman of Hetherington’s 2007-2008 stint in Afghanistan. “He stayed in that very dangerous place for a long time. He got to know the soldiers very well, so he was able to tell a deep, layered and complicated story.”

Hetherington, a British-born American journalist, was a contributing photographer for Vanity Fair and other outlets. He’s probably best known for his work in Afghanistan’s blood-stained Koren-gal Valley, where he and colleague Sebastian Junger embedded with an American platoon for a year to make the Oscar-nominated 2010 documentary “Restrepo.” He was killed in April 2011 at age 40 while covering the Libyan uprising.

The Corcoran’s one-room exhibition includes nine of Hetherington’s Afghanistan photos, but its centerpiece is “Sleeping Soldiers,” a five-minute video installation Hetherington completed in 2009 that gives the show its name. In it, images of slumbering young men Hetherington met in that war zone are overlaid with the relentless noises of battle that formed the soundtrack of their lives, day and night.

“He shows these kids caught in a situation in which they’re completely afraid that they’re going to die,” Brookman says. “It immerses us in the feeling of being in a place like that. It’s very astute about cutting through to the psychological nature of what it’s like to be there.”

The exhibit will be adjacent to a selection of photographs from the American Civil War and will be used as a study tool for the Corcoran College of Art + Design’s programs on photojournalism this semester. Brookman says Hetherington’s work rises above the constraints of traditional journalism and historical documentation.

“He wanted to reach out in a lot of different ways, and experiment with how he could distribute his work,” Brookman says. “He was interested in working as an artist, and showing his work in galleries.

“It’s a very innovative vision for someone in that profession. He was pioneering where photojournalism will go.”

Afghanistan, Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, June 2008: The video installation “Sleeping Soldiers” began as a series of still photographs (like the one above, which is not in the film) of American fighters at rest. For the three-screen video installation, Hetherington layered moving images atop the still ones, showing the sort of battles the men escaped on a daily basis. Hetherington made many straightforward war images, but he also wanted to give a sense of the soldiers’ inner lives. “When I first saw it, I thought, ‘This is the best representation I’ve ever seen of what it must feel like to be in combat,’” curator Philip Brookman says. “It shows both the boredom and the intensity. It gave me this physical feeling of what it was like to be there.”

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