Soldiers let down their defenses
By Jess Righthand
Friday, Feb. 17, 2012
Photojournalist Tim Hetherington may be best known for "Restrepo," his Oscar-nominated film about the war in Afghanistan, but his two-minute video "Sleeping Soldiers" is a particularly profound portrait of the psychological scars of war.
The 2010 video is on view at the Corcoran Gallery, along with a selection of photographs Hetherington took in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley. The "Sleeping Soldiers" exhibition was conceived after Hetherington was killed while covering the Libyan civil war last April.
The video installation features three projectors and three side-by-side screens. Each screen is synched so that at any given moment, a viewer will be watching either three images, one image repeated three times or a single image stretched over the three screens.
The short film begins and ends with a simple image of a soldier lost in sleep, curled up on his cot with a camouflage blanket. All at once, the shadow of a tiny helicopter appears flying near the soldier's head. The sound of the propeller gets louder and more intense, and the helicopter grows from the size of a small insect to one entire screen. The viewer is suddenly transported to the nightmare of combat in Afghanistan, as a scene plays out in which a platoon member is wounded.
"For me, it's kind of the closest thing I've seen, in any form, that actually shows what it must feel like to be in combat," says Philip Brookman, the Corcoran's chief curator. "You're right there with the soldiers, and they're not heroic; they're really just struggling to come to terms with what is going on around them. That's really what this is. So instead of showing them just being honorable, he's showing this stuff, the scenes of them being in combat, as a kind of dream."
Hetherington didn't spend only one day -- or one week even -- in Afghanistan. He followed a single platoon for the better part of a year at one of the most remote and dangerous outposts in the war zone. That a soldier allowed Hetherington to capture him while asleep, Brookman says, illustrates the photographer's dedication and connection to the platoon.
"It's work that is very emotional. He puts himself in it; he's very close to the people he's working with," Brookman says. "He sort of just gives it to you, and then you can make up your own mind about what you think about it. It's not telling you what to think."
Brookman points to this method of showing an experience rather than telling the facts as one of the most important aspects of Hetherington's work. In fact, Hetherington long disagreed with the old mandate that a photographer (or, in this case, videographer) document the events of the day as objectively as possible.
"Our generation is not attached to this myth of photography as objective reporting because we know it's not," says photojournalist Chris Anderson, who shared studio space with Hetherington in New York. "And so he and I had been kind of playing with the idea of, so where is that line? What does that mean? Are we, by definition, objective? Is there something else that can be reported about war that can be more about the experience? That touches on what it's like to be there, on the individual conflict of what it means to be there? That's what that particular work is about."
On the other side of the gallery are photographs that many will recognize from "Infidel," Hetherington's 2010 book of images from the platoon: a soldier practicing his golf swing on a precipice overlooking the valley; another shirtless in his room, displaying the lacerations his platoon mates inflicted on him for his birthday. A photograph of another sleeping soldier - striking for its banal detail (a paperback on the nightstand, a backpack on the floor) - occupies an entire black wall.
The exhibition was not meant to be a survey or even a memorial, Brookman says. And yet, it is impossible not to see "Sleeping Soldiers" without sensing Hetherington -- his dedication, his artistic eye and his death. But Hetherington's memory doesn't detract from the show's content. That comes through loud and clear.