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Imperial War Museum : Tim Hetherington


Some labels outlive their usefulness and anyone now calling themselves a war photographer should arouse more suspicion than applause. We certainly don’t need professional photographers to remind us that war is about killing people, its violence obscene, and Tim Hetherington – who did not like having the label ‘war photographer’ attached to his work – thought and felt this. It is something that makes his death, at the age of 40, from a shrapnel wound inside the city of Misrata when it was shelled by Gaddafi’s government forces in April 2011 all the more dreadful. In his diary, he writes about the death of one of the fighters in Misrata from the house where he was staying, seeing his body at the hospital (‘a mortar severed his head in two’) and then going to the frontline where the young men ‘seemed in some kind of psychosis. Like a kind of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder] that their friend had died’. This, though, was not Hetherington’s primary photographic subject matter and the photo that won him the World Press Photo award in 2008, of a clearly distressed US soldier resting in a bunker in Afghanistan, is not typical of his work. In the book that accompanies the Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, words from Hetherington’s acceptance speech at the award ceremony are quoted: ‘The picture is also about how I felt. I lived with these soldiers. I went on patrol with them. I ate their food and slept in their cots …. I too was terrified at the prospect of being overrun by insurgents.’

It is this level of personal engagement and commitment that distinguishes Hetherington’s life and work. He studied classics and English at university but after two years of travelling in Asia he returned to the UK in 1992, becoming more and more interested in photography and earned a second degree in 1997, this time in photojournalism. He learned about mixing photography with video and audio and his film work forms an essential aspect of the Imperial War Museum’s exhibition. The Tim Hetherington Trust’s donation to the museum includes his archive of images, journals, equipment and other material and it has been put to excellent use in an exhibition commemorating his life and achievement. It follows his early work in Liberia, through to Sierra Leone and Afghanistan and, finally, the civil war in Libya. What comes across strongly is the sense that Hetherington was on a personal mission to explore his own self, wryly accepting the baggage that came with being treated as a war photographer. He knew he had a role to play, remarking in a conversation how ‘it’s easy just to agree and to accept the stereotype. I find myself pushed into the role of being this heroic figure.’ Perhaps that is why he chose to take a boat into Mistrata, a dangerous journey (his boat was also carrying weapons) but one that other journalists were taking.

It was not danger and death that attracted him: witness his photo of a woman carrying cassava on her head to a market during the Second Liberian Civil War, 2003; a woman touching the knee of her partner as she bids farewell before he departs for the front; a combatant, his haunting gaze directed at the camera with his elbow resting on a table next to a hand grenade; two US soldiers at play at an outpost in Afghanistan, 2008. He photographs a US army captain holding in his lap an adopted local dog at the same outpost and creates a series of images of soldiers asleep. Hetherington finds his own vulnerability when he pictures it in the faces and behaviour of others; telling a story about himself as well as others.

Sean Sheehan


The Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington exhibition is at the Imperial War Museum until September 2024. Admission is free.

Tim Hetherington: IWM Photography Collection, published to accompany the exhibition is available to order at

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