Post-photography: Tim Hetherington’s living legacy

April 21, 2011 · by David Campbell · multimedia, photography

Tributes to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros have been widespread and heartfelt after the devastating news of their untimely deaths in Libya. The injuries to Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown were also shocking, and hopefully they will recover fully.

Photojournalism Links has curated the numerous memorials, including many fascinating videos in which Tim and Chris articulate their visions. I wanted to pay tribute to them, and I’ve been ruminating for twenty-four hours about what to say. I hope its appropriate to offer that respect by pointing to a legacy that can live on.

Over the years I was fortunate to have talked with Tim on a few occasions. Many know him better than I, but even sporadic discussions, such as a debate over embedding in Afghanistan, were testament to his creativity, intellect and generosity.

Back in 2000 Tim was part of a Panos Pictures workshop that opened an exhibition at Side Gallery in Newcastle. Tim was the standout speaker, and presented his “House of Pain” project (published online by Fred Ritchin’s Pixel Press). This was a multimedia piece that began as a student project at Cardiff in 1996 and was influenced by a work placement with Pedro Meyer. To experiment with multimedia more than a decade ago in order to take photojournalism into new areas is proof of Tim’s energy and vision.

Ten years on and Tim was back at Side for the opening of his Liberia exhibition in March 2010. Not only did he speak at the gallery on the first Saturday of the show, on the Sunday he showed the draft of his personal Diary project, and discussed the numerous challenges of filming in a war zone. He was again generous with his time and engaging with his insights, and we enjoyed continuing the exchange about Afghanistan.

Tim’s legacy will be rich and profound. But it can be more than the work he leaves behind. It should also be a living legacy in which the boundaries of photojournalism are continually pushed in pursuit of a story with purpose. To that end, the thinking he exhibited in his June 2010 interview with Michael Kamber could be the blueprint. The whole transcript repays attention, but here are some of the provocative extracts:

If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

If we are interested in the outside world and making images of it and translating it and relaying it to as many people as possible, then in some ways the traditional photographic techniques are really not important.

Authenticity and making a picture authentic is obviously important. I am not interested in traditional photographic techniques. I am not interested in putting a black border around a photograph as a way of saying that is authentic. You know, “protecting photography.”

My point about not being a photographer is that we can’t protect photography – forget photography – when we are interested in the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.

I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

We are making so many images, but we aren’t actually connecting these images. We aren’t exploiting what we have made. We aren’t mining it enough to make it into audiences’ minds. A strategy to hit people about this idea of Afghanistan across multiple forms – “Oh, I’ve read Sebastian’s book, “War”; I’ve read the Vanity Fair articles; then I saw the film and the film made me want to see Hetherington’s book” — is a multilayered thing. It is different than the images you see out there that are already lost.

And to make that happen, you have to navigate through the business side of things. That isn’t easy. But if we see ourselves merely as photographers, we are failing our duty. It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.

We who are working in the realm of photojournalism and documentary photojournalism have to focus on whom we want to talk to. We need to know who our audience is. That will help us figure out how to reach them, which language to reach them with. I don’t think enough image-makers do that.

I encourage them to look at many different forms. Not to say, “I am a photographer,” but to say: “I am an image maker. I make still or moving images in real-life situations, unfiltered and un-Photoshopped. I am going to look into how I can put this into different streams for different audiences; maybe some on the Web, some in print.”

That’s why I think the most important thing for our industry is not style, it is authenticity. It is: “I go to you because I know you have an authentic voice in the work that you have been doing.”

We all know that having professionalism in any field is important. We have a weird skill-set. Send us into a difficult circumstance and we will get out there and know how to find a story. That is what we do for a living. That is valuable. It is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution – in addition to citizen journalism, in addition to local photographers. The more, the merrier.

Tim died in pursuit of a story for us. I find it very hard to write those words. But if image makers, visual journalists, put his thoughts into practice, his legacy will be alive and productive. We live in a post-photographic world. It’s one where there are more images than ever before. Forget ‘photography’, meaning the industry. Don’t turn inward and protect a tradition just because its done things a certain way for a long time. Find ways, including photographs, to make “the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.” What better way to honour someone taken prematurely than continue down the path they helped forge?

15 Responses to “Post-photography: Tim Hetherington’s living legacy”

  1. Great to read those thought provoking quotes again.

    ‘Tim died in pursuit of a story for us.’ That statement seems to carry a weight of burden? Maybe I am just reading it wrong. In his final interview Tim had these words,

    ‘I think it’s got to come from yourself, first of all. That’s the most honest place to be coming from. If I started saying that it came out of a desire to change the world, that’s very suspect. Can’t it come out of a place of personal curiosity? A desire to locate myself in the world and also have some utility?’

  2. Lindsay Mackenzie April 21, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    A thoughtful and thoroughly respectful piece. Thanks David.

  3. Thanks Lindsay. Duck, words are very hard in this context, but I feel that the quote you point to and what I wrote chime in many respects. “A desire to locate myself in the world and also have some utility.” The inspiration might come from inside, but the purpose is about the outside – the social, the story, the world.

  4. Yes, you’re absolutely right.

    Maybe then we can say, photography creates ‘the other’ by thinking too much about itself. The quotes you picked out are about flipping that. Reach out to ‘the other’ and we might all learn something about ourselves.

    A tribute that stands time.

  5. Hi David,

    You’ve managed to capture deep thoughts on the role of the image and it’s future going through Tim’s mind. Photojournalists, documentary filmmakers who look past the traditional will be the one’s to catch up to the place he was at, he was going to.

    We’ll carry it on anyway. Here’s a link to a related post I wrote in the twilight hours one morning: http://digitalways.net/2011/03/29/beyond-the-digital-age/

  6. Thank you for that David. Powerful, inspiring and very respectful. Written from the heart. May his legacy indeed live on and be productive as we try to pt his thoughts in practice. Thanks again.

  7. I met Tim several years ago whilst printing at Photofusion in London. We used to have animated conversations about the ‘death of photojournalism’ – neither of us believed that it was dying, but rather, that it was evolving into something else that we didn’t fully understand at the time. But what really struck me about Tim was that he had a deep interest in human rights and the potential of photographs to construct narratives and accounts about the social and political worlds we live in. He emailed me before he died and he was full of optimism and was keen to work on a project around cities in conflict. We went ahead and held the event at the ICA this year and as the various speakers attempted to make sense of their experiences of conflict, I thought about Tim and why it is so important that people are prepared to follow their instincts of wanting to use photography as a social tool, and just how the personal can be so profoundly political without necessarily meaning to be so.

  1. [...] David Campbell’s beautiful tribute to Tim Hetherington and Tim’s thinking on an evolving visual [...]

  2. [...] “If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.” Hetherington quoted on Campbell’s blog. [...]

  3. [...] Post-photography: Tim Hetherington's living legacy | David Campbell Apr 21, 2011 … Tributes to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros have been widespread and heartfelt after the … [...]

  4. [...] have participated in the World Press Photo awards between 2008-2011. # Last year Tim had spoken of a post-photographic world, and the need for visual communicators to stop thinking of themselves as just a photographer. I [...]

  5. [...] between still and moving images, possibly what Tim Hetherington meant when he spoke of a “post-photographic” world. This is not a world in which one visual form has died, but a world in which multiple [...]

  6. […] between still and moving images, possibly what Tim Hetherington meant when he spoke of a “post-photographic” world. This is not a world in which one visual form has died, but a world in which multiple […]

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