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A Novelist with a Camera


We all know that photography, at its root, is writing with light. But most of us, particularly on the documentary side, do not take this too seriously–photography is a recording strategy (in its simplest form, “F-8 and be there”), not a writing one. But Tim Hetherington had a different approach.

As Sophie Gilbert recounts an early professional experience of Tim’s in the Washingtonian: “He worked as a photographer at the Independent, but grew frustrated when he showed a digital piece to an editor, who couldn’t understand why Hetherington was pitching video to a newspaper. ‘What I learned from that is that if you’re five years ahead of the curve, it’s no good,’ Hetherington said. ‘I had to wait for technology to catch up.’”

With a background in literature, he borrowed from other traditions to experiment with newer forms. Rather than simply record, he made imagery of superimposed ideas (see Sleeping Soldiers, for example), overlapping physical and psychological spaces (see Diary), and segmented temporalities (see House of Pain). He was more of a visual novelist than a visual journalist in his post-photographic stance; more interested in poetics than simply the facts (although he respected them greatly, taking time off to become a researcher at the United Nations); a hybrid of level-headed, reliable witness and semi-apocalyptic romantic. Looking at his experimental video, Diary, created after ten years of covering conflict, I was reminded most of James Joyce’s Ulysses and its experiential, edgy, hallucinatory, insinuating stream-of-conscious chronicling of the life of Leopold Bloom.

Like Joyce, Tim also had to create a new vocabulary in order to get at experiences that are more subliminal, that occur between sentences and outside frames. They both were inspired by previous authors (one of Tim’s inspirations apparently was Chris Marker; Joyce referenced Homer’s Odyssey). Both Tim and Joyce were concerned with politics and religion, the struggle of contemporary men and women to make their way in contemporary society, to be idealistic or at least civil in the midst of chaos, to acknowledge the turbulence within.

Tim was covering the struggle in Libya when he died, but he was also covering the struggle of all of us in a world much harsher than our media or governments would usually admit. He was also creating new strategies of story-telling that transcend not only photography but most forms of visual journalism itself (see Restrepo). How many witnesses in the history of the world have given their lives, between assignments, while working on a multimedia project covering war in a foreign country?

Just as we are gingerly entering a new era of hybridized media and calling it “visual journalism,” cautiously proud of our ability to finally move beyond confining categories such as “photographer” or “videographer,” Tim was already somewhere else, creating a more fluid, diverse imagistic tapestry that described not only the events on the ground but also evoked the distorting prisms of our dreams and nightmares, even if we usually prefer to repress them.

He died pointing his camera at violence, articulating a haunting poetics of life in its extremes. And, as in Joyce’s ending to his novel, all that the rest of us in Tim’s wake can respond, affirming what he lived for, is both quite simple and overwhelming. In Molly Bloom’s words: “yes I said yes I will Yes.”

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