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Tim Hetherington: “I too was terrified”

Calling yourself a war photographer sounds very odd, as if the activity of killing other people is just the subject matter that some people find interesting. Tim Hetherington rejected the title and did want to see his work described in this way.


A casualty from an ambush lies in the back of a ‘technical’ during the push on the capital by the rebel LURD force. Po Rover, Liberia. June 2003. (©Tim Hetherington)

Sean Sheehan


Hetherington knew full well that war is obscene and it makes his death at the age of 40 all the more awful. He received a shrapnel wound in the city of Misrata when it was shelled by Gaddafi’s government forces in April 2011. In his diary, he writes about the death of one of the fighters in Misrata from the house where he was staying 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”.

He had won the World Press Photo award three years earlier for the photo of a clearly distressed US soldier resting in a bunker in Afghanistan but it 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.”

Tim Hetherington.

Hetherington 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 earning a second degree in 1997, this time in photojournalism. 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 superb use in an exhibition commemorating his life and achievement.

The exhibition 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.

Bobby kisses Cortez udring a play fight at the barracks of Second Platoon at the Korengal Outpost. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province, Afghanistan. June 2008. (©Tim Hetherington)

It was not danger and death that attracted him. He found his own vulnerability in the faces and behaviour of others; telling a story about himself as well as others.

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

(Photos supplied by the Imperial War Museum)

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