Infidel. A person who does not believe in religion, or who adheres to a religion other than one’s own. The word has become synonymous with the so-called War on Terror: for many, war has become a religion in itself, requiring a belief in the ‘superpower’ of Western governments to fully support it. It is also the title of a book by award-winning photojournalist Tim Hetherington, from which Liverpool’s Open Eye Gallery has taken work for a new exhibition, You Never See Them Like This.
For the first exhibition under the auspices of director Lorenzo Fusi, the team at Open Eye haven’t shied away from emotional and political intensity. “When I first saw Tim’s photos they had a very powerful effect on me,” Fusi says passionately. “They managed to shift my attention from the general political context to focus on the ‘human factor.’ He portrayed the US soldiers stationed in the Afghan outpost as human beings, not just as war professionals.” The Infidelphotographs show American soldiers at work, at rest, and off duty while stationed in the stunning but war-ravaged landscape of north-eastern Afghanistan; images of the soldiers asleep are especially – and unnervingly – tender. Hetherington gives them individuality and humanity despite their generic uniforms.
The Merseyside photographer’s work strikes a balance between gritty reality and his own personal expression. “Tim realised that objectivity in photography does not exist, there is always an editorial line and a context to take into account,” says Fusi. “He was fully and painfully aware of his role, that is, not to stop a conflict by means of his photos but to document a war that somebody else had started.”
There are further layers of meaning to this exhibition, and Hetherington’s personal story is as uplifting as it is tragic. Born in 1970 in Liverpool, he studied literature at Oxford University and photojournalism at Cardiff University before ascending to a bright international career as a photographer with positions at the Big Issueand Vanity Fair. Sadly, Hetherington died while covering the Libyan civil war in 2011 – and although this exhibition is a tribute, it does not intend to memorialise the photographer. “Tim was very busy experimenting at the time he was killed,” Fusi observes. “He had a lot questions and was still searching for the answers.” Hetherington died still committed to the pursuit of his task to document – and challenge misconceptions of – modern day warfare. You could almost describe the images at Open Eye using one of the messages on Tim’s tribute blog: “such a blow in my face, a hit in my heart and soul.”
First published in The Skinny