What Tim Hetherington Offered to Anthropology

Tim HetheringtonOn March 15th, I moderated a panel at RISD called Picturing Soldiers: The Aesthetics and Ethics of Contemporary Soldier Photographs featuring photographers Lori Grinker, Jennifer Karady, Suzanne Opton, and Tim Hetherington, who as killed today in Libya.

One of the amazing things about the work of each of these artists is how resonant it is with what we do as anthropologists. Like ethnography, their images are not simply about ‘documentation.’ They are about conveying something of lived experience that allows us, provokes us, to ask questions about how some particular lives come to look they way they do. They invite us to linger on the lives of soldiers long enough to think about how they are, and also are not, like others.

It strikes me that in our disciplinary conversations about what various modes of anthropological engagement might look like, we often fail to recognize the possibilities of such resonances. These possibilities are especially promising when the lives we explore are characterized, in one way or another, by war. Here, issues of politics and ethics lie both close to the surface and close to the bone. Tim Hetherington’s work was powerful proof of these possibilities.

For example, he said many times that he hoped Restrepo, his thoroughly ethnographic Afghanistan war documentary, co-directed with Sebastian Junger, would offer a new and more productive starting place for thinking about the war and US military intervention.

As Tim put it in an excellent interview at Guernica where he responds to Leftist criticism of the film:

While moral outrage may motivate me, I think demanding moral outrage is actually counter-productive because people tend to switch off. […] Sure, the face of the U.S. soldier is the “easiest entrée into the Afghan war zone” but it has allowed me to touch many people at home with rare close-up footage of injured and dead Afghan civilians (as well as a young U.S. soldier having a breakdown following the death of his best friend). Perhaps these moments represent the true face of war rather than the facts and figures of political analyses or the black and white newsprint of leaked documents.

In a more personal mode, Tim offered the experimental film Diary, which reflects something of the compulsions, rhythms, and senses of his movement into and out of ‘zones of killing’, as he suggested we might think of such spaces. Here too, we can find resonances with anthropological explorations of the particular vertiginous experiences of being in and out and in such spaces of violence, and of the uneven geographies of deadly violence.

News continues to unfold about the incident in Libya that may have also killed photographer Chris Hondros, and that seriously injured photographers Guy Martin, Michael Christopher, among others. And as we continue to hear more of Tim Hetherington’s death, and more remembrances of his life and work, I’ll also be thinking about what his work, and the work of other artists and journalists, has to offer us anthropologists; the places where our various projects meet, and the possibilities for thinking and acting that might begin from there.

Zoë Wool is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at Columbia University. She works on the intimate, carnal, clinical and political making of fleshy life for severely injured American soldiers.

3 thoughts on “What Tim Hetherington Offered to Anthropology

  1. I had read a number of reviews of Restrepo prior to seeing the film, all generally to very positive and noting the unsettling impression left by the film’s portrayal of small-unit combat as its strength. My girlfriend and I—both of whom have spent time as civilians in a country in the midst of a civil war—left the film more unsettled by other things things portrayed on the screen. That those things were included, I think, really speaks to the quality of the film and those involved in putting it together. It really is unfortunate that one of them is no longer with us.

  2. Zoe, thank you for this thoughtful tribute. I was very moved to hear of Tim’s death yesterday, and as I have explored more of his work over the intervening hours I am only more so. He and others of his colleagues have much to teach us – particularly, I think, something critical about approaching our work with a certain simplicity. What a loss.

  3. Thanks so much for this, Zoë. Tim was unique and an inspiration in so many ways, not least for being such a supremely eloquent commentator on his own work. It’s a combination of aesthetic expression, critical reflection, curiosity, empathy, and a desire to provoke the imagination of his audience that is, I think, what the best ethnography can do as well.

    In addition to his images, I know that his words will stick with me for a long time. I was struck in particular by a couple of points he made that elegantly distilled some previously inchoate feelings I have about my own work. For instance, he talked about the importance of “counterpointing the library of images” that people already have for war–or for anything they think they know about. And counterpointing it, it seemed to me, not just by “showing the other side” (as if all things have two sides, or indeed are even things at all), but by inciting a whole new frame of interpretation. He also said, of the documentary aspect of his work, that he was “not interested in subjectivity or objectivity,” and that he “liked the ethical challenges” of working in such fraught spaces. It’s a kind of boldness that I think many anthros value, but that can so easily get buried under disciplinary pieties and conventionalisms.

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