Monday, June 4, 2012

Tim Hetherington: Restrepo, Infidel, Photography and Video

Previously, I wrote about the posthumous exhibition of Tim Hetherington’s photographs at the Yossi Milo Gallery in May. I remember reading about his death roughly a year ago, but other than that, I didn’t know much about him. I was curious to learn more. Besides being a gifted photographer, Hetherington co-directed Restrepo, a documentary about a US Army platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, an area of intense combat. The film was nominated for an Academy Award in 2011 and won the Grand Jury Prize at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. Restrepo is available on Netflix and is well worth seeing, especially so if you are familiar with the photographs. If you missed the exhibition, Infidel is the book from which many images were taken, and is widely available.

Of course the big picture issues with regards to Hetherington’s work are many -- the risks he took in making it; the sacrifice and hardship in the daily lives of the soldiers; and the value to a democracy in having information about what we’re asking some members to do in our name, just to name a few. And broadly, I think the work is notable because it is a man looking at men in a non-sexualized way, exploring the subjects of masculinity, violence, intimacy, and vulnerability. My interest here extends to Hetherington’s work as visual images -- certainly not something to which he would have objected – and in particular, how the still photographs function compared to the video footage.

Restrepo tells its story using a familiar narrative structure. Time is linear and fluid. Through voice-overs and interviews, the video both shows and explains. In that sense, video and film have more in common with writing than with photography. That may seem counter-intuitive, but for still photographers, thisis a point worth considering: in terms of conveying narrative, photographs are inherently ambiguous. A photograph can succeed at showing that something happened, without explaining exactly what that is or means. If you’re not sure what I mean, think about this image by Garry Winogrand. 

Its interest comes primarily from its ambiguity. Or, ask yourself: why do newspaper photographs always have captions? What does an uncaptioned photograph tell you about what is happening? What is going on in the picture below? Do you believe that it is real?

Photographs crystallize a moment and make it concrete. Instead of narrative and explication, photographs speak through symbol – showing the part that represents something larger and making that part seem convincing. Time in a photograph is always out of context. The viewer cannot see what happened the moment before or after the shutter was pressed. Yet the viewer’s time at the moment of contact with the image is active – filling in what is missing, interpreting, and examining the frozen surface of the subject in all its detail.

Hetherington gave a lot of thought to this distinction between film and video. In an interview with Stephen Kosloff, for Resource Magazine, he had this to say in response to a question about whether still photography would be eclipsed by video:

If I am a newspaper editor, why am I going to hire (a still photographer) to take a photograph separately when I can take snippets out of your video and use them as stills? When people started writing to communicate, it was monks writing books. When the printing press was invented, it made the work of those monks partly redundant. If I make a project now with images taken out of a video stream, is that “photography”? Probably not. I don’t think we can protect the art form and idea of photography. When you look at a photography book, it’s very beautiful but you can feel the age of it. That is what I’m saying about living in a post-photographic age. Not that photography ceases to exist, but the art form has been delegated.

 . . . .  But still and motion are two distinct media. I’d argue that Joe Rosenthal’s photo of the U.S. flag being raised on Iwo Jima, for example, is more powerful than the film footage. The still image has power versus the video; but what isn’t important is the craft. Moving images allow us to be, for lack of a better word, lazy. We prefer moving images. A still image requires a creative interaction with it—you have to think. Moving images, contextualized with sound, drag you in — you’re fed it.

Obviously, this isn’t an either/or distinction, but simply the notation of difference. The implications for younger photojournalists, especially those who seek recognition in a fine art context, are to think in terms of both video and still photography, aware of the differences between them. For students of photography, there is a lesson in looking at both bodies of work and noting the way in which each tells its story.

For more on Hetherington’s work: links to magazine articles by Michael Kamber and Jon Levy. Interviews with excerpts from Restrepo and Infidel: PBS Newshour and DocTalk.

A foundation has been set up in Tim's name to support struggling students and artists whose work highlights humanitarian and social concerns. More information about it and donations towards it can be made here. The ideas discussed above about how photography functions are based upon those suggested by John Szarkowski in The Photographer's Eye, a book that every aspiring photographer should have on his or her shelf.