Imperial War Museums opens exhibition of work by Birkenhead-born conflict photographer, Tim Hetherington

This Spring, Imperial War Museums (IWM) opens its first exhibition of work by celebrated photojournalist, filmmaker, and humanitarian, Tim Hetherington, following IWM’s acquisition of his full archive from the Tim Hetherington Trust in 2017.

Tim Hetherington was born in Birkenhead in 1970 and was killed while covering the front lines in the besieged city of Misrata, Libya, during the 2011 Libyan civil war.

Opening at IWM London on the 13th anniversary of Hetherington’s death, Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington showcases photography, films, and personal objects from across Hetherington’s career.

Key works on display include his projects in Liberia (2003 – 2007), Afghanistan (2007 – 2008), and his final, unfinished project in Libya (2011). With newly displayed objects and photographs including his cameras and diaries, this exhibition for the first time brings together aspects of Hetherington’s personal experiences and perspective, alongside his most engaging projects.

© IWM (DC 64030) The Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) advance on the Liberian capital, Monrovia, during the Second Liberian Civil War

Featuring over 65 of his most striking photographs, Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington shines a light on Hetherington’s unconventional approach to conflict photography.

In contrast to photojournalists who spend just weeks in warzones before moving on to new assignments, Hetherington, who was awarded four World Press Photo awards and was nominated for an Academy Award for his and Sebastian Junger’s feature-length documentary, Restrepo, took an unusually long-term approach to projects, which saw him return to the same places over several months or years.

The resulting work has a profoundly human focus, developed through deep connections with the people with whom he spent time. Hetherington also broke with convention in his use of vintage film cameras through the early 2000s, at a time of major advancements in digital photography.

Slowing the photographic process down gave more freedom to interact with people, while challenging him to take more carefully considered photographs. Visitors can witness Hetherington’s first experience of an active frontline, with his project documenting the Second Liberian Civil War, and the subsequent steps towards peace and democracy.

Alongside this, the exhibition features his time in Afghanistan, where he lived for long periods with a platoon of US soldiers. Here he chose to depict an alternative angle to contemporary news reporting, by focusing on the young soldiers he lived and spent significant time with, covering every nuance of their behaviour during periods of extreme tension, fear, vulnerability, exhaustion and boredom.

© IWM (DC 66144) A sleeping soldier from the United States Army’s 173rd Airborne Brigade in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.

In 1999, Hetherington began work on his first large scale project, Healing Sport, exploring the consequences of conflict in countries including Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Angola.

Over a decade later, in April 2011, he was mortally wounded whilst working on a new project in Libya.

Both projects, at either end of his career, sought to close the distance between his audience and the human stories of the conflict his work explored. Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington invites visitors to look at these projects in dialogue and to consider how his Libyan project might have developed, had it not been tragically cut short.

Other defining and award-winning works by and about Hetherington, shown in dedicated screening rooms, include Sleeping Soldiers, Liberian Graffiti, Healing Sport, and his self-reflective film, Diary.

© IWM (HU 137753) An anti-Gaddafi combatant during the Libyan civil war, April 2011

Greg Brockett, Curator of Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington, said, “In the process of curating this exhibition, and the years I have spent cataloguing and researching Tim Hetherington’s archive, I have discovered just how driven Hetherington was to explore his own fascination with the world through the lens of conflict. I’ve uncovered a depth of personal insight to Hetherington’s character and his thoughtful approach to his work.

“At IWM, we are delighted to be sharing this poignant insight to the person behind the lens as we invite visitors to explore a more thoughtful and visually captivating insight into conflict than we find in much of the news we watch, read or browse.”

Speaking for the Tim Hetherington Trust, Judith Hetherington (Tim’s mother and founding Trustee) said, “Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington fulfils the Trust’s core ambition that Tim’s visionary work should continue to inspire new generations of artists and journalists dedicated to bringing truth to the world.

“We are particularly excited that Tim’s rich legacy has been amplified and given new relevance by the deep knowledge and historical perspective of the team at IWM. The result is an inspiring opportunity for old friends and tomorrow’s emerging talent to catch a spark from recent history and to carry it forward in their telling of the urgent stories of our time.”

Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington will be accompanied by a brand-new photography publication of Hetherington’s work. Tim Hetherington: IWM Photography Collection by exhibition curator Greg Brockett will feature 50 of Hetherington’s photographs, offering a new perspective of his work and revealing insights into the man behind the lens.

The Tim Hetherington and Conflict Imagery Research Network, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, helped to inform the content development of this exhibition. Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington runs at IWM London until 29 September 2024.

Lead image: © IWM (HU 137369) A self-portrait of Tim Hetherington, taken in Libya, April 2011.

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© IWM Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington at IWM London
© IWM Storyteller: Photography by Tim Hetherington at IWM London