This week's installment of Context Africa focuses on the work of documentary photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington. For nearly ten years, Tim lived and worked in Liberia covering the war and its aftermath. He made the film An Uncivil War, which he loves seeing pirated on the streets of Monrovia. Now, has a new book of photos out. His work is internationally acclaimed and an important addition to understanding what happened in Liberia. I got a sneak peak at his new photo book Long Story, Bit by Bit when we had coffee at the Mamba Point Hotel last week.
In his own words,
There are two Liberias, two worlds that are far apart but that sometimes intersect. One is the world of Liberians and reflects their individual struggle with history and circumstance. The other is the world of the international community, led by events and the preoccupations and agendas of organizations like the United Nations and international NGOs. The international media often portrays Liberia as a place of abstract violence and faceless individuals. As the only photographer to live with the rebels during the war, I was granted a unique perspective. My evolving work is an attempt to describe how the events of war intersect with personal lives. I want my images to evoke the contrast between inside and outside, the personal and the historical, and the individual and the event.Context Africa is new series on this blog that highlights projects that go above and beyond daily news to tell a story of a place in its context. I also hope create an ongoing dialogue about what it means to tell contextual stories in Africa. There's a lot of daily news out there that is factually incorrect, slanted, or stereotyped. But, there are also a lot of journalists committed to telling a different kind of story.
See previous Context Africa entries: Jina Moore's Q and A about forgiveness in Rwanda, Nicholai Lidow on post-conflict surfing, and Rob Crilly on how to write about a place as contentious as Darfur.
Tim Hetherington work can also be seen here, on his homepage.
How did this book come to be?
I didn’t think about a book for quite a long time. I was making work in West Africa for general dissemination. I wasn’t thinking, “you make a project and then you make a book,” but it seemed obvious in 2006 that I’d make a book. Then, you spend a couple of years thinking, “What was the book about, what was the project about?” The book is the final project that crystallizes what I was doing. I only finally understood what I was doing when the book was completed and making it was an exercise in figuring that out.
How did you end up in Liberia?
By chance, like so many things in life. I was working in the UK and I found out about a Liberian football team that was coming to the UK. And I thought sports was an interesting way to connect Liberia to the UK. I approached the organizers of the tour and said I wanted to be on the coach when the kids come around. They saw my work and said they were looking for someone to come out and film. They asked if I wanted to go to Liberia. I said, “Sure, where is it?” I first came here in May, 1999.
I remember the first scene that grabbed me. I was walking down Tubman Boulevard and everyone stopped and stood still. They said, “Taylor is coming, Taylor is coming.” He had summoned all the ministers to come to meet him at the airport after a trip abroad. He had a massive convoy of 100 vehicles going full speed down a two-lane street, along with armed vehicles and guys with RPGs and wrap around sunglasses. It was a caricature of Africa. A woman was jumping up and down and saying “Taylor is our lord, Taylor is our lord!” It was the end of one part of the war, but the buildings were dilapidated and broken down. It blew my mind. How can this reality possibly exist in the same world that I exist in?
From there, the project turned out into an inquiry into power. It’s about how young men and women are used politically, and what happens to them and their lives.
My recent work follows similar themes. I did a project in Afghanistan, and it’s about young men and power - how young American men and violence and power come together and how they’re used politically.
How has Liberia changed since you first came here, ten years ago?
Now, Liberia is in a better place. There’s security here, some economic progress, some investment, some political stability, some improvement in some people’s lives, and a great deal of freedom of speech. There’s a desire by the political powers to resurrect justice and democracy. You can see that visually. It’s changing, but it’s too early to say what’s going to happen. You can’t make that call now. Things are still very fragile, the process is going to take ten or fifteen years.
One of the things that I love about this book is that it isn’t just straight war reporting. You include landscapes, portraits, even still life images. Can you tell me a bit about that decision?
I’ve never seen myself as a war photographer. This is about narrative. I’m very open to any visual conceits and any possibilities at my disposal to better explain to people the ideas I’m exploring. I like art photography, I like still life, I like war photography. I like to include everything to weave a tapestry to explain to someone, “What happened?”
A lot of the pictures are metaphorical, and the combination of pictures is metaphorical. This piece of work is almost like a novel. I use narrative book techniques, and I think they’re a more powerful approach than having a lot of war photography. The other thing is I’m working in square format, and that’s a signature of the Liberia work. Working with film slows down your process and makes it more contemplative. I can do square work and it's fast moving, but I can take a slower photo of an orange, and it becomes something.
(Note: Tim uses a medium format film Hasselblad for almost all of his work.)
What do you hope will come from this book?
For me what happened was that unlike the other people that covered the war, I actually lived with the [LURD] rebels during the war. That was a privileged experience. And I felt the importance of making that public record, and that’s what the book is and why it comes out. And that’s why Uncivil War is so popular here. It’s not just the government, but it’s what people here saw.
The book and photos will tour around galleries and colleges, and I want to create awareness of America’s involvement in Liberia up to a present date. People in America should understand that. Liberia is still like an antebellum plantation system and that needs to be understood.
In the book, I name people and show people who they were. A lot of warlords were using America as a base. The LURD came out of Guinea, but the MODEL came out of America. That’s something that needs to be spoken about. America can have a very destabilizing effect on Liberia.
No one in Liberia will pay $30 for this book. They don’t need to be reminded of what this book contains. They know it. In a few years, I want to make a low cost copy of this book that can be sold here. Something soft copy, printed in China, and then disseminate it here for $2 so people can show their children what happened. But not now. Liberia needs to focus on rebuilding, not what happened. But this generation’s children will need to see it and their children’s children will need to see it.
Buy the book on Amazon, which will be released on June 1, 2009, and see Umbrage Press for more information.