Sunday, 5 May 2013

From Mametz to Misrata

I had thought of writing about something very mundane in this blog - then I opened last week's Big Issue and found an article about the late Tim Hetherington.  Not exactly a household name, perhaps, but if I were to jog your memory with the information that Hetherington was a photojournalist who was killed, aged only 40, in Libya during 2011, you might begin to recall the circumstances.

Hetherington was in Libya to cover the so-called civil war (I say "so-called" because I am never quite sure how many of the international conflicts going on in today's world are stoked by foreign interests for their own ends) when he was killed by shrapnel in Misrata, during the three-month battle for control of the city between pro- and anti-government forces.  In the same year, Hetherington had been nominated for an Academy Award for Restrepo, a documentary he made with Sebastian Junger about the war in Afghanistan.  The film followed several U.S. battalions operating in the Korengal Valley, at that time regarded as "the deadliest place on Earth".

Hetherington himself will shortly be the subject of a new film, Which Way is the Front Line from Here?  A biography by his friend Alan Huffman, entitled Here I Am, has also been published recently by Grove Press and is receiving rave reviews on Amazon (if that is anything to go by).  What interests me, of course, is the parallel between the experiences of photographers and journalists in war zones of today with those of people trying to do a similar job during the First World War.

I am not really talking about "official" war correspondents and photographers, but about men (and occasionally women) who take their lives in their hands in order to record what they see as the truth about wars.  Propaganda is still rife, just as it was in the past, and we cannot always rely on "candid" shots from mobile phones and camcorders, which are generally supplied by people who have taken sides in the conflict and are interested in showing only their own side of things to the international audience.  Hetherington's photographs, many of which are now widely available in published books and articles, include photographs of the soldiers, the situations, and the victims, in a way that seeks not to judge but to report, not merely accurately but reflectively.  He described himself, not as a war photographer, but as an "image maker".  Perhaps this is unfortunate, as the word "image" has connotations we do not necessarily associate with the truth.

When I saw a reproduction of the last photograph Hetherington ever took, I was rather moved by the parallels with twentieth-century wars.  A metal helmet with an enormous hole in the centre lies on the barren ground in the centre of the frame, surrounded by the remnants of the contents of an army supply truck captured by rebels.  Whether there was anyone wearing the helmet at the time the hole was made, one cannot be sure, but it is reminiscent of so many of the rusted Great War artefacts I have seen in France and Belgium and which can still sometimes be picked up at the site of battles that happened almost a hundred years ago.

What interests me even more is the way that technology has altered our ability to report on these conflicts in a timely and effective manner (which of course also makes it easier to misrepresent the facts if governments and newspapers so choose).  War photography began long before 1914, as we know from the many tragic visual reminders of the American Civil War.  As long ago as 1853, a Hungarian artist named Carol Szathmari took photographs in the Crimea, which he offered as a present to Queen Victoria.  Tim Hetherington is only one in a long line of war photographers who have been killed as a result of operating on the front line in an effort to report "the truth" about these conflicts.

Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg and many other soldiers made sketches of what they saw on the Western Front, and many took cameras with them, but even this did not guarantee truthful representation.  We know that photographs of soldiers going "over the top" were staged as a way of engaging the British public.  That is one reason why the poetry of the war is so highly prized.  Art and literature offer their own way of presenting a higher truth by way of pictures and words reflecting the individual soldier's view of things, and Sassoon is rightly regarded today as a shining example of someone whose writings made a real difference to our view of World War I. 

Sassoon did not attempt to answer the big questions: whether the war was right or wrong, whether he should or should not be fighting in it.  Yet, in his poetry, he conveyed the truth about the human tragedy it represented in a way that was possibly more effective than any visual image of the time, however accurate.  We must, of course, acknowledge the contribution of Robert Graves to Sassoon's poetic development, and likewise, we must acknowledge how Sassoon's approach to reporting the war made an even bigger impact on the public imagination in the hands of the next great wordsmith, Wilfred Owen.  No doubt none of these men thought of themselves as war correspondents.  Nevertheless, they fulfilled that role in a manner that became a benchmark for later writers and is still greatly admired by the present generation.  This may seem an odd thing to say, but I think it would still be difficult for people like Tim Hetherington to achieve what they have achieved without the example of the poets of the First World War.  I wonder if you agree.

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