Tuesday, 18 November 2014

The Power of a Picture

My current read is 'Here I Am', Alan Huffman's biography of the war photographer Tim Hetherington, who met his death while covering the fall of Gaddafi in Misrata, Libya in 2011. I had been meaning to read the book for a while and a few weeks ago a copy came into the shop, so I nabbed it - one of the advantages of having a second hand bookshop in the family.

I've always been interested in war reportage. When I was younger, it was my main reason for starting my first degree in Serbo-Croatian Language and Literature: at that time the civil war was still raging in the former Yugoslavia. I wanted to understand the historical reasons behind the war, but more than that I wanted to be there during the conflict, to talk to the people caught up in it and to hear their stories: I thought I wanted to be a war journalist. I thought that if I spoke the language, coupled with the experience I already had as a published writer, someone might be willing to take me on. It didn't happen - I struggled with the course and ended up transferring to do English Literature at Sussex. Now, I think that if I had ended up in a war zone, I probably wouldn't have dealt with the realities of it at all well, although I was far more bullish about my own security back then. But it has left me with an enduring respect and fascination for those who repeatedly put themselves in harm's way to let the rest of the world see what's happening in conflicts we can barely imagine - and often don't want to.

War reportage is one potent example of a situation where photographs can often be so much more effective than words. The words of a report can easily be drowned out or skimmed over, but an image can stick in the brain after nothing more than a glance. This happened to me with the following photograph:

I first came across it while visiting South Africa in (I think) 2006. It was taken in Liberia some years earlier, at the height of that country's second civil war. A large print of it was was part of a small exhibition in an artsy cafe in Muizenberg, Cape Town. It was framed and for sale, and I was very tempted to buy it. Something about it drew me in - the weird beauty of all that metal turned to lace by bullets, the strange tranquility of the resting rebel beneath the shell holes in the wall, his colourful clothing… it seems to me to capture the many juxtapositions to be found in wartime. The friend I was with at the time couldn't understand why I would want such an image - with its inherent context - on my wall. I think to her, buying it would have somehow meant I was finding something attractive in an entire people's misfortune. Perhaps she was right. Anyway, I didn't buy it. But that image always stayed with me.

Some years later, I searched for it online, starting with the name of the cafe where I first saw it and then looking through hundreds of images of the Liberian conflict. Eventually I found it, but inevitably, if I wrote down the photographer's name, I forgot it sometime later. Reading 'Here I Am' made me think of it again, for Hetherington started his career in Liberia, photographing rebels exactly like the one in this picture. I wondered whether it was him who had taken the shot that had so captured my attention all those years ago, and searched for it.

In fact, this picture wasn't by Hetherington - it was taken by a journalist called Nick Bothma, who is still alive and well - his website, and many galleries of his beautiful images, can be found here. Now he photographs subjects as diverse as honey bees and Usain Bolt. I would love to speak to him, to see if he remembers taking this photograph, and whether how he sees it matches up to how it effected - and still effects - me.

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