The fog of war

Photographing Liberia’s long road to peace


Photography has a history of moving people to action.

Nilüfer Demir’s 2015 picture of a deceased 3-year-old Syrian child, Alan Kurdi, lying on a Turkish beach alerted people to the treacherous journey refugees faced in trying to reach Europe. Nick Ut’s 1968 image of Kim Phúc, known as “Napalm girl,” changed public opinion of the Vietnam War.

So, too, was the case in Liberia in 2003 where photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were working tirelessly to document the Second Liberian Civil War. It was a conflict that eviscerated the country, killing an estimated 250,000 people. Children were drugged and had guns shoved in their hands. Artillery fell from the sky. It was chaos.

The international community came to know the true horror of the crisis through the work of many photographers, but it was the images by Hetherington and Hondros in particular that galvanized the world to do something.

A new exhibition of their work, “War and Peace in Liberia,” is on display at the Bronx Documentary Center through Dec. 16.

For the first time

Hetherington and Hondros were both colleagues and close friends, sharing a commitment to documenting conflict and its effects on civilians worldwide. They both met their untimely end in an artillery strike in Misurata, Libya, in 2011.

“They worked together. They died together,” said Michael Kamber, the exhibition’s curator, who also worked in Liberia as a photographer. “Their work should be considered together.”

This exhibition marks the first time Hetherington and Hondros are being exhibited in the same space, which is something that Kamber, who was friends with both of them, feels should already have happened.

“It just felt like a no-brainer,” he said, “but it hadn’t been done.”

The show brings together two distinct bodies of work, some of which has never been shown before. In curating the exhibition, Kamber had the invaluable insight of knowing what the conflict was actually like.

“I wanted to show how bad the war was,” he said, “but give a more complete view of what went on.”

Their pictures helped move the United Nations to send a peacekeeping mission to Liberia in September 2003 that played a role in ending the war. The United Nations formally ended its mission in Liberia this past March.

“Their photos bear witness to the worst failures of humanity,” said Amina Mohammed, the deputy secretary general of the United Nations, in prepared remarks at the opening of the exhibition. “It is a memory of the things that shouldn’t happen.”

Those pictures, she contends, also contain signs of hope because of their capacity to cause change and the progress that they show. The exhibition does not just tell the story at the height of the conflict, it also includes pictures from the years after the war ended — largely from Hetherington, who moved to Liberia after the war, documenting the country’s recovery and road to peace.

“The world needs to see good stories,” said Sebastian Junger, a journalist, author and filmmaker who worked on the film “Restrepo” with Hetherington in Afghanistan in 2007.

“This is one of them.”

A visual dialogue

The exhibition offers two views of the conflict and its aftermath. The photographs Hondros made have a classic, newsy feel to them. They provide everything that’s necessary to understand what’s going on right up front, which was reflective of his being at the very front lines of the conflict.

“Chris was one of the greatest frontline photographers of all time,” Kamber said. “He was the Robert Capa of our generation.”

One of Hondros’ most iconic images from the war is of Joseph Duo mid-air in 2003. At the time, Duo was leading a contingent of child soldiers, and he leapt after firing a rocket-propelled grenade.

The image is significant for a number of reasons. It came toward the end of the war, and became emblematic of the conflict. Duo himself was once a child soldier, and the image laid the foundation for a connection between Hondros and Duo. Hondros returned to Liberia two years later where he met with Duo, and helped him get an education.

Whereas Hondros’ photographs are stark and direct, Hetherington’s are subtler and reveal themselves over time. One of his most affecting images is of an orange on a table in the Liberian capital of Monrovia in 2008, five years after the conclusion of the war. Rembrandt lighting brings the moldy decay on the fruit into sharp relief.

The mold, however, does not take up the majority of the orange. It almost looks as though it’s contained, and it speaks to the deeply corrosive nature of the conflict and the inherent difficulties in rebuilding after that.

“He would notice the quieter truths, sometimes the more profound moments,” Junger said.

Taken together, the pictures present a comprehensive portrait of a country in conflict and its recovery. Visually, they communicate with each other.

Hondros’ pictures are raw material, direct testimony from the frontlines. Hetherington’s pictures build on Hondros’ with layers of context and nuance that deepen the collective understanding of how Liberia made it through.

Before social media

Another aspect that sets these photographs apart is that they came at a time before social media. There was not as much of a visual flood then as there is today.

“There was no images coming out except what a handful of photographers were putting out,” Kamber said. “Tim and Chris were right at the front.”

Now pictures are everywhere, and the platforms by which they spread the fastest are social media. Just two years ago, 95 million were being posted to Instagram every day, according to Reuters.

This visual hyper-saturation means that one image at a time will rise above the rest and go viral, like the image of the Syrian refugee child Alan Kurdi in 2015.

The work of Hetherington and Hondros is a testament to photography’s ability to shine a light on uncomfortable truths and inspire people to do something.

“They left some very powerful evidence behind for us to look at,” Kamber said.

“They made us consider things in a new way.”