Tim Hetherington: Dining Hall, Milton margai School for the Blind, Sierra Leone

A photograph is but a moment frozen in time, preserved, on film or on a digital memory card. But a photograph has the power to tell stories and convey feelings from the past and it also has the strength to move us emotionally and in doing so convey the very feelings the photographer, and often the subject, experienced at the time. Over the coming weeks I will select a photograph that exemplifies to me how photography possesses the power to move us.

I hope the images I choose over the coming eight weeks and the stories about them that I will tell will be an inspiration to you the readers to sense what I have sensed, feel what I have felt, be inspired by the work of others and re-live the memories the photographs hold in a way that makes you want to tell your own stories, share your memories and be proud of your own frozen slices of time.

This week I have chosen a photograph by British Photographer Tim Hetherington. Tim and I spent 13 years working together on projects he shot, editing for and publication Foto8.com and in our printed magazine “8”. Tim progressed to become one of the most respected young photographers of his time. Sadly Tim was taken from us prematurely when he was hit by a mortar shell fired by Ghadafi troops during the battle of Misrata in Libya in 2011. Looking back over the work he produced from his time in Africa and Afghanistan this photograph always sticks out in my mind as being something very special.

I often believe that photographs are able to instinctively tell their stories to the viewer. If I ask you to tell me what this image is of and what you think it is about there are immediate clues and obvious references that will help you grasp what it is saying. Let’s try…

Yes, it is a dining hall of sorts. Stark wooden tables and benches are prepared and place settings have been laid. Before we look at the brightly coloured cups look around the edges of the photograph and in between the cups and the tables. There is not much to go on but the bare dirty-red wall at the back of the room and the scratched and worm wooden benches tell a story. As does the simple plastic table covering, stained in places and nailed down along the seam.

Yes, it appears that this dining hall has seen a lot of traffic over the years. There is no decoration and you’d be right to conclude that this is not a place of luxury. This is a dining room of a school in an area that is not rich or well funded. Now those cups, plastic and recently washed. You can just make out the droplets of water that still cling to their upturned sides. This dining room is ready for the diners to come in.

But who are the diners and where are we? What, for that matter, makes this image so special or poignant? The cups, brightly coloured in this otherwise drab setting are crying out with a story to tell. Plastic and fun in an otherwise boring scene they are suggesting to me that this is a children’s dining hall. Did you already guess that? It wasn’t a guess, it was a well informed hunch and the photograph has quite literally spoken to help you reach that conclusion.

So there we have it, a children’s dining table in an otherwise drab and poor setting has been given a boost by some brightly coloured cups. But wait, every good story has a twist to it and every good photograph works hand in hand with a caption so that the words and the photograph complement each other to expand your knowledge and the context of the moment when the image was taken.

Tim spent a great deal of his working life photographing in Africa. He focused his attention specifically in Sierra Leone and Liberia, countries at the time – between 2002 and 2007 – gripped by civil war and horrendous suffering. This picture in its sweet and quiet way conveys great suffering too. It was taken at the Milton Margai School for the blind in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The children who will come into the room momentarily to have their lunch are blind, some who have been rendered sightless by the immeasurable cruelty and torture of rebel soldiers. The colour of the cups that so excites and invigorates us in this photograph is unseen by them and does not move the children as it moves us.

Tim was concerned as every photographer should be about how photography can work to be most effective. How for example could he tell the story of the children in this school using a camera when his very subjects inhabited a world of darkness that he could not experience himself. Even at this relatively early stages of his career Tim questioned his own ability and photography’s power to communicate. He experimented and, as we say so often about those that push harder and search further for answers to satisfy their curiosity and desire, he “pushed the boundaries” of what photography could do and how we the reader could experience it.

Underneath all of this, behind the thought process and analysis of the photographic language that dissects what the image means or what it is saying, is our instinct. An instinct that helps us to process facts and begin to know what we are looking at. Tim’s instinct was to see this as ironic, poignant, exciting, and even a happy moment but his questioning nature also made him reflect on the division between the experience of the subject and the experience of the viewer. He is playing with photography and with the viewer to make us see, experimenting in an effort to understand more and find ways to convey what he knows and feels more powerfully in photographs.

I have no doubt that you too, looking at this image now, over a decade after it was taken, can read it as I have described and indeed may see more things in it that I have written here. That instinct you have is the key to unlocking the world of photographs around you so that you might use your camera to translate and convey what you see and know with a passion and sensitivity that moves us completely.
Jon Levy
August 2013

Further Links:
Ways of Seeing by Tim Hetherington – http://issuu.com/foto8/docs/vol1no2/28

Vol.1 No.2 ei8ht magazine, Sept 2002 – https://www.foto8.com/live/v1n2

Metro Photo Challenge – Reading Pictures is a series of articles by Jon Levy commissioned by Metro Photo Challenge to coincide with the launch of the seventh annual MPC competition run by Metro Newspapers worldwide.
With a global readership of 18 million MPC is the world’s largest, free, open photo competition. The competition is now open for entries and runs through October 2013