Photographer Tim Hetherington's account of wartime Liberia is haunting, eye-opening, transformative 

What's Going On

What's Going On

The story of Liberia is riddled with tragedy and hope. What began as a colony of freed American slaves became a corrupt nation of extreme inequality. The descendants of the formerly enslaved settlers suppressed the greater majority of indigenous peoples for more than 100 years. Retribution and vendetta passed from generation to generation, until the cycle of violence became woven into the fabric of the culture and the identity of the people. Liberia's leaders seemed more likely to be tortured, disemboweled or forced down rather than be voted out.

Indeed, after his resignation, Liberian president Charles Taylor became the first person to be tried and successfully convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Yet the last decade has also seen the rise of the most powerful peace movement in the nation's history, a coalition of brave women whose unrelenting efforts culminated in the election of Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf.

In Long Story Bit by Bit: Liberia Retold, the photographs of Tim Hetherington provide an arresting glimpse into the West African nation's recent yet vast and complicated past. Hetherington's photo-documentation focuses on the rebel group LURD (Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy) and their struggle to force President Charles Taylor from office.

In one of the first photographs in the gallery, a haunting mural of an emaciated youth covers the wall of a health clinic. The figure's angelic face is a contrast to his sharp rib cage and the overall patina of conflict and neglect that scars the cement wall. In another photo, a little girl in a white bridesmaid's dress seems lost in a thousand-yard stare as the newlyweds behind her pose for a portrait on the steps of a monument in downtown Monrovia. Though she's only a child, her eyes have matured beyond her years, and somehow the adult couple in the background are the naive ones.

In an image from a series of two photographs documenting the rebels' dimilitarization phase, two women turn in weapons to a disarmament point. One holds a rocket-propelled grenade in each hand. The other balances a case of ammunition on her head while her baby clings to her hips. Great mounds of weapons are piled high with machine guns and grenade launchers that were surrendered by the disbanding LURD army. The disarming process produced many such mountains of armaments, hoarded like a mass of ugly kindling. Behind each discarded weapon one imagines the unseen citizen soldier taking the first step toward disentangling the cycle of violence from their country's tapestry.

In the photograph that most immediately struck me as emblematic of the conflict, a young LURD fighter sits at a table in quiet contemplation, but where one might expect a cup of coffee, there is instead a single grenade in front of him. He has the look of a man fully resigned to pull the pin, yet all too familiar with the indiscriminate result. It's always tempting to look for "good guys" and "bad guys" in a civil war, but the truth is never as simple as that. All the casualties are Liberian casualties, and though the dead are all brothers and sisters, the living must contend with one another through a political system of retribution. And it's this system of retribution that Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf's administration must confront if it is to succeed.

In April, Tim Hetherington was killed while documenting the Libyan revolution and the siege of Misrata. The photographs are more than incidentally beautiful — they compel the viewer to become a witness. His work demands the emotional attention of the viewer, and as a viewer I myself began to experience a somewhat doe-eyed feeling that these photos are inherently good for everyone to look at — because if everyone is watching, maybe people will treat each other better. The images are so invasive it's hard to look away. Then the guilt of having an aesthetic response kicks in, and you come away hoping you're not a sociopath. Still, you can't look away. Not because of some candid display of the grotesque, but rather the depiction of an onward march undaunted by all obstacles.

Email arts@nashvillescene.com.

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