Photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington is seen here, working at a rally in the rebel stronghold of Benghazi in eastern Libya on 25 March 2011. Image © Reuters / Finbarr O’Reilly.
When Magnum Photos’ members met last June, they voted to become the sole distributor of Tim Hetherington’s work – a decision that has since sparked intense debate and sometimes bitter critiscism in the photojournalism community. Olivier Laurent asks Hetherington’s former colleagues and friends what happened in the months following his death.
On 01 July, a statement appeared on Magnum Photos' website. It read: "After reviewing a portfolio of Tim Hetherington's work submitted on behalf of his family, the member photographers of Magnum Photos have voted to accept the late photographer's archive for distribution by Magnum."
With that message, many of Hetherington's colleagues and friends learnt that the award-winning photographer and film-maker's work would move from Panos Pictures, his agency before he died, to Magnum Photos, the agency he had tried to join on at least one occasion, but had been rejected.
The unexpected move has been both welcomed and decried in the photojournalism community, depending on whom you talk to. "I was a bit shocked," says Jean-François Leroy, Visa pour l'Image's director, "because when Tim died, he was a Panos photographer."
For Leroy, the "whole process was unrefined"; for Foto8's Jon Levy, it lacked transparency. That lack of transparency, in fact, has given birth to many rumours - How many times did Hetherington apply for membership before being rejected? Was Hetherington's family pressured to make a decision? And, most of all, did Hetherington want to be part of Magnum? According to Christopher Anderson, however, the controversy is a non-issue. "Tim and I shared an office in New York, where his physical archive is stored," he tells BJP. "Aside from being a close friend of mine, we were also office partners, and by de facto we trusted each other with our work. My archive was there, and his was, too. Tim also lived two floors below me, so we had keys to each other's apartments."
This close relationship meant that, when Hetherington passed away, his family contacted Anderson, as well as Jon Levy and Michael Kamber, a photographer with The New York Times. "They asked us whether we would advise them on navigating this world they didn't know," says Anderson.
"The family asked us to look at the different options," confirms Levy. "And, for me, it was about taking myself and Panos out of the picture, and looking at what would be the best decision for Tim's work." Up until this summer, Panos Pictures and Levy's Foto8 magazine shared a building in London, but Levy believed Panos might not have the structure and resources to handle Hetherington's legacy.
For Anderson, a member and vice president of Magnum, it made sense to move Hetherington's work to Magnum. "Before he died, Tim was preparing his application for Magnum," he says. "This year, I was personally helping him prepare his application. It was a subject he was openly talking about with friends and colleagues in the industry."
In fact, he adds, "There is an extensive, and lengthy, paper trail of his communications with various people about it, including the very last email he sent me, which was specifically about his upcoming Magnum application."
According to Anderson, Hetherington's parents were aware of this, "and one of the first things they told me after his death was how they knew it was one of Tim's aspirations." Levy says he kept his feelings about Magnum out of it, instead "keeping my eye on what I was told Tim wanted to do".
"Anderson was telling me that there were well-documented emails that Tim wanted to apply to Magnum, and his family said the same thing to me," he says. "I kind of agreed, but I don't think it was something exclusive. I'm sure Tim would have moved around to find what suited him the best according to the work he was doing."
With Hetherington's archives residing in Anderson's office and Levy located in London, the decision fell to them. "Tim's family was aware that his wish was to become part of Magnum, but, even then, I wasn't sure that this could be an option - that Magnum could accept him after his death," says Anderson, who started to explore the possibility with other members and the agency's board. "There was a precedent, but it still had to come to a vote at the next Annual General Meeting. I explained this to the parents, as did Jon, who also advised them that it was the best place to put Tim's archives."
With the blessing of Hetherington's family, Anderson presented the late photographer's portfolio for a vote. "To be honest, it took a certain amount of debate within Magnum to decide on whether or not we wanted this to happen, and if, logistically, we could make it happen," he says. "What does that mean? Magnum has a very specific process about how people become part of the agency. We had to check through our by-laws to see if we had the mechanism to make this happen. We were also aware that people would discuss the fact that we were exploiting Tim's death. In the end, this was the family's wish and we tried to find a way to make it happen."
At the end of this process, the agency decided to accept Hetherington's work as a collection. In a statement, the family said, "We are very pleased that Tim's pictures will be represented by Magnum. It's what he wanted, and we believe Magnum will be the right home for the work."
But, Magnum's acceptance didn't end the discussions regarding Hetherington's archives. "A week after the AGM, Susan Meiselas - who knows the family and was close to Tim, and who also happened to be in charge of the Magnum Foundation - travelled to London to meet with Judith Hetherington [Tim's mother]," says Anderson. Levy was invited to attend the meeting, in which the role the Foundation could play in preserving Hetherington's archives was actually discussed.
One of the Magnum Foundation's core objectives is its Legacy Program, which strives "to preserve, interpret, manage, and make accessible materials related to the history of Magnum Photos, and to the larger history of photography to which Magnum has uniquely contributed". For Levy, that made it important that the Magnum Foundation was involved.
"I really did feel that it made sense for the Magnum Foundation to take the archives on and give them a home," he tells BJP. And if that meant that Magnum Photos [the agency, rather than the Foundation] would represent Hetherington's digital work, so be it. "I viewed it as an unfortunate by-product."
The Foundation's exact role in preserving Hetherington's work still has to be defined. "We're still working on the many possibilities of what could happen with his archives, which are still in my care," says Anderson. "The Foundation could bring in another institution - a museum or a university. We need to find the best solution."
Levy, for his part, would love it if the archives were moved back to the UK. "The most important thing is that people can have actual access to it," he says. "I'll be meeting with Judith in the coming days," Anderson adds, "and it's one of the things we will be talking about."
Up to now, Hetherington's move from Panos to Magnum remained cloaked in secrecy, both before and after his death. "When I became aware that [Magnum was looking to take on Tim's work], I was somewhat hurt," says Adrian Evans, Panos' director. "There were rumours that Magnum would be discussing Tim at their annual meeting. I kind of had inside information on that, but it wasn't absolutely confirmed."
Confirmation only came when Magnum updated its website with its press statement on 01 July, which has helped fuelled criticism of the agency's actions. "From day one, it has been very difficult to see through the fog and the sequence of events, which is pretty unprofessional," says Levy. "I know it's not a big conspiracy, but certain principles were ignored."
Leroy agrees. "What I find saddening is that Evans had done an amazing job with Tim and, once he died, Adrian was taken out of the whole process," he tells BJP. "A few weeks after Tim and Chris Hondros' death, I called Getty Images and Panos Pictures to let them know that, at Visa pour l'Image, we would pay tribute to them. Aidan Sullivan [of Getty Images Reportage, who represented Hondros], and Evans immediately sent me 200 pictures for these tributes. Then, at one point, in my correspondence with the different parties, two Magnum photographers showed up - Chris Anderson and Susan Meiselas. I knew that Anderson and Tim were close, so I thought nothing more of it. But then, I got an email announcing that Tim's archives were being transferred to Magnum, and asking me not to credit Panos Pictures. I think the whole process was a bit disrespectful." And in the end, Leroy refused to credit Magnum Photos.
"There were things happening, when Tim died - that I wouldn't say was true of Magnum, as that would be unfair - where people were suddenly trying to have some ownership of him in some ways," says Evans. "You found some people saying things when, actually, they had never worked with Tim. That, itself, was quite strange and maybe, we, at Panos, felt reticent getting involved like that, because at the time I thought it was more important to let the family mourn Tim's passing, instead of trying to hassle them about his work.
"When you look at it from the outside, it immediately appears quite strange that, following his death, he was taken on by the same agency that had denied him membership before. In terms of PR it was kind of an own goal, that's how I would put it."
But Evans adds that he has no hard feelings. "Some people are very worked up about what happened. I think I'm more resigned, that would be the word I'd use, yes."
Anderson, on the other hand, finds the controversy "saddening", and "not what Tim's life was about". "Tim had many close relationships with many people, and I don't claim that I knew better than anyone else what he wanted, because I don't, but I do know a fair amount," he says. "People say that we've exploited his legacy; I find it disappointing, but that's just me, personally."
Now, Evans hopes that the debate will die down. "We're all struggling to get by in a difficult environment," he says. As for Hetherington's work, "there are now projects we're working on - projects that the family has told us to carry on. And Magnum Photos plays no role in them - Anderson is happy for us to do that," a fact that he confirms.
"Magnum doesn't want to exclude anyone from that conversation," Anderson tells BJP. "Magnum has become a tool for Tim's family to use. We don't make the decision for Tim's archives, the family makes these decisions and Magnum carries out these wishes. There might be some people that are not aware of that or believe it's not true, but it is."
This article appears in the November 2011 issue of British Journal of Photography.
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