While waiting for a bus on Lansdowne Avenue, a gritty strip in Toronto’s west end, I was struck by an image on a billboard (no small feat considering how often my nose is in the position of downward-facing iPhone). The photo was of a shirtless young man, his body curled up in what appeared to be a deep sleep.
There were no logos or messages attached to the image, although the warm light and raw wood-panelling on the wall behind him reminded me of vintage Calvin Klein ads. Whatever this photo was selling, there was something provocative, almost sensuous, about the relationship between the photographer and their slumbering subject.
It wasn’t until I was home that I connected the billboard to the work of Tim Hetherington, the British-American photojournalist who was killed in 2011 while covering the Libyan civil war. As part of the Contact Photography Festival, several of Hetherington’s Sleeping Soldiers photos appear on Toronto billboards, as well as ones in Vancouver, Calgary, Saskatoon, Winnipeg, Montreal and Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, where they can be seen until June 3.
The Sleeping Soldier series was originally presented as a multi-channel video installation, which juxtaposed the photos with video footage of their day-to-day combat work (a single-screen version of the video is available here). But by detaching the photos from the original installation, we’re left with only the soldiers’ vulnerability staring down at us.
Hetherington was one of those rare talents who had a successful artistic practice that co-existed with his journalism (a foundation has been set up in his name to assist struggling students and artists). After spending a year embedded with a U.S. Army platoon in Afghanistan, he turned his experience into several gallery exhibitions (including Sleeping Soldiers), co-wrote a book (Infidel) and directed the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepo with U.S. journalist Sebastian Junger.
“The book and film are about the intimacy of war, and that’s what I see when I see the photographs of these guys sleeping,” he told the Independent in 2010. “We are used to seeing soldiers as cardboard cutouts. We dehumanize them, but war is a very intimate act. All of those soldiers would die for each other. We’re not talking about friendship. We’re talking about brotherhood.”