Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington: "He broadened the sense of what’s possible"

The journalist has made a film about the photographer killed in Libya. "I don't think it's made me more reluctant"

Published April 17, 2013 5:50PM (EDT)

Director Sebastian Junger from the film "Which Way Is Front Line From Here" poses for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP Images)       (Victoria Will)
Director Sebastian Junger from the film "Which Way Is Front Line From Here" poses for a portrait during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Victoria Will/Invision/AP Images) (Victoria Will)

The photographer Tim Hetherington broke into the public consciousness with "Restrepo," a 2010 documentary that he co-directed with journalist Sebastian Junger depicting a platoon of American troops in Afghanistan. It was nearly universally hailed for an apolitical take on the struggle faced by soldiers in performing their arduous duties. Hetherington and Junger were nominated for the best documentary Oscar.

Now Junger has made a film without the co-directing aid of Hetherington; Junger's film, "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here," is a tribute to Hetherington, who died covering the Libyan civil war in 2011. The film, compiled of interviews and Hetherington's own footage, airs on HBO April 18.

Hetherington, who had been in Afghanistan on assignment for Vanity Fair, was not a war photographer in the traditional sense; as Junger's documentary conveys, he was far more interested in the fringes or consequences of war than in pictures of soldiers firing on their enemies, devoting his attention to children in Sri Lanka or to American soldiers sleeping after toilsome days.

The British-raised Hetherington, who read classics and English at Oxford, led a peripatetic life, having photographed practically every major conflagration of the 21st century, particularly in west Africa. In an era dominated by the grainy cellphone image, Junger's work stood out for its sheer quality, its ability to convey information, and its particular humanity. We spoke to Junger about Hetherington's work, the state of war photography, and how or whether his work has changed the medium.

Let's talk about the quality and quantity of war photography. Compared to past years, is there more or less war photography now? Is it of higher quality in terms of news value?

Well, I think digital photography has changed the business a lot, so photographers have taken more images because they put their camera on motor drive and it’s like a machine gun. It’s like – there’s no downside to taking a lot of images, because they don’t have to process them all. And so I think there’s probably more images out there. There’s probably more photographers out there. But one of the sort of byproducts of the breakdown of the media in the last 10 years is that there’s fewer people working for the media in regular jobs. It is much cheaper for networks, for the media in general, to buy the work of freelancers piecemeal rather than have a staff photographer who’s insured and has a benefits package and all that, someone or other’s always gonna insure them. So I think there’s a lot of young hopefuls and there’s a lot of war zones out there.

In the 1980s there was a war in Central America, but all of a sudden, starting with the dissolution of Yugoslavia, there’s been more and more wars, and now there’s the Arab Spring, so there’s a lot of work out there and most of it’s being done by freelancers, so I think probably the numbers are all about this.

And in terms of either aesthetic quality or newsworthiness or simply whatever the intangibles are that make a good photograph, what set Mr. Hetherington apart? What made them so striking and so worth remembering?

Well, he wasn’t really a working news photographer, so that immediately set him apart from a lot of the people in his force. And he also, in an interesting way, was not that fixated on actual combat. Combat itself, the mechanics of combat, are pretty repetitive, and photos of young men firing guns are kind of all the same war after war, and Tim sort of realized that, and I think he was sort of going for something else. I think he was trying to understand the human experience, and sometimes I think photography was almost an afterthought.

Really what he was doing is engaging people in conversations and trying to tell their story and you get the feeling from watching him work that that was the primary thing he wanted to do, and they got good photos, partially because he was substantially doing something else. He wasn’t trying to get good photos, he was trying to get the experience and connect with someone.

I was pretty interested in the glimpses we get into his background in the film, and I’m wondering the degree to which he read literature at Oxford, his whole life in England before finding his calling, impacted the manner with which he dealt with people.

I dunno. I mean, he grew up in a pretty strictured English environment. He went to a boarding school, and yeah, I think part of his openness and his spiritedness was kind of a rebellion of his background. I don’t really know what makes a person’s character, but he really was an astonishingly open-spirited person. I don’t quite know where that came from, but it certainly was one of the first things you understood about him.

Were there instances in which you felt his work had an impact, not merely on the people who saw the image, but on the world or geopolitics, or had some sort of convincing impact? Can war photography change the course of wars?

I think photography can affect public opinion. I think the photography that came out of 9/11 did a great deal for those images, those videos, those still photos. I think they affected the public debate after 9/11 considerably, and I think they laid the groundwork for the moral and strategic rationale for intervention in Afghanistan. At the other end of the spectrum, they motivate the West to intervene, you know? There are images of massacres in Bosnia that absolutely triggered NATO intervention.

We all know the photo of the girl that was burned and was running down the road in Vietnam. I don’t know if it ended the Vietnam War, probably not, but certainly it affected public opinion. So yeah, of course. The whole other thing is that public opinion eventually affects the decisions that governments make.

It’s such an interesting role to find oneself in as a war photographer because in some situations you’re embedded with troops but you’re not of them, and there’s a lot of camaraderie, but also moments of high tension. They just want you to get out of their face and let you do their job. There’s that moment where they’re screaming at him as they’re firing, “Get your camera down.” How did he deal with that? How did he finesse that?

I mean, just the way anyone does. You’re kinda the new kid at school and very aware of being an outsider and the more time you spend with those guys, the more understanding they are of what it is you’re trying to do and the friendlier everyone is, and that’s just human groups, that’s just how everyone is in a group. As a journalist, you understand that you cannot be an endangerment or a hindrance. So that means on patrol, you can’t lag behind and get tired, you gotta keep up. In combat you get scared but you can’t get paralyzed by your fear. You really don’t want to be a problem, and if you’re not a problem the guys recognize that and they appreciate it. You’re good. If you’re in the way, they’ll tell you. It’s not – they tell each other things all the time like that, you know? You’re just not an exception.

Speaking for yourself here rather than for Mr. Hetherington, does that make it more difficult to be an impartial reporter of events? That you’re so close to -- in your case -- your countrymen – does that make it more difficult to report?

I guess it’s human connection. If I spent a year documenting a firehouse in New York City, I think I would see the world a little bit how firemen do. Likewise with any rebel army in Africa. You’re dependent on them for your safety, it’s the basis for your survival, and you start to identify with them. And the enemy becomes your enemy, and likewise with American soldiers. That’s just how it works in journalism. And if you’re trying to write an unbiased analytical piece about the war or the fire department, you have to fight against that. Tim and I weren’t trying to do that with “Restrepo,” so we didn’t have to guard against that. We were trying to do a very subjective, experiential film about what it feels like to be a soldier, so that wasn’t really an issue we had to deal with.

Right. And I know you’ve said in past interviews that “Restrepo” was intended to be an apolitical film. Was Tim Hetherington’s work on the whole apolitical? Were there times when his work was political? It tended to focus on things other than frontline combat.

I mean, any piece of work can be used by others for political ends. So the anti-war movement during Vietnam could take that photograph of that girl who was burned and use that for a political purpose, which was to end the war. That doesn’t mean the photograph was inherently political. I mean, it’s a photo of a girl running down the street because she was burned, and if I took photographs of Taliban atrocities, for example, I wouldn’t necessarily be making a political statement justifying the war. I mean, I might be, but not necessarily.

But it might just be a thing that happened.

That’s right.

Speaking just about the U.S., it seems as though after an initial burst of broad public interest in the war in Afghanistan, it seems as though people were pretty willing and able to put it out of their minds, and the same is true of conflagrations in other countries. I’m wondering if you found this to be true as well, and this was something that you two tried to fight against.

Well, there’s always a sort of dissipation of public interest after a big event. So now very few people are thinking about Sandy Hook. A few days afterwards, it’s all anyone talked about. It’s just how it works.

And the war in Afghanistan, in some ways it involves a very, very small portion of the country. You know, it’s 50,000 people, 50,000 soldiers. It’s a small town in America. It’s not much. The casualties are – each one’s tragic, but they’re really very light. A casualty every few days maybe, it’s nothing compared to Vietnam or World War II. And the financial burden’s actually not that great either. So I think the public focuses on something sort of proportionally to how much it’s affecting the country, and people focused on 9/11 because it was a big shock and affected the country massively. The war in Afghanistan really isn’t, so people aren’t entirely focused on that.

I think it’s pretty natural. I don’t think it’s good or bad, I think it’s natural. The public focusing on things isn’t necessarily good or bad. What’s good or bad is the way government makes decisions.

I’m wondering as well which images particularly stick out for you that Tim created.

I can’t think of a certain one, well, actually maybe I can. There’s a photograph from Liberia of a young man who’s in the rebel army and they’re about to attack Nairobians and he’s saying goodbye to his girlfriend. It’s about a very real part of war because everyone’s saying goodbye to each other and no one knows when they’ll see each other again. But no one’s shooting a gun. It’s a very quiet moment. And I think Timmy’s brilliance was understanding the importance of those quiet moments and not just the dramatic stuff.

It’s interesting that you bring up the degree to which in war you never know if you’ll see someone again, because I was thinking about the loss of Tim Hetherington and – not to say did he expect it, but knowing that he was going into war zones, was it something he took into account as a soldier would? The possibility of danger and mortal peril?

Yeah, of course, we all did. But there’s also a certain amount of denial by soldiers as well who love the risk. So I think about it and I don’t think about it. It’s like driving. We all know we can die in a car accident and we all drive. I know the risks are lower than being a war reporter, but conceptually it’s the same thing. I’m doing something mortally dangerous and I’m not thinking about it, because I need to drive and I don’t want to be tormented with fear while I’m doing it.

And where did the video footage in this film come from? Were there other videographers – there must have, obviously – who were there?

Some of it was just media that Tim had done after “Restrepo” came out. We had a lot of that. He did a lot of media, so we have a lot of tape of him talking about his work. Some of the video that I shot in Afghanistan, showing Tim, or that Tim shot and I’d shown him. In Libya a lot of that footage was Tim’s footage that he was shooting the last day before he got killed.

I mean, it came from everywhere. I mean, there was a very lovely scene in Sri Lanka where he was sort of grabbing those children that Tim was part of – I can’t remember, but someone made a short documentary about his work. And those are a million nice images.

I’m wondering as well the degree to which the media attention around “Restrepo” at the time was something that he and you were necessarily comfortable with. Obviously you want people to see your film, but at the same time it can feel stressful and compromising to other people.

It’s sort of amusing and tedious at the same time. And it’s sort of annoying and necessary at the same time. It’s like everything, you know. He worked in the media, he understood how the media worked, and we both knew, and he realized very much that there’s no point making a film if you're not willing to jump into the media and talk about the film. The point of making a film is so that someone will see it, and if you want people to know about it, you have to talk about it. It’s just part of the job. I don’t think he felt ethically compromised. I don’t think he thought about it that much. It was part of the job.

What do you think the lasting impact, to speak in broad terms, is and will be?

I think among photographers the impact is that he really broadened the sense of what’s possible. He was not just a photographer who grabbed images of people. He really tried to – like with his multimedia work, the sleeping soldiers’ film diary – he really tried to expand those ideas about what multimedia could do, and I think he probably has prompted a lot of still photographers to think more broadly and think outside of still photography at other possibilities.

You say among still photographers. Is there among photographers who work in war zones, is there a sort of camaraderie? I guess less so now that there are more freelancers and stringers, but it seems like the kind of thing there would be a community around.

Yeah, I think there’s a lot of camaraderie between them. Afghanistan in particular was an awful lot, and I think the cooperation that often happens between journalists in war zones is one of the things that makes journalism possible. It’s very hard to go into one of those situations completely by yourself without any shared resources, advice, encouragement, and to get the job done. It’s just easier when you’re part of a network of people and they’re more or less helpful.

Did the tragedy of his death impact war photography in another way, because it was something that was so widely noted? Did it make organizations or people more reluctant to go into war zones? Was that part of the whole effect of getting more freelancers on the ground -- that freelancers want to do it in the absence of staff reporters and photographers?

Does that make you more reluctant? Uh, no, I don’t think that’s made me more reluctant. People who really want to do this job are doing this job and they know the risks. On the one hand, this stuff is very tragic, but on the other hand, he lived a very romantic, very compelling life, and I think a lot of people will see this film and say, “Wow, I want to live that life. I just don’t want it to end that way.”

If you say, what’s the personality type of an E.R. doctor, I think you definitely have a need for feeling comfortable with feeling overwhelmed and in over your head, and the challenge of that is frightening, but also very stimulating. I think there’s a feeling of specialness, like I’m doing a special job that most people don’t do, and that’s kind of tough to gain. A little bit thrill-seeking maybe.

Does that describe you as well?


What do you think the future holds? It doesn’t seem that we’re likely to go back to a model of organizations insuring and employing full-time photographers, and at the same time local individuals on the ground with iPhones can take photos that can at least convey information, if not terribly artfully or professionally. How do you think the next 10 to 20 years will work for war photography?

Well, I think locals with iPhones are a very important source of visual information, but the problem with it is that you don’t know who you’re dealing with. Every photo needs a caption, and you’re depending on the truthfulness of the photographer to tell you what that caption should be.

And photography can just become propaganda. Just as a crude example: 12 corpses on the ground in Syria. An agent of the Syrian government can take a photograph of those corpses and say, “These are civilians massacred by the rebels.” Send it to the New York Times, that’s the caption: totally wrong. The fact is, government forces killed those people. So you really can’t just take images from people with iPhones. You really do need people who are not personally invested in the war to provide a honest context for the photos. Photos by themselves mean nothing, either way, except that somebody’s dead.

It’s not to be incredulous, and I’m sure it’s the case, but it is hard to imagine in Tim’s case divorcing one’s feelings about the war and having no personal stake.

Well you have to – I mean most journalists have a basic stake in standards of humanity, and some of them don’t want people to get killed, but if you come across 12 corpses killed by Syrian rebels, and you don’t want to send that photo to your editors because you’re rooting for the Syrian rebels, then you’re not a journalist in war. You’re a propagandist, and that happens. And that happens. I mean, sometimes – I was in Syria early in the war, and I was hugely sympathetic to the Bosnian forces who were defending Syria and the Serbs and I fell into all these clichés and it’s tempting to start the piece that way, if you’re with the side that's the least evil. Of course, right? But you have to resist it.

By Daniel D'Addario

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Afghanistan Hbo Libya Sebastian Junger Tim Hetherington