It’s not often that one sees characters from a film gather to mourn a filmmaker. On May 24, soldiers from Second Platoon of Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne Division joined friends, colleagues, and family of Tim Hetherington for a memorial service in a crowded church in lower Manhattan. Hetherington was an acclaimed war photographer and the co-director of the documentary Restrepo, which followed the men of Battle Company during their fifteen month deployment in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley.
The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and was nominated for an Academy Award, and Hetherington and his co-director, the writer Sebastian Junger, took several of the soldiers along with them to walk down the red carpet at the Oscars. A little more than a month later, as civil war broke out in Libya, Hetherington lacked an assignment and decided to pay his own way to document the conflict. On April 20, he was photographing rebel fighters in Misrata, a city besieged by forces loyal to Muammar Qaddafi, when he was hit by shrapnel from a mortar round and bled out in the back of a pickup truck on his way to receive care. Another acclaimed war photographer, Chris Hondros, was killed by the same blast, as were several rebels.
Throughout his career, Hetherington brought a meditative, nuanced sensibility to the documentation of events that, at face value, were nothing but chaos and bloodshed. He was the only press photographer to live behind rebel lines during Liberia’s civil war in 2003, and he brought back images—a rebel’s wife kissing him before he jumped into a pickup truck that would take him into battle, a boy carrying RPG rounds that appear longer than his own legs—that challenged the conventional wisdom of those observing the war from the outside. After the war ended, Hetherington rented a house in Monrovia and continued to live in the country as an investigator for the United Nations Security Council’s Liberia Sanctions Committee. He later told an audience at one of the exhibitions of his Liberia photographs: “My greatest regret is that I never photographed my friends where I lived and mixed it into the work—and I think that the work is weak because of that. In Afghanistan, the recent body of work I’ve managed to reveal in those pictures an intimacy with my subjects. I think that building a bridge to people with intimacy is the most effective tool we have as documentarians.”
It was through his work in Afghanistan that Hetherington first met Junger, and with their time together in that country the two produced an astounding body of work. In addition to their collaboration on Restrepo, their time in Afghanistan managed to produce a book, War, for Junger (recently out in paperback) and a book of photographs, a World Press Photo of the Year, and an installation piece for Hetherington.
CJR staff writer Michael Meyer sat down with Junger to discuss Hetherington’s work and legacy. This is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Both Restrepo and your book, War, came out of your collaboration with Hetherington for Vanity Fair. What was your initial concept going into the reporting?
My idea initially was to write about this sort of puzzling chess game we’re in: counter-insurgency. I was intrigued by the fact that these lightly armed groups can defeat modern mechanized armies. And then a million books were coming out on that topic, and it’s not actually that interesting. But what was interesting is the emotional experience, the psychological experience, for that matter the physical experience I was having and that these young guys [the soldiers] were having.
The emotional reality of combat is something that both the military and civilians ignore—it sort of falls in between the two. The military is concerned with tactical reality; civilians are concerned with political and moral reality. In the middle is emotional reality, and neither of these entities is really interested or understands it. I realized that that’s the really interesting stuff, and after my first trip out there it very quickly became the focus of my work.
That’s an interest that runs throughout Restrepo and the books you and Hetherington produced in Afghanistan separately—his photography book Infidel and your book War. All three works are set amid intense violence and yet are most interested in moving beyond combat to explore the emotional lives of the soldiers and the relationships they have with each other. Were you both interested in doing something like that from the beginning?