Q&A: Sebastian Junger on Tim Hetherington

“The ultimate truth about war is that you are guaranteed to lose your brothers.”

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?

The film was one long conversation Tim and I were having. It was really a function of our two minds interacting with each other and coming up with things we liked. We were constantly talking about how we were going to make the story, make the movie, and about how it was all affecting us, affecting them. We were constantly talking, and it informed our experience. It informed how we understood it very profoundly.

You told one interviewer that Hetherington was “trying to see beyond the drama of guys shooting guns.”

Combat’s very distracting. It’s very gripping and it’s easy to forget that it’s a very small part of war. I learned a great lesson from Tim one afternoon when there hadn’t been any combat in a while and everyone was completely bored, including the soldiers. I mean soldiers are as distracted by combat as everybody else. And they really relished it, frankly. And just about everyone was asleep. It was a hot afternoon in June and almost everyone was asleep except those on guard duty. I was just bored out of my mind, and Tim was running around photographing everybody. I was like, “Tim, man, what are you doing? There’s nothing happening.” And the flies were buzzing and it was 110 degrees and it was just awful, you know. And he says, “Oh no, you don’t get it. The soldiers, they’re all asleep. You never see sleeping soldiers. You never see those images.” And I realized, “Oh my God. He’s looking at things completely differently than everybody else.”

He later made the “Sleeping Soldiers” video installation.

Yeah. It’s a sort of triptych thing with photos of the soldiers’ faces as they’re sleeping, and then overlaid on that is combat footage. It’s such an obvious idea: You take photographs of sleeping soldiers and put video on top of it and that’s what they’re dreaming about. It’s so obvious but no one had ever thought about it. And it’s brilliant. And that was Tim. That was the level that he thought on.

One of the things that struck me when reading old interviews with Hetherington was that he seemed to think a lot about every facet of the work he was doing—not only aesthetically and journalistically but also about the work’s eventual dissemination and impact.

He had a very sophisticated vision for what he wanted his impact to be. He called himself an image maker. He felt that he told stories with images, and he wanted those stories to be heard, to be seen, to be read. And he was very, very self aware in that sense. He was very calculating. He wanted to have the maximal good impact with his work, and he thought very creatively about how to combine different media, and how to manipulate social media and the Internet to gain traction for his ideas.

Once he said to me, “Listen, this current generation of soldiers doesn’t have a name. Why don’t we call it the ‘Restrepo generation?’ Let’s just call it that, and if we just call it that maybe that’s what it will become. And not only are we giving an identity to this nameless group, but we’re also calling attention to our work.” Again, classic Tim. Who else thinks on that level? Nobody. Nobody I know. That’s what was so intoxicating about working with him.

Hetherington went from focusing more directly on violence in Libya to sort of turning around the lens, so to speak, and photographing images of war that were not combat in Afghanistan. He was conscious of that as a progression within his work. Where do you think he would have gone from there?

You mean his project? I don’t know. I don’t think he knew. I think he just had an instinct for what he wanted to focus on. He was interested in this sort of weird self awareness that young men have in combat. The way they are in combat is not just a function of circumstances on the ground, it’s also a function of their thinking about themselves. They’re aware that they’re supposed to look a certain way and act a certain way and be a certain thing, like, “If I tie a bandana around my head, I’m going to look like a guy in Vietnam and that’s cool.” And they do. So there’s this feedback loop between the media and the soldiers that the media are reporting on, and Hollywood of course. There’s this weird feedback loop where each thing effects the other. That’s what Tim was interested in as far as I understood it. He’s such a complex guy and that’s about as far as I could grasp it.

You talked about his wanting to pursue that idea in the piece you wrote for Vanity Fair immediately after his death. Did he articulate it to you any further?

He was sort of explaining why he was going back out there without an assignment. He said, “Look, I’ve got this idea.” And he had taken some photo—it was a rebel fighter, a middle aged rebel fighter, and he had sort of dressed himself up in a way that was so self conscious and self aware and it just triggered this idea in Tim’s mind like “Oh, they’re dressing up for this. They’re playing a role.”

In Libya specifically?

In Libya, but everywhere. They’re playing a role. Young men play a role when they fight; they don’t just fight. The light bulb went off, so he went back over there.

So he told you that he was going to Libya to pursue that project.

Yeah. That’s right.

Near the end of Hetherington’s film Diary, which he described as “an attempt to locate myself after ten years of [war] reporting” there’s this image of him in a bed with clean white sheets. His back is to the camera and he’s on the phone, trying to explain his work to someone. He says, “There’s a political situation or a war or a catastrophe and I make pictures to try to understand what is happening there for myself. If you think by looking at the pictures that there’s no hope than I’m, I’m, you know…” And he just trails off and the scene ends. Do you remember the moment I’m talking about?

I remember it very well. I thought it was an interesting editing choice.

Yeah, really interesting.

Let’s think about how he could have finished that sentence. That wasn’t the end of the sentence, that’s just where they edited in the movie. I remember thinking, “I wonder what he said? Actually said?” Because he made an artistic choice about ending the sentence there, but I know he had thoughts. He just didn’t put them in Diary.

So what might he have said? He might have said, “If you think there’s no hope, that says a lot about you.” He could have said, “If you think there’s no hope, well, you’re right. There is no hope. Mankind, we wage war. We’ll always wage war, but maybe we can help some of these people in some of these places.” He could have said that. Or he could have said, “You think there’s no hope then you’re blind. There’s hope everywhere.”
I don’t know what he said but it’s an interesting game to imagine what he could have said in that empty space that he left.

Tim was fascinated by using art to hold a mirror up to people, and what really ultimately is reflected is themselves [the viewer]. And so in that little bit in Diary, what you hear in that empty space after he says that is a reflection of yourself. He didn’t want to do something that reflected on him. If he had finished that sentence, then you learn about Tim’s brain. But for Tim, Tim’s brain didn’t matter. What he was interested in was in doing something where you had to self reflect. He wanted to use art to get us to understand ourselves.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

I’ve said this before, but I’m saying it again because I think Tim would have appreciated this sentiment and agreed with it, and been pleased by it.

Last year on book tour I met a Vietnam vet who really liked the movie and liked my book. And we stayed in touch a little bit, and the day Tim was killed, I got an e-mail from him. He said, “I’m so sorry. And I hope this doesn’t sound callous but I do want to tell you this.” He said, “You guys with your book and your movie, you got really close to understanding war. You got very close, but you didn’t get all the way.” And then he said, “The ultimate truth about war isn’t that you might die. The ultimate truth about war is that you are guaranteed to lose your brothers. In some ways, until today, you didn’t have the first idea about war. You didn’t know the first thing about it until today. And you’ve lost a brother. And now you understand.”

It was such a profound insight. I think Tim and I were brothers in that context, in that kind of battlefield context. We relied on each other, we depended on each other. And, yeah, now I know what I’m talking about—about war.

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Michael Meyer is a CJR staff writer. Follow him on Twitter at @mcm_nm. Tags: , , , , ,