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.