Hetherington will long be remembered as a consummate war photographer and humanitarian. He trained his lens less on the drama of battle than on the terror and psychological assault that defines the war zone. Among the work on his website are portfolios of the civil war in Liberia, of war graffiti, and perhaps most subtle and affecting, a portrait series of US soldiers asleep in their outpost camp on the front lines of the Afghan war. In their faces and postures, Hetherington recorded the trauma many of these men are sure to carry long after their wartime service ends.
In Darfur Bleeds, a brief film made by Hetherington for Human Rights Watch, the humanitarian concerns that motivated his work are fully on display. The film documents the destruction of a village in Chad, ostensibly demonstrating how the war had spilled over the border from Darfur. But Hetherington refuses to turn the event into an abstraction, and pays moving tribute to the individuals who perished in the attack.
I had the good fortune to meet Hetherington this past July, when he was at the New York State Museum screening Restrepo, the documentary he made with author Sebastian Junger about American soldiers in the Korengal Valley of East Afghanistan. I had more than a general interest in the film. At the time, I was preparing the photo exhibition Battlesight , and knew the work of one of the photographers in the show, Balazs Gardi, depicted the same part of Afghanistan where the film was made. Indeed, as I discovered, Balazs's photographs were of the identical Army unit and villages in Korengal, even of the same four-day battle seen in the movie. It was remarkable; more than one combat scene in Restrepo was also documented in Balazs's powerful stills, and Balazs is among those acknowledged by Junger and Hetherington in the end credits.
Hetherington and I arranged to do a telephone interview a few days later, when he was back home in New York. He was called away before the interview was completed, so it went unpublished. I looked at it again today, and feel now as I did then, that I was speaking to an exceptional and courageous artist and man. In Hetherington's memory, I offer excerpts of that conversation now. It begins with my question about a scene from the film.
There’s a moment in Restrepo, just after one of the soldiers has taken fire. He’s almost giddy from the experience, and says, “Once you’ve been shot at, you can’t come down.” Somebody off-camera asks, “How are you going to go back to the civilian world?” “I have no idea,” he answers. Talk about that moment, that experience. Do you feel the same sense of a high in a war zone?
Tim Hetherington: When you hear what that man is saying in that clip, he’s specifically talking about the adrenalin of a battle. But I think for many of the soldiers there, the group experience of what they went through, that bombing, was very meaningful to them. I mean, if you take an 18-year-old and he’s part of that group, and the job he’s tasked with is defending the group, his life takes on a purpose and a significance, a meaning, that must be extremely gratifying. Then when that 18-year-old comes back to America, to society, suddenly he loses all that sense of purpose and meaning. I know many of the guys miss that meaning and significance.
I think it’s the same way with journalists—I know, for myself, that sure, adrenalin is a part of the experience. When I came out of Afghanistan in August 2008, it was like someone had pulled the rug from under my feet because I had been drip-fed adrenalin. So chemically that does something to you. But on the other hand, covering world events, covering these situations, gives your life a kind of meaning as well. It’s very gratifying to be at the center of world events as they unfold. You feel that you have some kind of significance. That is part of the reason you keep going back. It’s not purely a combat adrenaline thing; it’s more than that. And for Sebastian and I, we got close to these guys. That’s why, when I came out of Afghanistan, I missed them. I missed being up at Restrepo.
So there’s a sense that what you’re doing has a purpose, that it’s useful?
You’ve totally hit the cornerstone of my work. I always wanted to be useful and add utility. That’s why, as I’ve said before, I’m really not interested in photography, the art. I recognize that it is an aesthetic medium, so I pay attention to that. But the craft of it isn’t my primary concern. I’m not interested in the craft and art of photography per se; I’m interested in visual communication, and that ranges from the still to the moving image.
You have that perspective of working in these two related, but very different mediums. What are your thoughts about that?
The still image offers the audience a greater imaginative engagement with the subject. You look at a picture, you have to enter into a conversation with the image. That conversation is predicated on a lot of different things—your own personal experience, what you see in the picture, but also your own visual library, what you have stored in your head about the subject matter you’re seeing. When you see a moving image, especially video contextualized with sound, you’re literally being dragged through the experience. You’re not imaginatively as engaged in that. You’ve being shown something that’s more concrete.
I’m from the photographic trade; that’s part what I do, and I understand the strengths and weaknesses of it. I think [the photojournalistic] community is caught up with the aesthetic craft of image making more than what it says. We don’t unravel enough what images say; we’re too held up on the surface level. The problem with photographs is that they can be an unreliable form of witnessing. I understand we all want to believe in the veracity of a photograph. I have a photograph of my mother on my mantelpiece. I want to believe that that image is true. We need to believe images are true. I get that. But as the actual makers of images, if we are engaged professionally in the business, we have to understand that that is also a fallacy.
What did making Restrepo teach you about warfare, about yourself, and, more broadly, about humanity?
We sought to really mine the embedded process, deeper than anyone had mined it before, in terms of the amount of time we spent with the guys, the way we embraced the unit, for all intents and purposes became part of the unit. That was a very profound experience. I had never done that before. I had been embedded with a rebel army in Liberia for six weeks, but never reached that kind of connectedness with the individuals. As a documentarian, either still or moving images, you seek to have this very, very close connection with your subjects, and I really had that with the soldiers out there. Following on from the subject of young men and war, which is a subject I’ve been preoccupied with for some time now, I really came to understand how this bonding, this sense of brotherhood that soldiers attain, that that is really the heart of the war machine. You take a small group of guys, you get them to train together, live together, bond together, they form this brotherhood. This isn’t friendship. This is brotherhood. Guys in the unit admitted they hated each other, but they would die for each other. It’s this sense of brotherhood that’s the cornerstone of the war machine. It’s not Apache helicopters or aircraft carriers or missile defense systems; that is all icing on the cake. This sense of a small group of young men who will kill and be killed for each other is at the heart of it. That goes back to time immemorial. The siege of Troy would be the same thing. It’s an obvious thing but also quite a profound thing when you start to understand that.
|Tim Hetherington at the New York|
State Museum, July 2010