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Sebastian Junger on the Value and Cost of War Reporting and Making a Film About His Late 'Restrepo' Co-Director Tim Hetherington

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire April 16, 2013 at 1:12PM

Journalist and documentarian Sebastian Junger talks about his HBO film "Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington."
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Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger
Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger

What, in your mind, are the qualities that make a good photojournalist? What made Tim so exceptional?

Any sensitivity to the human struggle. What you don't want is to be taking photos in the sense of taking things from people -- stealing their image and walking away with them. Tim very much wanted people to be okay with his work, in the basic sense that we're having a conversation, I'm taking photos of you, you don't feel deprived of anything, you don't feel like your privacy is broken. That makes for really good photos. There are photographers who don't really engage with their subject. It's a really unfortunate phrase, but they take their photo and they leave with it. It works but I think it ultimately limits how profound the work can be.

There is an idea that comes up a lot in films about combat photography, about where the line is in terms of interacting as opposed to observing. Your film touches on it when an interview subject is telling the story about Tim's stepping in and saving a man who likely would have been executed. Was that something he thought about?

There are no journalistic ethics that transcend the value of human life. There are none. In a situation where you can save a human life, you must. There isn't any conflict in my mind. I think that starts to get a little tricky when you think, "Okay, if my work serves a kind of propaganda service for the side that I think is the better one, then I'll save human lives because I think that is better." But intervening in the execution of an unknown person who was treating the wounded, there's no news content to that. Nothing rides on that besides the person's life and the people who are wounded, and there is no reason not to intervene if you are courageous enough to.

"There are no journalistic ethics that transcend the value of human life."

What's not obvious from that scene that I know from working in those areas is that if you have a rebel fighter who is going to execute someone with a pistol because he thinks they are a spy, and he is probably jacked out of his mind on crystal meth, trying to save that man's life puts you in a position of also being accused of being a spy. It's very dangerous and scary, and I think if anything made Tim hesitate to get involved, it wasn't the journalistic ethics of it, which are absurd, it was the possible danger to himself.

You have a lot of great interview footage with Tim talking about his work. Where did it all come from?

A lot of it came from the media we did after "Restrepo." Some of it was from friends of his. There is one nice interview that was shot by a friend of his who just said "Hey, I want to interview you about your work."

You include excerpts from Tim's short film "Diary" toward the end, which highlights the divide between being in these very intense situations and then coming back home. Is that disconnect just the price of the job?

Yes, I think we all get that. It's confusing, but I don't think any of us clearly would want just one of those lives, because we do keep choosing to go back and forth. So it's difficult, but it's something we are choosing, so it's not all that bad.

The film does suggest that conflict journalism is something you almost need to get out of your system. Tim talked about stopping, then didn't, like he needed a sense of finality. What does that mean? Do you need to get your fill?

Hetherington 4

I've stopped war reporting. I realized that I'd answered all of my questions about war and about myself. And just as I started to get that feeling -- it was because of the year with "Restrepo" -- Tim got killed, and it sealed the deal. Tim was ten years younger and I think he was not really there yet.

Are there changes that you see happening in the industry, over the course of Tim's career or your own?

I think the whole idea of citizen journalism is really dangerous.

How so?

If you get the photograph, the meaning of the photograph depends on what the caption is. And you're going to need to have a relationship with the photographer and trust them in order to trust the caption they give you. If you get a photograph from an anonymous person in Syria saying "these 12 corpses were murdered by Gaddafi's forces," they might have been. But unless you have a relationship with this person, it might have just been propaganda and they were actually killed by rebels. And vice versa, you just might not know. The image means nothing without the context, absolutely nothing. Those people might not even be dead, it could have been totally staged.

But that's also just the direction that journalism is going, especially as outlets either don't want to pay to send someone to these locations or because it's so dangerous.

It's the direction journalism is going, meaning it's becoming not journalism. It can't go in that direction and be journalism.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, Sebastian Junger, Tim Hetherington, Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, HBO






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