On February 27, 2011, Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger were at the Academy Awards, where “Restrepo,” the film they’d co-directed about a year in the life of a platoon stationed in one of the most dangerous areas of Afghanistan, was up for Best Documentary. Less than two months later, Hetherington was back in the field, covering the Libyan civil war, when he and fellow photojournalist Chris Hondros were killed by mortar fire in the city of Misrata. Hetherington was just 40 years old, but had already established himself with great talent and empathy in his work, documenting life and conflict in West Africa and Afghanistan, and winning multiple awards for his photo and video journalism.
Junger’s new documentary “Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington,” which will premiere on HBO on Thursday, April 18 at 8pm, is both a celebration of and an elegy for Hetherington, a tribute to a friend and gifted colleague and to a life cut short. But it’s also a quiet, compelling argument for the essential nature of on-the-ground reporting and the power of images, not just of war but of the people who endure it and whose lives are impacted and shaped by it. Indiewire spoke with Junger, who’s covered combat himself in his work as a journalist for Vanity Fair and collected in his books “Fire” and “War,” about the film.
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The film makes a case for the importance of this work, but also makes clear the incredible price you can pay for it. It seems that as news outlets are going through this ongoing turmoil, it puts the stress more on the individuals going to the front lines. As a journalist, what are your thoughts on this shift?
Well, the fact that the news industry doesn’t have enough money to only send salaried staff to war zones means there is an enormous, wide-open opportunity for young people who want to be on staff and don’t know how to get there. It means you can go to a war zone with a camera or a notebook and pen and just create your own career, and that’s a very good thing. It’s how I started and that’s the way in for most people, and I really like that about the profession.
The only quibble I have about that is that the industry is having a free lunch in a way. It’s buying work piecemeal and has no legal responsibility for the freelancers they hire. When you can buy a photograph for $300 and not pay the photographer’s airfare, insurance… I mean, the list is very long. At some point there should be a summit of the major media of this country where they decide some sort of minimum prices for photos or articles — or at least just financial support. Something, some sort of financial support or medical training, which is something that I’m trying to provide, or insurance plan that these freelancers can buy into. Something that will protect the freelancers’ interest a little bit, because you’re not going to unionize and force the industry to go on strike. They’re not gonna do it. They all feel too lucky to be over there getting $5 for something, so I think as the industry changes they should do the right thing and commit to minimum standards and a minimum pay scale.
Can you tell me a bit about the medical training you’ve been doing?
Tim had a wound that did not necessarily have to be fatal. He bled out, just died of loss of blood and no one knew what to do, and freelance reporters, which are probably 95% of the people who do this, don’t have any medical training. They don’t have any money and they aren’t forced to because they aren’t salaried staff of a major media outlet, so no one around Tim knew what to do when he bled out. I found that out, that his wound didn’t have to be mortal, that there are things you can do to slow down the loss of blood. Tim died minutes from a hospital. He wasn’t in the Gobi Desert.
When I found that out, I realized if I was with him I couldn’t have done anything cause I wouldn’t have known what to do, and that was true of just about everyone I knew, so I started a group called “Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC).” It’s dedicated to providing combat medical training exclusively to experienced freelancers. You have to be freelance and you have to be already engaged in war reporting. You have to be coming back from somewhere. The lodging in New York is paid, the courses are paid for. It’s all free, they just have to be here. There’s a wait list, and we have 24 people at a time. We are working our way through the freelance war reporting field.
When you set out to make the film, did you have a sense of how you wanted to structure it?
We had this basic narrative question — when do you tell the audience this person is going to die? It didn’t seem fair to make everyone wait until the very end, have everyone fall in love with this person and then kill him. That didn’t seem fair. It also seemed awkward and weird to treat his death at the beginning, get it over with, and then talk about his life. So we followed a classic narrative structure which is you begin at the end and then you cut it short before the end is resolved and go back and through the person’s life to where you left off. If we bracketed it with the circumstances of his death, it would keep people firmly aware of the seriousness of all this — but in between there was some space to enjoy Tim as a person, to appreciate the way he lived.
Tell me a bit about Tim’s approach to photography and war zones — he didn’t focus on the type of images we normally associate with combat coverage.
Tim realized that combat is very dramatic, obviously, but it’s not necessarily that interesting. It can be repetitive and mechanical, and a photo of a guy shooting a gun on Monday looks exactly like someone shooting a gun on Tuesday. From war to war, it’s not that different and not that interesting, although it is enormously dramatic. He understood that some of the more interesting things happen when there is no shooting, in the human relations between people, in the emotional territory that exists in a situation that is that pressurized and intense. That’s what he wanted to capture with his work and because he realized that he had an emotional focus that a lot of new journalists don’t have. They think if it’s not going “bang,” that’s not the point, and Tim realized that the opposite is true.
Do you think that viewers seeing those more traditional images develop a numbness to them?
I don’t think it’s numbness. I think people mistake the experience for the content. It’s very intense to be around shooting, so they think it makes their photos intense. Emotions make the photos intense — Tim got that. So I don’t think it’s numbness, I think it’s inexperience. Inexperienced journalists are more likely to fall prey to that.
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.
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?
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.
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.