Since 2006, photojournalist Danfung Dennis has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His still photographs have been published in Newsweek, TIME, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Guardian, Rolling Stone, Le Figaro Magazine, Financial Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Der Spiegel, and The Wall Street Journal.
Frontline opened its 2009 fall feature program Obama’s War using Danfung Dennis’s footage. The immersive nature of the footage prompted a flurry of comment and inquiry from the Pentagon, the White House, veterans groups, and viewers, and the program was nominated for a 2010 Emmy Award.
We caught up to ask him about how a war photographer turns into an Oscar-nominated filmmaker (and we’re including a clip of an interview we did with him in Park City just moments after he found out he’d been nominated for a 2012 Academy Award for Best Documentary). Hell and Back Again premieres on Independent Lens this Monday on Memorial Day, May 28, at 10 PM (please check your local listings at this link).
What led you to make Hell and Back Again?
I have been covering the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for many years as a stills photographer for newspapers and magazines. Despite widespread publication of my pictures, I found that I was unable to convey the brutal realities on the ground, the public was numb to these same images of war and the traditional media outlets were not committed to their coverage of the conflicts.
This drove me to explore the medium of the moving image. For some time, I was simply making pictures with movement. It was a natural progression, and I’m still very much learning, how to combine photojournalism with the tradition and narrative structure of filmmaking.
I needed new tools, so I built customized camera rigs using still cameras that allow me to follow the same methods and ethics of being a photographer — purely being an observer and letting events unfold in front of the lens — while building sequences and anticipating the next event in the story.
Hell and Back Again is the first feature film to be entirely shot on a highly customized digital SLR camera rig, the Canon 5D Mark II. Canon most likely did not intend people to shoot feature films on it and certainly nobody could have envisaged the results this rig would achieve on the front lines.
I didn’t go to Afghanistan with the intention to make a film. I had no script, no shot list, no financing. I simply had body armor, a backpack and a camera to try to convey what was happening there as honestly and truthfully as I could. The story only began to emerge after many trips to different provinces with various units and when I learned of a major offensive that was going to take place in the Helmand River Valley.
Accredited as a New York Times photographer, I was dropped deep into enemy territory with The US Marines Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment to seize a key objective. Within a few hours of landing, we were surrounded by Taliban insurgents and attacked from all sides. The fighting focused on a pile of rubble that became known as Machine Gun Hill.
Despite the raging battle and 130-degree heat, a Marine handed me his last bottle of water. This is how I first met Nathan. By the end of the first day, one Marine was dead, and a countless number had collapsed from heat exhaustion. Cut off and isolated, I spent the night in a one-room mud compound, with a Marine kneeling at the door with his weapon raised in case of an attack.
Over the next days and weeks, I followed Nathan as he led 2nd platoon deeper into the insurgent stronghold. We came to trust each other as we ate the same instant meals, slept in the same dust, and endured the same difficult experiences. I watched his growing frustration turn to desperation as he lost buddies during a protracted and violent fight with a ghostlike enemy who was invisible, yet everywhere.
Six months into his tour, and days away from rotating out, Nathan was shot in the hip during an ambush. He nearly bled to death before he was medivaced out and underwent blood transfusions and multiple surgeries.
I rejoined Nathan when he returned to his hometown of Yadkinville, North Carolina. He was in incredible pain and distress from having left his men behind. He introduced me to his friends and family by saying, “This guy was with me over there.” With that, I was accepted into a rural, conservative, Baptist community and essentially lived with him and his wife Ashley.
The story naturally became less about counter-insurgency doctrine as I began to document Nathan’s most difficult mission: his struggle to transition back into a community that was completely disconnected from his experience; his transformation from a warrior and leader to a man who required help with even the smallest daily tasks, while clinging to the dream that one day he would rejoin his men in combat.
As a witness to the difficult struggles of just one Marine, I feel I have a responsibility to share Nathan’s story and help shake people from their indifference to a long war.
What impact do you hope this program will have?
This morning I learned a photographer friend was severely wounded after stepping on a mine in southern Afghanistan. He lost both his legs and is in critical condition.
I’m flooded by feelings of rage, sadness, helplessness, and isolation. I think of my friends and colleagues that have lost their lives while doing their job. It all seems utterly senseless.
Unless you have a personal connection, the war in Afghanistan is an abstraction. After nearly 10 years since the initial invasion, the daily bombings and ongoing violence has become mundane, almost ordinary. It is tempting to become indifferent to the horror and pain. It is much easier to look away from the victims. It is much easier to lead a life without rude interruptions from complex insurgencies in distant lands. But it is when we take this easier path, the suffering becomes of no consequence and therefore meaningless. The anguish becomes invisible, an abstraction. It is when society becomes numb to inhumanity; horror is allowed to spread in darkness.
Visual imagery can be a powerful medium for truth. The images of napalmed girls screaming by Nick Ut, the street execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Eddie Adams, the shell-shocked soldier by Don McCullin — these iconic images have burned into our collective consciousness as reminders of war’s consequences.
But, this visual language is dying. The traditional outlets are collapsing. In the midst of this upheaval, we must invent a new language. I am attempting to combine the power of the still image with advanced technology to change the vernacular of photojournalism and filmmaking. Instead of opening a window to glimpse another world, I am attempting to bring the viewer into that world. I believe shared experiences will ultimately build a common humanity.
Through my work I hope to shake people from their indifference to war, and to bridge the disconnect between the realities on the ground and the public consciousness at home. By bearing witness and shedding light on another’s pain and despair, I am trying to invoke our humanity and a response to act. Is it possible that war is an archaic and primitive human behavior that society is capable of advancing past? Is it possible that the combination of photojournalism, filmmaking and technology can plead for peace and contribute to this future?
It is these possibilities that motivate us to risk life and limb.
Tell us about your relationship to Nathan and Ashley.
Although this film has an epic and historic sweep, it also has a great intimacy. The stars of the film, Sergeant Nathan Harris and his young bride Ashley, are not perfect. They struggle with their lot. But they ultimately overcome and defeat their enemies — pain, fear and doubt. They are funny, self-aware, articulate and generous. They have shared their most intimate and painful moments with the world in order to help us understand what they and hundreds of thousands like them are going through.
Ashley’s role in Nathan’s rehabilitation is a great testimony to what thousands of women are going through, trying to maintain intimacy and normalcy while picking up the pieces of the lives of their husbands, wives, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers, sisters, or brothers.
Whatever happens in this war the fact is that men and women will return back to the USA — to the homes and lives they left behind — and that is a harder thing to do then we can ever imagine. They need us to understand what that means. Maybe by watching this film we’ll be a little wiser about how we can help them come back from the hell they’ve been through.
Nathan is still an active duty Marine in the Wounded Warriors regiment at Camp Lejueune, NC. He’s still undergoing physical and physiological therapy and making a good recovery. He is considering a position as a spokesmen for the Florida State University veterans program. Most importantly, Nathan and Ashely are still together and doing well in their relationship.
Here’s Danfung at Sundance the morning his film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature: