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Photojournalist, Filmmaker Hetherington Documents Terror, Boredom of War

November 17, 2010 at 4:59 PM EDT
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Jeffrey Brown speaks with British photojournalist and filmmaker Tim Hetherington about his work in Afghanistan, which led to the prize-winning documentary with Sebastian Junger, "Restrepo," and a new book of photographs called "Infidel."

GWEN IFILL: Finally tonight: capturing war through the camera’s lens. Jeffrey Brown has our conversation.

JEFFREY BROWN: American soldiers serving in Afghanistan, in battle, relaxing together, asleep — these and many other photographs were taken in the Korengal Valley in Northeastern Afghanistan in 2007 and ‘8.

They’re part of a new book titled “Infidel” by Tim Hetherington, a British photojournalist and filmmaker. The video he shot for this project, working with writer Sebastian Junger, became the prize-winning documentary “Restrepo.” Welcome to you.

TIM HETHERINGTON, photojournalist/filmmaker: Thanks for having me on.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, set the scene a little bit of how long were you in the valley there; how did it work in terms of daily life and interacting with the soldiers?

TIM HETHERINGTON: We were with Battle Company of the 173rd Airborne in the Korengal Valley in the northeast of Afghanistan, close to the Pakistan border.

And the Korengal was a small six-mile-long valley.And we went there and embedded with a 2nd Platoon of Battle Company on the side of a mountain in a little outpost they built by hand called Restrepo.

And, at that time, we went, and the war was focused on Iraq, but Afghanistan was — the war was getting out of control, something we now know to be true.And it was a really active place to be.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, you say in a short afterward in this book that — quote — “Rather than attempt to describe the war in Afghanistan, I have sought to convey some of the contradictions of war.”

What do you mean by that?What — what does war mean to you?

TIM HETHERINGTON: Well, war is — it’s a very slippery thing to try and get out any truisms about war.

I mean, Tim O’Brien, the writer, you know, said the same thing.You know, war is hell, but it’s more than that.And rather than kind of lay down any kind of definitiveness, I just wanted to — to show the texture of it.And that meant not just photographing just the combat, but, as you say, the guys, their time off, when war is often very boring.And it’s boredom punctuated by sheer terror.And I wanted to capture all of that.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will start with the combat, because that is part of what war is about.


JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re out there with the men, and a battle starts, what are you trying to capture, and how do you do it?

TIM HETHERINGTON: Well, I’m a documentary photographer and filmmaker, and I have been doing this for many, many years.And it wasn’t my first time to be in a combat scenario when I was in Afghanistan with these men.

And I’m there as a witness.And I’m just trying to record what I can in the very kind of frenetic — frenetic environment.And I try and obviously, you know, keep myself out of the way and out of danger, but obviously you’re in a situation.

And the men kind of really accepted our presence.We became, to all intents and purposes, part of the platoon, although I never carried a weapon, I never pulled guard duty, although I wish — I think they wished that I did pull guard duty.


TIM HETHERINGTON: And they really opened up to us after a while. They realized that we were going to go to the furthest extents that they would go to. We went on every patrol, into every combat situation.

And that made a bond between us and allowed me to document their lives in this very full way.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re out there with both still and video cameras.


JEFFREY BROWN: So, you have got to make a decision at different times what you want to do.

TIM HETHERINGTON: Yes, that’s true. And there is something special about the still photograph, something that we can creatively engage with.

And, yet, at the same time, in the filming of “Restrepo,” I needed to capture all those kind of moments. And it was a bit of a juggle.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, there is — there are many down times, right, when, in a sense, nothing is happening.


JEFFREY BROWN: And you have to capture the nothingness, because, actually, that’s part of what is going on, right?

TIM HETHERINGTON: Yes.It was very interesting to start making the photographs of the soldiers sleeping, the classic time of nothing going on.And, yet, in those pictures of those men sleeping, when we think of the imagery of the war, we load that with a kind of significance and meaning that here are these very young men, in the sleep reposes looking very vulnerable, which they are, and yet they are caught up in the maelstrom of war.

And we’re sending out these men to very difficult circumstances.And I just wanted to represent their life as fully as possible.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I was thinking about that.I mean, you mentioned the word vulnerable, because that’s what comes through.Did you think about their vulnerability, because you had gotten to know them, and then looked at somebody asleep and say, kind of, aha, there it is?Or how did those pictures, how did those photographs come about?

TIM HETHERINGTON: Well, we were coming and going over the course of the entire deployment.And I remember making a picture of one of them sleeping.

And then, when I brought it back, I looked at it and realized there was something really, really in that picture.It was a very powerful picture that made me think about war and vulnerability and these young men that we ask to come and serve for our country and what it means.And, so, I continued making the series.

JEFFREY BROWN: And then, of course, there is the camaraderie, the brotherhood, which you and Sebastian Junger, to some extent, became part of, right?


JEFFREY BROWN: And you tried to capture that.How much do you — did you feel a part of that, and how much could you sort of capture it as a participant or as a sort of person standing off to the side with the camera?

TIM HETHERINGTON: Well, it’s interesting.When we first arrived, obviously, the men were very suspicious of us.I mean, there is a frosty relationship between the press and the military, which is not necessarily a bad thing.And we were viewed with a healthy dose of suspicion.

After a while, they started to open up to us.And we became, as I said, part of the platoon.I think that they really trusted us to show their world as fully as possible.And that also didn’t mean shying away from things.That meant showing both the down time, but also the heat of battle, also the — documenting when their friends got killed or some of them got killed.

You know, it’s a warts-and-all view of the war.And I felt this was important because, you know, often, soldiers and the symbols or representations of soldiers are claimed by the far left or the far right to mean a certain thing.And we do these young men an injustice in not digesting fully their reality.And that’s what I wanted to show.

JEFFREY BROWN: You also have, speaking of that, a section at the back where they — I guess they’re short essays or remarks in their own personal words, right?

Why did you do that?

TIM HETHERINGTON: I have always wanted to give a voice to my subjects. That’s really important for me. It’s their reality, and I’m mediating it for the public. And I understand that.

But I think that it’s an opportunity to get them to say what they think, and then give them that chance.And the essays in the back are remarkable.There’s so many really interesting and different things I had never heard before, that I just had to get those comments in.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, the book is called “Infidel.”Tim Hetherington, photographer, filmmaker, nice to talk to you.

TIM HETHERINGTON: Thank you very much.