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Sebastian Junger: We Kind of Assume We Won’t Be Killed

April 18, 2013

The director of Which Way is the Front Line From Here? talks with Leah Carroll about his friend Tim Hetherington, the strange allure of war, and what it takes to document combat.

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Hetherington and Junger. Photo courtesy of HBO

At the center of Tim Hetherington’s work—his photos, films, and writing—there exists a strange kind of serenity. Strange because his subject matter of choice, war, does not seem to lend itself to the quiet intimacy of his images.

His photos of sleeping American soldiers in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan defy traditional notions of warfare. The drowsing young men seem angelic and impossibly young in spite of the nudie mags tucked beneath a pillow, the skulls tattooed on unlined flesh. Similarly, his portraits of young men and women at the Milton Margai School for the Blind in Freetown, Sierra Leone depict suffering shot through with a deep seam of humanity and hope. There is a peace, a respectful gravitas to these depictions of the casualties of war.

Hetherington is the subject of the new HBO documentary, Which Way is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington, directed by Sebastian Junger, the bestselling author of The Perfect Storm and War, who co-directed the 2011 film Restrepo with Hetherington, for which the two shared an Oscar nomination. In Which Way is the Front Line, Junger recreates his colleague’s life, work, and death—Tim Hetherington and fellow photographer Chris Hondros were killed by a blast of mortar fire on April 20, 2011 while documenting the civil war in Libya. In the end, a portrait emerges of a humanitarian and artist deeply committed to documenting events that are easier to ignore. Hetherington’s wholly uncynical take on war and human nature is both his legacy and the heart of the film.

I spoke with Sebastian Junger about the documentary and about the heavy burdens of truth telling, the allure of combat, and Tim Hetherington—an artist, collaborator, and sorely missed friend.

Leah Carroll for Guernica

Guernica: One of the themes of the film is Tim’s magnetic, unforgettable personality. Knowing him as you did, what was it about him that made him that way?

Sebastian Junger: I mean I don’t think it hurt at all that he was tall, handsome and had an English accent [laughs]. Just for starters. But he also was extremely engaging. He didn’t have any kind of typical British reserve at all. He was very open and really wanted to know what you had to say. He would just start talking to anybody, everybody: taxi drivers, and hot dog vendors, and Afghan refugees and Lieutenant Colonels. He just was wide open and he asked you to be wide open. And when he talked to you, you just felt like the most important person in the world in that moment. And that really got people to open up and to love him.

Guernica: In that sense, he was a little different from other combat photographers in that he inserted himself into the scene. When you started working together was that something you were used to?

Sebastian Junger: I’ve worked with a lot of different photographers and all photographers have a different style but Tim really was the most engaged—to the point where I almost felt like the photography was an afterthought and what he was really doing was being out there in the world. The camera was his excuse and he was actually just having an experience and encountering humanity. And he would grab a photo because he had a hammer around his neck, you know? Sometimes it felt a little a little like that.

Guernica: Near the end of his career, Tim seems to have developed a somewhat fatalistic view of his odds—he seemed very aware of his mortality. What do you make of that?

Sebastian Junger: I think most journalists feel like that. The more times you gamble with your life, the more likely you are to eventually lose. Personally, I’ve stopped war reporting but none of us do things that we’re pretty sure are going to get us killed. We kind of assume we won’t be killed and try to figure out what level of risk is acceptable and comfortable for us. It’s the same basic calculation, I mean more extreme yes, but the same basic calculation that people make everyday with driving. Everybody knows they could die in a car accident. And they still drive because it’s convenient and they need to do it. Nobody would take that drive to the supermarket if they knew they were going to get killed on that trip. But the possibility of getting killed isn’t enough to get someone to suspend a lifetime of driving. It’s a little bit the same.

Dying for a photo is never worth it. But nobody thinks that’s what they’re going to be doing.

Guernica: There is a part in the film when Tim is in Liberia, experiencing combat for the first time and he recalls thinking, “I’m going to die for a picture. Is that worth it?” Do you think it ever is worth it?

Sebastian Junger: Dying for a photo is never worth it. But nobody thinks that’s what they’re going to be doing. Risking your life for a photo is possibly worth it, depending on the level of risk and that’s the calculation that journalists make all the time.

Guernica: So how do you make that calculation? Because driving, for instance, is something we do everyday but being in combat is such a unique situation.

Sebastian Junger: Well, it’s a very compelling job and I think what’s harder is to NOT do it. It becomes the most meaningful, intense thing in your life and when you come back home you feel like you’re in limbo and useless and all you want to do is get back out there. Once you adjust to a certain to a certain level of risk, that level becomes pretty acceptable and just about everyone has adjusted to their own level of risk, in this example with cars. War photographers have just become adjusted to a higher level of risk and it becomes normalized and it just becomes the price you pay for being able to do something you want to do. But that’s how everyone deals with risk. Soldiers want to be soldiers. They know that might be killed but they still want to do it. Volunteer soldiers want to be soldiers more than they find the risk unpleasant.

Guernica: In this new era of citizen journalism, so many people have ready access to video and the internet to make their voices heard. Do you draw a distinction between the person who happens to be there at the moment vs. the person who documents these things as a profession?

An agent of the Assad government could shoot a photo of twelve people who were massacred by government forces and send it to the New York Times and say, “See what the rebels have done?” That is the problem with citizen journalism.

Sebastian Junger: There are rules and ethics with journalism and the most important one is that you are seeking the truth. You are not trying to manipulate peoples’ opinions. You are seeking the truth, even if it’s an unpleasant one. So the problem with receiving an image from a citizen journalist in Syria as an editor in New York, for example, is that every photograph needs a caption. So you see a photo of twelve bodies on the ground but if you don’t know and trust the person who took that photo and is sending it to you, you have no idea what the significance of those bodies is. An agent of the Assad government could shoot a photo of twelve people who were massacred by government forces and send it to the New York Times and say, “See what the rebels have done?” That is the problem with citizen journalism. Anyone can take a photo but you really do need someone who is at least attempting to be nonpartisan to give the context of the information. And that’s journalism.

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Hetherington, center. Photo courtesy of HBO

A journalist can take a photo of American forces in Afghanistan facilitating the building of a school or a hospital and not necessarily be advocating the US military presence of Afghanistan. You are just showing one of the things that’s happening. And that’s a really important distinction between journalists and advocates and it’s one that is getting blurred with citizen journalism. Journalists have opinions but try to keep them out of their work. Citizens have no reason to keep them out of their work and you can’t tell where citizen journalism might become propaganda. With journalists that you have a working relationship with, you can trust, at least theoretically, that the information is objective.

Guernica: One thing you discuss in the film is how, as a journalist, you become part of the overall mechanism that is hurting people and how that realization can be a source of shame. How do you reconcile that with the job you are doing?

I cannot imagine a world without journalists. It would be awful. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a moral burden that comes from making your living at that.

Sebastian Junger: I understand intellectually that there is a great good that comes from journalism. I understand that a free society depends on free information and journalists provide that. And that is why journalists must be everywhere or at least in as many places as they can contrive to be. I get it. And I cannot imagine a world without journalists. It would be awful. But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a moral burden that comes from making your living at that. I imagine that emergency room doctors experience a similar moral conflict. They know they are doing a good thing but they’re elbow deep in people’s blood and that’s how they earn their living. I imagine at some point in their lives they awake to this weird contradiction. I think there a lot of jobs like that, in other words.

Guernica: What do you most hope the film will communicate?

Sebastian Junger: First, it is a memorial to my good friend Tim and a platform for his work to be more widely seen and appreciated and to affect people in the wonderful ways in which it can.

I hope it also communicates something important about the risks that all journalists take. And this right now is a very politically partisan era in this country and a lot of nasty things get said about the press—occasionally deserved but more often those comments are unfair and silly. When people are snide and cynical about the press people forget how basically honorable most journalists are in trying to establish the truth about things and what price is paid for covering wars. Dozens and dozens of journalists get killed doing this and the ones that don’t get killed suffer enormous emotional and psychological consequences. And I just wish the cynicism around that would stop.

And finally, there is this question that we discuss a little bit in the film and that Tim was very interested in which was: what is so alluring about war for young men? There is this kind of liberal conceit that war is awful (and I mean war IS awful) but this conceit that no one in their right mind would want to have anything to do with it and that anyone involved with war has just been manipulated by the military-industrial complex. And that’s just so unbelievably not true. Young men are just fascinated by war and captivated by it and find it very hard to give up once they’ve been exposed to it. And Tim and I both wanted to understand what it is that is so compelling to young men about combat.

Guernica: And you show in the movie how this romance with war seems to span cultures. You see it in Tim’s work, from Liberia to Afghanistan to Syria.

Sebastian Junger: That’s right, and that’s where the liberal conceit comes apart. This isn’t just kids who have grown up playing with GI Joes. It is in cultures throughout the world and throughout history. There is something very hardwired in the young male brain, not for every young male, but for enough of them, that makes combat irresistible.

Guernica: Do you think you and Tim found it irresistible?

Sebastian Junger: Absolutely, completely. That’s why most of us do the job.

Guernica: But you won’t do any more war photography?

Sebastian Junger: No. Not after Tim died.

Guernica: So that was the catalyst behind that decision?

Sebastian Junger: Yes, but had that happened fifteen years earlier it wouldn’t have been a catalyst because I still would have been curious about war. After the Korengal I kind of answered the questions I had about war and about myself in war. And it was something I could have continued with, I had a certain momentum, but then Tim got killed and I realized I was done. I have that choice. War isn’t something that, in this country anyway, anybody has to do. You don’t have to join the army. The guys who join do so because they want that experience. Journalists who go to war are not martyrs. They do it because it’s an experience they want to have.

Which Way Is The Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington premieres tonight on HBO.

Sebastian Junger is a contributing editor for Vanity Fair. He has reported on war, terrorism, and human rights from Sierra Leone, Liberia, and Kosovo, to name a few. He reported from Afghan­istan for ABC News and was a freelance radio correspondent during the war in Bosnia. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic Adventure, Outside, and Men’s Journal. Jung­er’s October 1999 V.F. article, “The Forensics of War,” about war crimes in Kosovo, won a National Magazine Award for Reporting. Junger is the author of Fire (Norton, 2001), the best-selling The Perfect Storm (Norton, 1997), and A Death in Belmont (Norton, 2006).

Leah Carroll is a writer living in Brooklyn.

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