THE QUIET DIGNITY OF THE HUMAN STRUGGLE
Remembering TIM HETHERINGTON with His Colleague SEBASTIAN JUNGER
By Tyler Malone
I had the bittersweet privilege of interviewing the photojournalist Tim Hetherington less than two months before he was killed in Libya in 2011. It was one of his final full sit-down interviews, but it was actually my first in-person interview, and I couldn’t have had a better initial experience. I came to the interview a bumbling amateur, sweating and stuttering, but I left feeling like a seasoned professional (which, of course, even to this day, I’m not, but Tim had that affect on you, and could convince you of your worth to the world). He could bring out the best in you. This was mostly because he was intensely interested in everyone. It wasn’t a put-on–his curiosity–there was genuine sentiment behind his intrigue. Whether you were a sleeping soldier or a nervous interviewer, a chatty cabby or a star at the Oscars, Tim could find something universal in your story. He’d coax your story out of you without your even knowing you had a story to tell. He wanted to know why I wanted to be a writer, who my favorite writers were, etc. I was tasked with asking him questions, but he gave as many as he got. He found ways of puncturing the exterior and getting to what was really there, down beneath, in the heart of the human struggle.
Tim was concerned with people and their struggles, with their triumphs and their failures, with their strengths and their flaws, with their drives, with their stories. He wielded his camera like a pen, and was a “photographer” in the most basic sense of the word: he was a “writer with light.” It’s not surprising now to know that we spent a good portion of our interview discussing James Joyce and Kurt Vonnegut, David Markson and J. D. Salinger, because deep down he was, like those writers, a storyteller, in a way, and saw himself as one, I think.
While he spent his life telling the stories of others through his photographs, words, and moving images, it isn’t until now, on the two year anniversary of his untimely death, that his story is being told. Sebastian Junger, Tim’s friend and fellow journalist (and his collaborator on the Oscar-nominated film Restrepo), has pieced together some of Tim’s best work, and interspersed it with testimonials from friends, family, and colleagues, to create a film as moving and insightful as Restrepo was. I spoke with him about this new film Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, which will premiere on HBO Thursday, April 18th, and about Tim Hetherington, the photographer, the storyteller, the man.
Tyler Malone: First, why don’t you tell me about how you met Tim, and how you guys began to work together, culminating in the Oscar-nominated Restrepo.
Sebastian Junger: I was doing this year-long project of following a platoon in combat, and I wanted to both write a book and make a film. The first photographer I worked with on the project didn’t turn out too well. So on my second trip to the Korengal, Vanity Fair gave me a list of other photographers to consider working with, and Tim was by far the most qualified. I talked to him on the phone, and liked him on the phone, so I decided that he was my best bet. I brought him on my second trip, September ’07. I think he kind of fell in love with the idea of a movie as well, so he started shooting video in October. So I had already been shooting video for a few months, and then he came in and started shooting, and we both continued shooting video for the rest of our time there. After the year ended, we put all our money toward paying for an editor for a year, and we made the film.
TM: You were on Real Time with Bill Maher recently, and one thing you were talking about–and it comes up in the film a number of times as well–is that addictive quality of war. I interviewed Tim about your guys’ film Restrepo just a couple months before he died, and a part of the conversation that didn’t make it into the printed interview was him talking about a life after covering the news in conflict zones. He said he’d love to settle down, and I remember him sort of romantically talking about the idea of living on a farm somewhere in South America. And yet I got the sense that though he was serious about stopping, I didn’t think he’d really be able to do it yet, if ever. It had become such a part of him. Could you talk to me about this addictive quality of war in general, and then specifically how it manifested in Tim?
SJ: Well, I think he wanted to feel capable of settling down and having a family life. The war reporting was of course in conflict with that, but he was strongly drawn towards it. That’s a conflict that a lot of war reporters feel. But remember, Tim was still kind of early in his career–he was only 40–he was still rising in his career. Also, it takes a while to realize that you’re really risking your life by doing this. I mean, I know that sounds weird and obvious, but you can have a kind of denial about the risks. As you get older, your risk tolerance decreases. I think he just hadn’t gotten to that point yet. I had just sort of crossed over the divide–I was ten years older than Tim–and I was starting to be more aware of the risk and being less okay with it.
TM: You’ve now given it up on it after Tim’s untimely death. What would you say to young journalists heading into conflict zones? What advice would you give them?
SJ: I would say it’s important to be honest about why you want to be on the front line. There’s very little information on the front lines, and the photos are often repetitive and, to be honest, not all that interesting, yet the risks are enormous. So you have to be honest about what you’re doing there. There’s some very good journalistic reasons to be on the front lines, but that’s only part of it. The other part is journalists wanting to have an experience, a very intense experience. The more honest you can be with yourself about that, the safer you’ll be.
TM: What is one thing about Tim the man that you want the world to know that they probably don’t know, even if they know a little bit about Tim the photographer?
SJ: As a person, Tim was truly, really, interested in people’s experiences. He was endlessly curious about people, and not just people in war zones. He was interested in New York City taxi drivers, American soldiers, people who run art galleries; he was just interested in everybody, and tremendously compassionate. He was very attuned to what I’ve come to think of as the quiet dignity of the human struggle.
TM: Tim, when I spoke with him, and throughout your film Which Way Is the Front Line from Here?, seemed keenly interested in two things: people and stories. He was less interested in conflict itself, and wasn’t even all that interested necessarily in photography and film, which were just mediums through which to get to a better understanding of people and their stories. On Bill Maher you said, in talking about war addiction: “The willingness to die for someone else is an extreme form of love.” What about the willingness to die for a story? What is that and where does that come from? Is it the same place as that which drives the soldiers?
SJ: No one willing dies for a story. What they do is willingly risk their lives for a story. I don’t think any journalist, if he could somehow know ahead of time that this story would cost him his life, would think that it was worth it. That is different from soldiers who do sometimes do things that they know will cost them their life, but they do it because they care more about their brothers than they do about themselves, in that moment.
TM: I was at the Newseum in DC just last week and I saw Tim Hetherington’s picture on the memorial wall there of journalists who have died covering the news. It’s amazing, and amazingly sad, to see how many journalists die doing this job. What’s the best way we can honor these brave individuals?
SJ: I don’t know. I don’t think there are many statues of journalists, you know? These people died for, among other things, the right that we all have to information about the world. We all have the right to access information, and these people die trying to provide it. They do the job for their own reasons–maybe they’re ambitious, maybe they love journalism, whatever their personal reasons are–but at the end of the day, they’re doing something that is entirely necessary. Any war critic has the information they have that allows them to criticize because there are journalists out on the front lines reporting on that war, putting themselves in harm’s way. Any patriotic conservative who is proud of what our boys are doing over there has their information because of journalists as well, “members of the mainstream media,” as they call them. So I think we just need to somehow acknowledge that debt a little bit more to people who do this work.
TM: Definitely. Well, and one way you’ve honored Tim, I know, is by founding RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues). Tell me a bit about this organization.
SJ: It wasn’t so much to honor Tim as to prevent the next Tim. Freelances do 90% of the front line reporting, and because they’re freelance, they’re entirely unorganized, unsupported by the industry, and untrained medically. So I decided to provide free front line medical training to experienced freelance war reporters. They don’t have a lot of money, so it really did have to be free. The hotel is paid for, the training course, it’s all paid for. It’s a four-day course in front line combat medicine, and it’s entirely funded through people’s generosity. It’s a non-profit. We’ve had three sessions so far, and trained 72 people. We’ve sent them back out into the world, and to the war zones they report on, with this new knowledge and skill set that can help them save the lives of their colleagues. Our next session will be in June.
TM: Going back to immediately after Tim’s death, did you know immediately after his death that you wanted to honor him with a film? Or did the idea come much later?
SJ: Well, I found out that Tim had videotaped a lot of the combat on his last day. That was intriguing. I already knew the body of work he had. And then a number of people who were in the attack were coming to New York for the memorial that I had a big hand in organizing. I thought, “I’ll never have these people all in one place again, so I should interview them on what happened.” I had a lot of questions on how Tim died and why Tim died. So I interviewed them with a videocamera in a studio, and I realized almost immediately that I had some interesting footage that could be the basis for a very powerful documentary. So I went straight to HBO, and within about a half an hour I had convinced Sheila Nevins to buy it.
TM: So what are the plans for the film? It premiers on HBO on Thursday, the 18th, correct?
SJ: Yup, on the 18th.
TM: Is it going to show theatrically anywhere?
SJ: It’ll have a limited theatrical run in New York and Los Angeles, which we basically do so it can qualify for Oscar consideration.
TM: Great, I wish you all the best with that. I really hope it does get nominated. Just one last question. Just as the film ends with “Danny Boy,” I thought I’d end this interview on that note. So my last question has to do with the film’s music. Your movie opens with “How Deep Is Your Love” and ends with “Danny Boy.” Do you feel these bookending songs say something specific about Tim, about his life, about his outlook?
SJ: Well, “How Deep Is Your Love” just happened to be on the car radio. There’s a word for it, in film, when the music is there in the scene itself.
SJ: Yeah, exactly, thank you. So that was just music that happened to be playing. That wasn’t necessarily a choice on our part. Though I definitely thought it was kind of fitting. “Danny Boy” was a musical choice of ours. I found it to be a heart-wrenching, incredibly powerful song. That particular rendition of it is by Shane MacGowan with the Popes (not the Pogues, but the Popes). It’s not just a sad song, because in their version, I hear a sort of stumbling triumphalism in it. And I just really liked that combination. Paired with Tim’s photos at the end, I think the song speaks to that idea of what I said earlier: the quiet dignity of the human struggle.
Sebastian Junger is a journalist, author, and filmmaker. His newest film Which Way Is The Front Live From Here? on his friend and fellow journalist Tim Hetherington will air on HBO on Thursday, April 18th.
Written by Tyler Malone
Photography Courtesy HBO
Design by Marie Havens
WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE ?: Sebastian Junger
Photo Credit: Courtesy HBO
WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?: (L-R) Tim Hetherington & Sebastian Junger
Photo Credit: Courtesy HBO
WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?: Tim Hetherington (Center)
Photo Credit: Courtesy HBO
WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?: Tim Hetherington (right)
Photo Credit: Courtesy HBO
WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?: Tim Hetherington
Photo Credit: Courtesy HBO