In 'Which Way,' A War Photographer In His Element
At the 2011 Academy Awards, the film Restrepo was among the documentaries nominated for an Oscar. It follows an American platoon on a remote mountaintop in what was, at the time, the most dangerous place in Afghanistan.
To make the film, writer Sebastian Junger teamed up with British photojournalist Tim Hetherington — who, walking the red carpet that night at the Oscars, might as well have been a young actor straight out of central casting: tall, handsome, charismatic.
Six weeks later, Hetherington would be dead, killed in the siege of Misrata during Libya's civil war.
He was just 40 years old, but well into a career capturing indelible images of conflict.
Now, a documentary directed by Junger follows Hetherington's life as a war photographer, from his earliest days covering the civil war in Liberia to his final days in Misrata.
It's called Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.
Junger spoke with NPR's Renee Montagne about the life, work and goals of his friend and colleague. Excerpts from that conversation are transcribed in the image captions above; and listen to the Morning Edition audio by clicking on the player above.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
At the 2011 Academy Awards, amid the spectacularly dressed movie stars, was a war photographer. Tim Hetherington had teamed up with writer Sebastian Junger to make "Restrepo." They were nominated for this story of an American platoon on a remote mountaintop. Now Tim Hetherington himself is the subject of a film. That 2011 ceremony is where Renee Montagne begins our story.
RENEE MONTAGNE, BYLINE: Walking the red carpet that night at the Oscars, Tim Hetherington could have been out of central casting: tall, handsome and charismatic. Six weeks later, Hetherington would be dead, killed in the siege of Misrata during Libya's civil war. He was just 40 years old, but well into a career capturing indelible images of conflict.
TIM HETHERINGTON: A lot of photographers, I think, are presenting their work as if it's like, you know, you have to see this, the world needs to see this, this kind of, you know, moral outrage. And for me, you know, moral outrage motivates me, but I don't see it as a useful tool to get people to engage with the world. I think that we need to build bridges to people.
MONTAGNE: That's Tim Hetherington reflecting on his work. It's a moment from a new documentary that follows his life as a war photographer, from his earliest days covering the civil war in Liberia. It's called "Which Way Is the Front Line From Here?" and it's directed by his friend, Sebastian Junger.
SEBASTIAN JUNGER: He had this tremendous interest in human beings, and sometimes photographers just - they're interested in photography and they come away with the shots and they're psyched about it. And Tim, in some ways the photography wasn't even the point. What he really wanted to do was engage with people and he kind of used a camera to do that. And as a result, his work was phenomenal.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUNFIRE)
MONTAGNE: There is a moment when he's in Liberia. It makes shivers go up your spine. He's with rebels and it's very chaotic and one has the sense that he's put himself in the middle of something that he might not control.
JUNGER: Oh, he definitely doesn't control it. One of the scary things about working in civil wars like that is you're not even sure you can trust the people you're with. They're very young. They're very hopped up and it's very easy to feel like they could turn on you in an instant. And he was with the rebels who were attacking Monrovia and they walked clear across Liberia through the jungle. They were in very, very heavy combat.
It was Tim's first experience in combat and he kept his head together. He did it. He performed incredibly well, actually, as traumatic as it was to him.
MONTAGNE: As you watch this film, it becomes clear that he was a very gentle soul. Not really hardened by war.
JUNGER: Well, that's the funny thing about war. It actually almost never hardens people. It almost always humanizes them. And I think war humanized Tim tremendously because it inflicted so much pain on him. You know, he grew up in a very privileged English society and Tim went off and journeyed, travelled around the world and wound up in war zones.
And I remember, we talk about it in the film, he said to his father, he said, you know, you're very rich. And his father said, you know, we're not rich, but we're doing okay. He said, no, you're rich because you have the power to determine your future and most of the world doesn't.
MONTAGNE: Between you and Tim Hetherington, you spent a year, off and on, in a remote outpost in Afghanistan's Korangal Valley. You followed a platoon of American soldiers based there for what became your documentary "Restrepo." In this documentary about Tim Hetherington, you have put in one scene where you are describing him tip-toeing around, surreptitiously taking pictures one hot, hot day of these soldiers napping.
And let's just hear a bit. This is you now speaking.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?")
JUNGER: And he said this is what the American public never gets to see because any nation is self-selecting in the images it presents. And we want to see our soldiers as strong. We don't want to know that they're also these vulnerable boys.
MONTAGNE: What does that say about him and what he thought he was doing there?
JUNGER: Well, I thought nothing was going on because there was no combat and Tim saw potential in everything, including a situation where nothing's happening, and he wanted to photograph soldiers who were asleep and he produced one of his most amazing pieces of work, I think, was this series. And you know, soldiers in their combat fatigues and their gear and their weapons, they look very formidable.
But then you take the gear off them and they go to sleep and they really do look very vulnerable and very, very young.
MONTAGNE: There is a moment later in your documentary of Tim Hetherington where he is speaking to a group and he talks about leaving war photography. It almost sounds like a premonition.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WHICH WAY IS THE FRONT LINE FROM HERE?")
HETHERINGTON: I don't know if I want to stay covering conflict anymore. It's a very destructive thing to carry on beyond a certain age. You know, I know when a story's good and I know where a story's good, and where that is usually in the most dangerous area. And I won't do any of the other stuff. I'll just go straight to where I think it should be. I don't know. You got me at a low point. I'll have drink later, cheer up.
MONTAGNE: It sounds complex and he sounds a little conflicted about the work itself.
JUNGER: Well, I think most war reporters are conflicted about it. I mean on the one hand you feel very honored and privileged to be watching history as it's being created. On the other hand, you're making a living, sometimes a good living, on stories where people are dying. And that carries with it a certain moral awareness that can start to weigh you down.
MONTAGNE: I gather you were one of the people that said to him, don't go to Libya. This is maybe not the place to go. It's too dangerous.
JUNGER: Well, here's where it gets complicated. We were supposed to go Libya on assignment together and we hadn't been overseas since before we made "Restrepo." The Arab Spring was in full bloom. We were at the Oscars, reading the newspaper, just thinking we shouldn't be in L.A. We should be in the Arab world. And then in the last minute I couldn't go.
Where I got nervous was when he emailed me and said he was going to Misrata by boat. Something about that just seemed just sort of rife with potential problems. A besieged city, you can only get in and out by boat, it just felt - it just seemed like it could go really badly.
MONTAGNE: It happened on Tripoli Street. A mortar struck a group of journalists. Tim Hetherington bled to death in the bed of a pickup rushing him to a hospital. One comes away from this film feeling a deep sadness. Is there a particular image from Tim Hetherington's body of work that lingers with you?
JUNGER: He's got so many beautiful images. There's a photo that shows a rebel fighter right before the attack on Monrovia and he's saying goodbye to his girlfriend, really beautiful woman. They're holding each other and, you know, it's in the jungle, you know, and they're using the back of a pickup truck filled with weapons. It's kind of an ugly environment in some ways.
And they're holding each other and they're looking at each other with just incredible love. And both of them know that what he has coming up very well could get him killed and she may never see him again. And it's just the look on both of their faces is so beautiful, and that's what Tim was looking for in war reporting. It wasn't the ugliness. It was the beauty and the love that happens in those very intense situations. And he would capture it.
MONTAGNE: Sebastian Junger's documentary, "Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?" debuts tonight on HBO.
GREENE: And you can find some of Tim Hetherington's photographs from the front lines at NPR.org. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.