This interview was originally published on the Documentary Channel blog on April 18, 2013.
This Saturday marks the second anniversary of Tim Hetherington’s death. The Oscar-nominated co-director of Restrepo was covering the civil war in Libya when he and fellow photographer Chris Hondros were killed by a mortar shell. In his honor, friend and collaborator Sebastian Junger (the other director of Restrepo) has made an emotional and thoughtful portrait titled Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington. While the film expectantly gives reason to appreciate that Hetherington lived and to wish he was still around, it also also more implicitly raises questions about modern journalism.
Last Friday I talked on the phone with Junger about the film and what it means for both the subject, as a tribute and exposure, and the greater consideration of combat reporters and journalists. He also shared information about a new program he has set up in response to the death of his friend and colleague. Read our full conversation below.
Documentary Channel: Thank’s for doing this interview. As is noted in the film, it can be odd for journalists to have to do press, which takes them away from covering important things out there.
Sebastian Junger: As an author, I’m really used to talking to the press, even though I’m a journalist. That’s nothing new. I really appreciate the opportunity because otherwise nobody would know about the film. It helps get the word out there and people will hopefully see it. It’s natural for me. It also gives me a chance to… People sometimes ask me, “What do you want people to take away from this film?” It’s a good part of the process.
So I should ask you that question, then? I guess it fits with another question I had, which is: Why did you decide to make this film?
First of all, I felt that Tim’s body of work needed a unified platform so that people could appreciate it. A lot of people aren’t in the position to go see his work in an art gallery. And they certainly aren’t in a position to understand the man behind the work. A film can sort of do all of those things. Inadequately, but at least it does it to some degree. People go see movies. They don’t necessarily go to art galleries or buy photo books.
That was the first thing, to let his work live on a bit. At least in this way. Also, he sort of exemplifies the dangers that journalists undergo in reporting on wars. I think that’s something people forget. In the current political environment there’s a lot of frankly nasty, cynical things said about journalists. And I wanted to remind people that this thing we all depend on called information comes from somewhere. It comes from journalists, and they get killed providing it.
Finally, Tim was… He and I both were quite interested in this strange thing about how combat, which is so terrible, is incredibly appealing to young men. Across societies, around the world, through the ages. It’s a really compelling thing, and it exerts an enormous gravitational pull. Not just young men who go to fight, but also young men who go to war as journalists. Tim was really interested in that. I don’t have time in the film to completely explore it, but I wanted to just keep that idea, that question, out there a little bit.
There are a number of ideas here that you don’t explicitly address but which you can still get from the film. I saw it as being very important to the conversation about journalism in general today and the risks that are out there and the newspaper economy and how so much of the media is just sitting at home and re- reporting someone else’s hard, self-endangering work.
I didn’t want the film to be too instructional. I wanted people mostly to be able to enjoy the person Tim was and enjoy his work and be inspired by it. I didn’t want it to be an issue-driven film. And for that matter, Restrepo wasn’t an issue-driven film either, even though it’s about war. He and I were absolutely in line with each other about wanting to make Restrepo an experiential film that did not strive to comment in any way for or against the U.S. military’s involvement in Afghanistan. We were really, really both very clear about that.
Likewise with the film about Tim, I could go off on multiple moral or intellectual tangents. I didn’t because there wasn’t room and it isn’t what I wanted to do. But that doesn’t mean you can’t raise the questions.
Like with the Academy Awards scenes, and Tim does bring this up in the film, I couldn’t not think about that state of journalism stuff while watching you and Tim on the red carpet and talking to E!, for instance. It’s kind of bizarre to think of what you guys did in your work and what they’re doing. Technically you’re journalists talking to other journalists. It’s just a completely different kind of atmosphere.
The thing that Tim and I realized is that news organizations and media like E! and Variety and wherever else allow you to reach a huge segment of the population that might not ever otherwise know or care about films like Restrepo or this. As a war reporter who wants to affect the general population with his work, you don’t want to be disdainful of anybody, really. Because the further you feel on the journalistic spectrum from the outlet that’s interviewing you, the more likely you are to reach people you wouldn’t reach in any other way.
If you’re going to bother making a film like Restrepo, you’re going to want to talk to everybody. And in some ways you’re going to particularly want to talk to the media organizations that you otherwise don’t feel much kinship with.
In the film you talk about how Tim wanted to quit combat photography after Restrepo. Were you on the same page? Is it even more so the case for you now?
After Restrepo I felt like I wanted to get out of the actual front line work, partly because it was upsetting my wife and partly because I felt like I’d answered all the questions I had about war, and all the questions I had about myself in war, during my year in Afghanistan. If I kept doing that kind of reporting, going on more embeds, etc., I was at risk of repeating myself at something that I’d already figured out how to do and running risks without having more urgent questions I wanted to answer. In other words, just being stupid about it.
So I’d already decided to not do that kind of work anymore. But we were going to go on assignment to Libya. Originally it was going to be Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, and it was going to be a regional piece for Vanity Fair about the Arab Spring. I said to Tim, “The one thing I don’t want us to be doing is dodging bullets on this. This is a more deeply reported political piece. We’re not going to spend the whole month riding around with rebels.” I just had the sense he wasn’t entirely psyched about that, but that was the story I’d pitched to Vanity Fair, that’s what we were doing.
I had already started to transition out of that. Tim hadn’t, I don’t think. I think he wanted to feel like he was capable of it, but I don’t think he entirely thought he was. When he got to Libya he was in Benghazi, which is pretty quiet, so he went to Misrata. He was there at the hospital and then went out to the front line. That gravitational pull was affecting him. Personally, I don’t think he was at a place in his life yet where he was going to stop doing that kind of thing.
After he was killed, immediately I made an absolute decision not to cover combat anymore. Any ambiguity in my mind, any little leeway I was thinking, like “oh maybe I can rethink this” got completely shut down within an hour.
Was it weird for you to interview yourself for the film? It’s done every now and then, but also more and more people are just doing first-person docs these days instead. You’ve done some writing in the first person, so did it ever cross your mind to have more of a narrated style? Or did you think that would have made it too much about you?
Yeah, I talked about it with Sheila Nevins of HBO. It was a possibility, but it wasn’t an appealing one. I was loathe to put myself in as an interview, and I was really convinced to do it by my editor, Geeta Gandbhir, who is an amazing editor and extremely persuasive and when the persuasion fails can actually be quite forceful. So I gave in. I was resistent to it because as a journalist I really feel like you should not put yourself into the work. And if you do, it should be with an extremely light touch.
When I wrote my book War, among other things I felt conceptually war wasn’t so much a reported piece of journalism as a partly autobiographical account of an experience. I had already in my mind made a shift where I wasn’t even understanding it as journalism, per se.
What I really, really dislike is the recent trend in network news — NBC, CBS, ABC, all of them — of turning the correspondent into a bit of an action hero where you actually watch footage of the correspondent under fire. I just think it’s absurd. That really bugs me. That’s hard news. The correspondent really has no business being under the camera lens. He’s there to report a war. I want to watch soldiers in combat, not the correspondent dodging bullets. That’s my whole rant on that.
But back to this film, I really was the only person who could speak knowledgeably and in depth about Tim’s experience in Afghanistan. Of course, that experience and making Restrepo and going to the Oscars, those experiences were enormously important to him personally and in his career and how he’s perceived by the public as a photographer. I was the only guy who could do it. So it was either put myself in front of the camera and be interviewed by Geeta or have a narration. And I felt the interview was a far better choice.
I normally don’t like when filmmakers do it, but I did feel an exception with this one. It’s necessary.
I had a lot of trepidation about it, that it would be perceived wrongly and self-indulgent and all that. So thank you.
I was just briefly reading about RISC Training, which isn’t mentioned in the film but it’s definitely related to Tim’s story and legacy. Can you tell me more about that?
Basically the thinking was this: Tim had a relatively minor wound, but the piece of shrapnel that hit him severed his femoral artery. He died because he bled out. He wasn’t hit in the forehead with a big piece of shrapnel like Chris Hondros was. Tim bled out, and he died a few minutes from the hospital, and none of the journalists around him had any combat medical training, so none of them knew what to do.
There are things that you can do to prolong life long enough to reach real medical care. That’s what combat medics do, keep them alive and get them on the helicopter. In this case it would have been keeping him alive to get him to the hospital. It was just a few minutes away. I realized I wouldn’t have known how to save his life. None of the journalists I know would have known how to save his life. None of us are medically trained.
Most of the war reporting is done by freelancers. People who have salaried jobs with major media organizations get medically trained because the insurance companies that insure media mandate it. But those guys aren’t doing the lion’s share of the war reporting. It’s the freelancers who are. They have no support, got no training, etc. So I wanted to start a medical training program for experienced freelance war reporters, people who are on the front lines who take a break and come back to New York.
It’s a four-day course. The hotel is free, the course is free, the combat kit is free. We train them for four days and then send them back out there. We train 24 people at a time. We’ve had three sessions so far, 72 people. There’s 50 people on the waiting list. We’re entirely supported by people’s generosity, and we’re slowly hoping to make our way through the freelance war reporter population.
If you want information and video of some of the training sessions, our website is risctraining.org. So check it out. There’s commentary from the students who went through the program.
This is re-printed with the permission of Participant Channel, Inc. © Participant Channel, Inc. 2014.