Friday, July 09, 2010

Ryan Pyle Blog: Tim Hetherington Interview


Well, Tim Hetherington is a storied image maker. His new film, his dedication to documenting real life with both still and moving images is well regarded around the globe. I read this blog on the NYT and found it very insightful and important. I hope everyone can give it a read and take something from it. Tim is a real visionary, a passionate image maker and documenter of life. He has crafted himself a very special role. I can't wait to see what he gets up to next.

Original LInk to NYTimes Interview: LINK
JJune 22, 2010, 12:00 AM
“Restrepo” and the Imagery of War

Michael Kamber was covering the war in Liberia in 2003. He had a Hasselblad. A stranger pointed out that another photographer — this one accompanying the rebels — also had a Hasselblad. “I was sure he was mistaken,” Mr. Kamber recalled. ”Two photographers stupid — or impractical — enough to photograph the war in medium format? Impossible. But the stranger turned out to be correct. The other photographer was Tim Hetherington. We met later on, covered the civil war in the Ivory Coast together and have been friends ever since.”

The documentary “Restrepo,” directed by Mr. Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, will open Friday. Last week, Mr. Hetherington sat down with Mr. Kamber in Midtown Manhattan to talk about the film — and much else besides. Their remarks have been edited for brevity and clarity.

Q. Do you consider yourself a photographer?
A. If you are interested in mass communication, then you have to stop thinking of yourself as a photographer. We live in a post-photographic world. If you are interested in photography, then you are interested in something — in terms of mass communication — that is past. I am interested in reaching as many people as possible.

Q. Right.
A. If we are interested in the outside world and making images of it and translating it and relaying it to as many people as possible, then in some ways the traditional photographic techniques are really not important.

Q. Does that mean we can just Photoshop horses’ heads into a photograph?
A. Absolutely not. Authenticity and making a picture authentic is obviously important. I am not interested in traditional photographic techniques. I am not interested in putting a black border around a photograph as a way of saying that is authentic. You know, “protecting photography.”

Q. There is a whole community of people who are interested in trying to protect the genre’s integrity and the culture of photojournalism.
A. That’s because they haven’t found the answers to their questions.

Q. Which is what?
A. Which is how to make money out of it, to make it pay; how to succeed financially. And how to get it out there and reach an audience.

Q. Do you think they all just really care about money?
A. No, I don’t. But it all depends. We are all interested in the outside world. The heart of every deed is a selfish one. If you have to go out in the world and be effective, you have to make sure you are alive, healthy and strong. Agencies have to make sure that they are financially viable in order to go out and make commentary on the world that is useful to other people. My point about not being a photographer is that we can’t protect photography – forget photography – when we are interested in the authentic representation of things outside of ourselves.

Q. How does your Afghanistan work tie into what you just said?
A. I am interested in visually representing something in as many ways as possible, exploiting as many different forms as possible, to reach as many people as possible.

Q. And how did you do that in Afghanistan?
A. By working across the spectrum, by first saying, “O.K., I’m going to photograph for Vanity Fair.” And that is a platform that has, say, a two or three million readership. Then those images, because I retain the copyright, are syndicated worldwide. They appear in newspapers and magazines worldwide. Great, that’s another valid audience. The image that won World Press Photo gave another spotlight and went global in a way that could lead people to reach my other work. Then I made “Sleeping Soldiers,” which was a digital projection. It was an art piece, meant for galleries – but that’s still a valid audience. Then I made TV. For ABC News, we made two “Nightline” pieces. The first piece, I was told by ABC, reached 20 million people. And then using all that footage and making a feature film out of it. On our own money.

Q. “Restrepo”?
A. “Restrepo.” Working across all these editorial spectrums; not saying, “I am a photographer” or “I am a filmmaker,” just saying: “I am a person who goes out into the world and makes these images. And I want to reach as many different audiences as possible.” To do that, I have to reach into different forms.

Q. And now you have this book?
A. And now I have book coming out in October, with Chris Boot, called “Infidel.”

Q. Can you tell me about that?
A. The first time I went to Afghanistan, in 2007, the world was very much focused on Iraq. People had forgotten – and now we have come to accept – that the Afghan war was going out of control. When I got to the Korangal Valley, and there was lots of fighting going on, it completely surprised me. I was gobsmacked.

Q. Constant combat?
A. Yeah. At the end of October 2007, 70 percent of American bombs being dropped were in that valley, and the casualty rate was at 25 percent wounded. So the images I made were very action oriented. Photojournalism. Reminiscent of classical war photography. I did that because I wanted people to see that there was a lot of fighting going on. Anyway, I go back and the fighting sort of bored me. Because when you are in a lot of combat after a while, a lot of it — you know? If you are inside a base that’s being attacked, like “Restrepo” was, you are in a fairly good position. The likelihood of you being killed was pretty low, unless they put a mortar on you.

Q. Personally, I have yet to be bored in combat.
A. What got me really interested were the interpersonal relationships between the men. It was a facet of war I hadn’t really thought about. It is a big part of fighting and combat, as we know, yet it is rarely ever represented. A lot of the substance of the book brings the idea of male bonding to the front. It is a huge part of the war machine, if you think about it. That really is it. Why war exists is because mankind has worked out: if you take 15 men and put them together, that group, the number in a platoon, is the perfect number, the perfect group. It is like a hard-wired genetic code: if you bring a small group of men together and make them dependent on each other, they will kill for each other.

Q. Tell me what the pictures look like in this book, since we don’t have it in front of us.
A. The pictures show a different image of life in a very small outpost. They are very approachable. I spent enough time that, by the end, the guys were walking around like they were fighting in shorts and flip flops. I was photographing them in a state of undress. You can see the images of the guys, really bonding closely together. There is a lot of play fights and hugging. A lot of the guys would have their bodies tattooed. Part of the book shows you these tattoos. In fact, the title of the book comes from a tattoo. They used to tattoo across their chest the word “Infidel.” The book is about soldiers and their tattoos. You see them playing golf and fighting, and it seems very lighthearted. Then, in the latter part of the book, they go to war and it ends – as war does – in ways that are really upsetting and unpredictable. I totally respect people who go to Afghanistan and document the Taliban, civilian collateral damage and all that. My strategy is different. I thought that the easiest way into the American psyche is to photograph their young men and then subvert that.

Q. Why subvert that?
A. Because otherwise you are being predictable and confirming an idea they have in their heads. I am challenging people with photographs, as I hope the film challenges people.

Q. When does the film come out?
A. The 25th of June.

Q. It will be in theaters around New York?
A. In some theaters around the U.S. We are trying to build the theatrical distribution.

Q. And you really controlled the film; you never turned the footage over to a distributor and let them run with it?
A. No. In terms of the editorial control, we funded it ourselves. A lot of photographers are moving into video and, you know, making images is only part of the business now. It’s not just about image-making. It’s about how do we reach audiences with what we are doing. There is an overproduction of images.

Q. Right. I talked to Joao Silva in Baghdad and I said, “Do you think there are any great images to come out of Iraq, the way there were in Vietnam?” And he said: “The problem isn’t that we haven’t taken that classic image. The problem is that we have taken too many.”
A. We are making so many images, but we aren’t actually connecting these images. We aren’t exploiting what we have made. We aren’t mining it enough to make it into audiences’ minds. A strategy to hit people about this idea of Afghanistan across multiple forms – “Oh, I’ve read Sebastian’s book, “War”; I’ve read the Vanity Fair articles; then I saw the film and the film made me want to see Hetherington’s book” — is a multilayered thing. It is different than the images you see out there that are already lost.

Q. It is sort of a representation of what your experience was in Afghanistan.
A. Yeah. And to make that happen, you have to navigate through the business side of things. That isn’t easy. But if we see ourselves merely as photographers, we are failing our duty. It isn’t good enough anymore just to be a witness.

Q. What it was like to live on that mountaintop with those guys?
A. Being out there was a really unexpected and profound experience.

Q. How many guys were you with?
A. A platoon. So basically about 30 guys.

Q. And you were being shot at?
A. They were patrolling every day. It was continually having to push the enemy back. There were a lot of times there would be contact in the field. Occasionally, the enemy would launch a more direct attack on the camp and main base.

Q. Once, I had a very lucky time with a mortar. I got off a helicopter and put my flak jacket down. For some reason, I wasn’t wearing it. Suddenly, there was a mortar coming up to where you go to get water and stuff. By chance, no one was in there. And it was just shredded. And I was walking around without a vest. You know?
A. It was really basic conditions there. It was like the furthest outposts of the empire. It was on the side of the hill. South of where we were was bad-guy country. This place had no running water or electricity. When we first got there, we used to sleep out in the dirt. It was the edge of the empire. And that was a very interesting place to be.

Q. Tell me about juggling stills and video. How does that work?
A. I have no idea how I actually do it. Hopefully, in the future, we will have only one camera that just does everything. At the moment, I guess I decide that if the event is visually interesting enough, I will take a picture. If the event isn’t visually interesting enough on its own, then it’s probably significant for video, because it is contextualized with sound. So, usually, my default is video. I can be approaching something photographically, then know I’ve made the picture and pick up the video camera. It’s gotten pretty crazy; kind of like John Wayne. I used to attach the two cameras with carabiners to my jacket because then you can drop the camera and it won’t fall. So I would be hooked up and shooting. It’s pretty ridiculous.

Q. But it worked?
A. Yeah, it worked. But there was a lot of video of a camera swinging over my feet in the end of the tapes.

Q. You spent a year?
A. No, Sebastian and I spent about five months apiece, sometimes together, sometimes apart. In terms of coverage, it was about 10 months. The Army didn’t expect us to spend that long with a group of soldiers. When you go to places like Iraq and Afghanistan, if you go into combat with soldiers, you are usually there with them three months maximum. To spend five months with the same platoon is a pretty big amount of time.

Q. Do we need more of this kind of long form?
A. Yeah, we do. The problem isn’t that photographers don’t want to do it. It’s because the media outlets don’t seem to understand. The bean counters don’t understand. People who are being asked to judge quality photographs don’t understand. When you and I look at a photograph or watch a film, it’s all about time. It is the amount of time you spend. That is everything. That is what it’s about. Full stop. No short cut. Eugene Richards does not make amazing work because he is in and out. It’s because he lives it. That’s why the best work — we all know — speaks of time. But when you’ve got people making decisions about what is good and bad photography who haven’t spent the time in the street to know that call, they choose bad images. They don’t really know what they are doing. And they aren’t willing to put the money into it or to spend that time because they think that by filling the front page with a picture, their job is done — rather than asking if there is a better picture. We are all under financial pressure.

Q. Is the direction the business is going these days opposite what you’re talking about?
A. Absolutely and that’s the problem. That’s why when we talk about the vision of the film, we knew we had to carry it on our own. The only people who understood how to make that film was us. We had to make the film ourselves. We had to take control. Up until the point that the film was coming out, everybody else thought it was just not going to happen.

Q. Do you think that America wants to see the film? Is America ready to deal with this film? It’s a hard, hard film to look at.
A. We made a visceral war film; the kind of film that hasn’t been made before. Most of the people who spend a lot of time with soldiers are photographers. There are very few documentary filmmakers who do. We came to making this film after many years as war photographers. We understood what was required to make a good film.

Q. I remember at one point you were really broke and you put everything you had into this film.
A. Yeah. I was in a pretty bad way. I was in debt. It was a crazy thing to do during the recession.

Q. But going back to the question: do you think America wants this film? Or needs to see it?
A. Obviously, I am going to say yes. There are a lot of people out there interested in war. We all know that war sells.

Q. So the next question is: can a documentary film about war sell?
A. A lot of documentary films about war since the start of the “war on terrorism” in 2001 have had political standpoints. By stripping that out of our film, by not having a political standpoint, we ask people to be nonpartisan and experience what those soldiers experienced. As a platform to discuss war, I think that’s useful, because it doesn’t divide people. This country is already so divided about war, I think that’s a good strategy: to build a bridge to people, to get them to engage with the politics about Afghanistan, to see what we are dealing with.

Q. There are people killed in the film.
A. Most people are concerned about whether their wife needs to get the pills from her doctor, or whether they got the dog food, or did they do their health insurance. These are all important concerns. To weigh them down with some heavy guilt trip — “You should be interested in this because this is Afghanistan” — is not a constructive way to engage them. You have to think up more reasonable strategies. My strategy is, initially, to build a bridge to people rather than turn them off with really tough images that challenge them. By making a film about a group of soldiers you get to know — that you are intimate with, that you laugh with and end up crying with — is a way for you to engage with what is really going on. When they awkwardly come across a village where the villagers are all killed, you toss questions out like: How did the villagers die? Were the soldiers responsible? Is that what we are putting our young men through? I think Americans are ready to engage with Afghanistan. They just don’t want to wake up to it. They don’t know how to react to pictures like Abu Ghraib. “Wow. People are out there torturing in our name. This makes me feel bad. Stop reading the newspaper. End of story. I have to go pay for my wife’s health care.” As photographers, as image makers, we have to be realistic about who the people are we are trying to reach, rather than: “I’ve been to Kenya. The ethnic riots are really important. You must have a look at them.” “Well, I don’t have to look at them. I have to figure out how to get my kid to school on time.” I have to think about how I engage the right wing. If I go to them and say, “I’m a liberal and I hate war,” they are going to say, “I’ve got something better to do with my time.” I hope “Restrepo” is the kind of film that does that, that engages people from the left and the right. People have responded very positively to it. Those who have been stirred up are the people who think we should be doing overt political commentary. It makes them angry that we are not. The little bit of criticism we’ve had is from the right — about showing the dead body of an American solider or showing the U.S. military in nonprotocol situations — or the left, who think we should be outright condemning the war. The very fact they are riled up shows you that it is impacting them. They need, perhaps, to analyze why they feel how they do. How they can actually talk about the war in a way that isn’t so cemented? If we can engage each other in a nonpolitical and nonpartisan way, we may actually agree on how to move forward with the war.

Q. What about your personal view? How do you think the war is going?
A. Do I think the intervention in Afghanistan was justified? Yes, I do. I think that al Qaeda definitely was based out there and they went in and they killed 3,000 people here and it was necessary to go in and break up their network – unlike Iraq, which was based on a lie. So, yes. The war in Afghanistan was mishandled. We have seen that less troops have led to the situation now. We have yet to see what there is to see with more troops.

Q. Why didn’t you make the movie with the British?
A. I have never worked with the Brits. I have heard they are more restrictive than the Americans in terms of what you can file and so on. We weren’t really scrutinized by the U.S. press office. It was kind of incredible. We were given a lot of freedom. I was really surprised. Good things can come out of an embed system. In some ways, being an outsider is useful. Blue-collar American soldiers can’t place me. I was this tall British guy. And they were like, “This guy’s kind of weird, but he’s O.K.”

Q. Was it your first time with working-class American culture?
A. Yes, it was. And it’s super interesting.

Q. You get to Middle America and it’s like going to Iraq.
A. Yeah, and it’s probably easier to get around in Iraq than in Wyoming.

Q. What was your impression of America after?
A. If I am proud of the film, it is because it is an honest film. And it is an honest film because you can see that I also like the guys there. I don’t garnish over the awkward bits or bad bits. But I like them as people. The only people who really know about the war are the soldiers. So, of course, I end up respecting them. I had a hell of a lot of respect for them. They are young. They are out there on the American taxpayer dollar. And we ask a lot of them. Not only do we want them to fight, we want them to successfully engage hearts and minds. We are asking an 18-year-old guy from, say, Arkansas, who has never been out of his state before to not only go to Afghanistan, but also to learn Pashtu and Dari, and be empathetic with people who he thinks may be killing his friends. It is a lot for even the most aware person to deal with. We should maybe put some other training procedures into place, and be a little bit more supportive of what they are doing. I have a lot of respect for them, because I think we ask them to do too much.

Q. What do you feel is the future of traditional media? Where is this all going?
A. We who are working in the realm of photojournalism and documentary photojournalism have to focus on whom we want to talk to. We need to know who our audience is. That will help us figure out how to reach them, which language to reach them with. I don’t think enough image-makers do that. We are in flux. Certain contenders are emerging. The Times is still here. It’s been strengthened recently by its online version. It has a lot of viewership, and there are going to be photographers like yourself who have access to an important platform. It’s the equivalent of Life magazine. It is reaching millions of people and it’s an important outlet for what we do.

Q. You don’t think it’s over yet?
A. No, I don’t think it’s over yet. It is about reputation now, and reputation is not just about making stylistic pictures. It is about authenticity; about knowing what you are talking about; showing the ability to reach your audience. By working across the media, you can actually survive. The danger is to go to one area and stay.

Q. So you would encourage young people to do many different things?
A. Not necessarily many different things. I encourage them to look at many different forms. Not to say, “I am a photographer,” but to say: “I am an image maker. I make still or moving images in real-life situations, unfiltered and un-Photoshopped. I am going to look into how I can put this into different streams for different audiences; maybe some on the Web, some in print.”

Q. Earlier you said that traditional photography is dead. These traditional types of straight journalism – you made it sound as if they are becoming passé. But then look at the uproar over Julie Jacobson’s image from Afghanistan of the dying soldier. There are still images that really grab people.
A. But again, they are images. What I am thinking about is this idea that “Photography” is something that has this black border around it and is protected. You know? “I used to develop black-and-white pictures and that’s what photography is.” That kind of old-fashioned thinking is just for an art gallery now. Julie Jacobson shot in digital. What is important in that image is that it is a still picture. As we increasingly have technology that wants us to shoot moving pictures and contextualize with sound, we need to understand the difference. Why am I making a still picture? Why am I making a moving picture? The question you asked me about when I decide to shoot what — I need to be able answer that. Slicing stills out of the video stream means there will be even more images. Which means that the audiences’ expectations are going to change. It’s very difficult for me to know what that expectation will be in 10 years’ time because things are moving so quickly. Do I think people are going to pull 16 megabyte pictures out of video streams and try and print them? Absolutely, that is going to happen. What impact that is going to have on the media, I don’t know. That’s why I think the most important thing for our industry is not style, it is authenticity. It is: “I go to you because I know you have an authentic voice in the work that you have been doing.”

Q. Right. But the trend I am seeing is actually the opposite. What I am hearing is: “We don’t need the media anymore. We’ve got our own photographers because we have cellphone cameras.”
A. But you need to have professional witnesses, people who go out there and do this as a living. What you do – the way that you make an image, the way that you make a story – is different than partaking in that story, like citizen journalism.

Q. The trend seems to be towards citizen journalism.
A. Because it’s cheap.

Q. Even this newspaper is saying, “Send in your readers’ photos.”
A. Again, it’s about profit. It is not about good journalism. We all know that having professionalism in any field is important. We have a weird skill-set. Send us into a difficult circumstance and we will get out there and know how to find a story. That is what we do for a living. That is valuable. It is not part of the problem, it is part of the solution – in addition to citizen journalism, in addition to local photographers. The more, the merrier.

Q. We have a different role?
A. We have a different role.

Q. Are you going to continue to cover war?
A. I have no idea. I have no idea.

Q. Are you thinking about quitting?
A. I am just thinking about getting through “Restrepo.” There are different roles you have to do at different stages of life. Those will change. Maybe I’ll go back in. Or maybe I will be useful to the community in other ways.

Q. Why did you leave Britain? Why did you move to New York?
A. Because it rains all the time and you can’t get a cab and the girls are good looking here. Britain has 60 million people. America has 300 million people. It’s the math. If you are interested in mass communication, you are going to reach more people here. It is still the biggest player in the world. It is a very important audience. To get these people to understand what their military is doing is a natural place to be.

Ryan Pyle

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