HBO is running a new documentary entitled “Which Way Is the Front Line From Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington.” Hetherington was a photojournalist who spent almost his entire adult life photographing war and conflict. He died in Libya in 2011. NPR has an excellent summary of the documentary as well as many of Hetherington’s pictures . That’s one of his photos to the left.
The film is well worth your time. Much of it focuses on a documentary by Hetherington and writer/producer Sebastian Junge called “Restrepo.” It was nominated for an Academy Award. The team embedded themselves for almost a year with a U.S. Army unit on the remote frontline in Afganistan, creating an intimacy that few war correspondents have been able to equal. An example of that intimacy can be seen in some surprisingly powerful pictures of soldiers engaged in the act of sleep. These simple pictures of soldiers in deep slumber are as good as it gets in photography.
At one point in the HBO documentary Junge talks about the future that Hetherington never had. Junge states that Hetherington was looking for a new project at the time of his death and that the photographer was absorbed with “the self referential idea about war in which soldiers in war see themselves in ways that are informed by the images of other soldiers in war and there is a conscious cycle of imitation going on.”
Perhaps it was because I saw this documentary in the same week as the Boston Marathon Bombing that I have focused so intently on those words and have found myself thinking about war and terror as fashion. Even though there was much about the Boston event that was unique it seemed, at least to me, that it was just the latest in a long line of “self referential” events that are “informed by the images of other[s]” and that there is a “conscious cycle of imitation going on.” It is an almost perfect description of fashion.
The relentlessly looping pictures of the Tsarnaev brothers only served to underscore this thought. There’s Tamerlan, the older brother, business like in his dark glasses, dark jacket, black cap pulled low and, of course, the black backpack. He is not unlike the photos we saw of the 9/11 terrorists calmly making their way through “security” on their way to transform airliners into modern day kamikaze planes. And then there is Dzhokhar, suspect #2, so young and cocky in his swagger with the backwards baseball cap and backpack full of pain and death slung cavalierly across one shoulder. We have all seen hundreds of Dzhokars on the streets in our hometown or on the nightly news with its video from Beirut, Damascus, or Bangkok. The Tsarnaev brothers were perfectly normal, nothing “out of the ordinary” young men. You could “photoshop” either one of them off of Bolyston Street and place them on almost any street in the world and our reaction would be the same — these two would blend in almost anywhere.
Similarly Hetherington’s pictures seem to capture the “average” young warrior (men and women) who are startlingly familiar. Too bad he didn’t have a chance to act on that idea for a new project.
Thankfully we still have the presence of Sebastian Junge who produced a heart rendering, thought provoking tribute to his friend in the HBO documentary. The film is filled with quotes and ideas that kept rumbling through my head in the past few days, so much so that it sent me back to HBO On Demand so I could re-watch certain sections of the documentary again.
At one point there is an interview with another frontline journalist, James Brabazon, who talks about his grandfather’s experiences serving in India during World War II. “War,” the old man told Brabazon, “is the only opportunity that men have in society to love each other unconditionally.” That statement seems so sorrowful and yet, for so many, it is true. Surely it was unconditional love that we saw in the face of Dzhokar following his brother into the history books as they prepared to manufacture hell on Bolyston Street and utterly alter the lives of so many innocent people. But it doesn’t have to be that way. There was also unconditional love in the bright, wide-eyed smile of an 8-year old holding a simple message, “No more hurting people.” For those who wish for a sign — whether it be from Allah or Jesus Christ — they need look no further. ☙