Tim Hetherington, one of the world’s leading photojournalists, was killed yesterday by a mortar bomb while reporting in Libya. His film Restrepo, which was nominated for an Academy Award, was the result of a 15-month period embedded with a platoon in Afghanistan. Last summer, he told Tom Seymour how he coped with the strains of reporting in a war zone…
How do you cope with coming home from a conflict?
It’s a process. I’ve been doing this sometime now so you get used to it. You work out mechanisms in which to do that. I’m surrounded by good friends and you find your support mechanisms in which to achieve that.
I can’t say I’ve got it perfectly, of course. I remember coming out of Afghanistan in 2008 and I was pretty depressed for about three months or so, because you are being drip-fed adrenalin every day and then suddenly someone switches off the valve, and chemically you’ve done strange things to your body, and I don’t think that’s something we’ve quite worked out yet in terms of the military, how to deal with that adjustment.
I went through very little compared to the soldiers. We don’t know what the effect these wars will have on a huge generation of young men. I know that the American military is struggling with the highest suicide rate that it’s ever had, and I think if that’s to come then we have to find a way to deal with that. Everyone is obviously concerned with the after-effects of these experiences.
Beyond giving the soldiers a voice, what ambitions did you have for Restrepo?
The broadest ambition of the film was to make the most visceral and experential film we could. We wanted to make the most immersive film possible; we wanted to take the viewer on a kind of 90-minute deployment.
We wanted a number of things to happen. We wanted to represent the soldiers’ experience but we wanted to reach the public, we wanted to help them to see, digest and understand what soldiers go through, as a starting point to a further discussion about the war. So it was very gratifying to make a film that the soldiers agreed was very true to their experience.
There’s always the challenge of getting close to people. That’s probably your biggest challenge. And by a certain point of time into making the film we were very much part of the unit. Apart from carrying a gun, we did the same as anyone else.
I wanted to become emotionally embedded in the subject. I hope that’s what any good filmmaker would want.
How long did it take for the soldiers to open up to you?
It took a number of attempts to gain their trust. Obviously, there’s a very prickly relationship between the press and the military. And it’s good for democracy that there is this prickly relationship, and it’s good that the press interrogates the military.
So when we turned up in the convoy, the soldiers were very suspicious of us. It was “No Sir”, “Yes Sir” and not much more. It took a number of trips for that to start to break down.
I got on really well with them. I liked them, and I think they felt that, and I think that hastened their opening up to me. It was a relationship, and we went through certain things down there.
There was one part near the end of October during Operation Rock Avalanche that I broke my leg and walked down a mountain, so I walked on a broken leg for three hours or so.
I was later operated on in Bagram and then I came back. And I don’t think they were expecting me to come back. I think they saw that we were willing to pull our weight. After that they'd felt I'd proved myself, and they let me in.
See Tim Hetherington’s work at his website.