The OPC discussion was packed on November 17 with people curious about Tim Hetherington‘s and Sebastian Junger‘s year long tour with a platoon in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan. What the audience experienced was not only a peek into the lives and times of soldiers, but also how Hetherington and Junger are reshaping journalism, one camera click, article, website and book at a time. (Videos from the event.)
“What we learned from ‘Restrepo’ is that two independent journalists can work completely outside the network structure and get 150,000 viewers and access to the dialog about the war,” Hetherington said.
“Restrepo” is the full-length documentary Hethering and Junger shot together during their year with the platoon. It won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance Film Festival in 2010. The day before the OPC Book Night, staff sergeant Sal Giunta of the 173rd Airborne became the first living Medal of Honor recipient since the Vietnam War. Hetherington and Junger put together footage of Giunta and a 14-minute interview and took it to the broadcast networks who offered to take the footage but wanted to install their anchors for the interview so that it would conform to “network style.” Frustrated, the two filmmakers took the video where they already have a reliable audience: the “Restrepo” movie website and the movie’s Facebook page where viewers and fans have continued a dialog with the filmmakers and with the soldiers from the featued company.
“Photojournalism is at present a melancholy way of conforming to images we already know, it confirms our beliefs and understanding of the world,” Hetherington said. “We want to bring something new to the table.”
The images that Hetherington captured do show a side of war that is unfamiliar to most civilians: soldiers are laughing, waiting and in some of the most vulnerable images from the book, sleeping. This departure from the stock war images and phrases — war is hell! — is what is unnerving to those who oppose the war and also exciting because of the palpable sense that the viewer has in seeing something that is so distinctly new. Hetherington’s images and their work on the documentary challenge the viewer’s ideas about war and masculinity. What the public thought about war is upended and what emerges are a group of young men who are dedicated to their mission and to each other.
Their approach to covering war is to capture all facets of the fight. Junger said that even during intense battle, there are times when things are funny. “We want war to be one thing,” Junger said. “But it’s so many different things.”
Junger relayed a story where Specialist Kyle Steiner was shot in the helmet. The platoon was in a firefight, he was hit and fell over backward with his face bleeding. “Someone cried out for a medic,” Junger said. “It was absolute chaos. Word went out that Steiner’s dead. He was a very popular guy. The medics were sprinting to get to him. Meanwhile, Steiner’s not dead. He can’t see anything, but all he can hear is gunfire and ‘Steiner’s dead.’ He didn’t know what to do with it and bolted upright. Then he heard ‘Steiner’s alive!’ in the middle of the fire fight and they all laughed. He was on a high for a few days after that episode.”
Junger said he experienced a similar high when he was in a Humvee that was attacked. He was “crazy high” the rest of the day and then went into a black hole.
“War can be funny, inspiring, upsetting and sad,” Junger said. “Sad is subtle among all those other more robust emotions. Sadness gets trumped, but when it finally arrived. After twenty years of war reporting, I almost got killed by a guy who doesn’t know me and here we are out killing each other. That sadness ended the next time we got shot at.”
On the record, Hetherington is the photographer and Junger is the writer, but in the Korengal, they both swapped mediums and traded when they needed to. “All of these barriers and distinctions are breaking up,” Hethering said. “But that’s the clue to our survival as journalists.”