What Drives Journalists To Put Themselves In Danger To Document Disasters?

Sebastian Junger’s HBO documentary Which Way Is The Frontline From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington examines the life, death, and legacy of the renowned photojournalist.

Certain images leave indelible marks on everyone involved–the subject, the viewer, and the photographer. In the case of truly great work, all those parties converge, collapsing the distances between nations and peoples, allowing for real (if only momentary) connections to take place. This was the case with the work of Tim Hetherington, the intrepid photojournalist who died while covering Gaddafi’s siege of Misrata, Libya, in 2011.


The writer, journalist, and director Sebastian Junger famously spent a year alongside Hetherington in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley, embedded with a U.S. Army Platoon for the award-winning film Restrepo. Together, Hetherington and Junger told a heretofore unheard story that shed light on what life was really like for America’s young men at war. April 18 at 8:00 p.m. on HBO, Junger tells the intimate story of his friend and colleague.

“The reality of war isn’t that you might get killed out there,” Junger narrates during one of the documentary’s pivotal moments. “The core reality of war is that you’re guaranteed to lose your brothers.” Here, he shares what went into the making of Which Way Is The Frontline From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington, what drives conflict journalists to endanger their lives, and why certain stories are so painful to tell.

Co.Exist: This film is a tribute to the friend you lost. Was making it also an opportunity to engage with his work in a new way?

Junger: It was extremely powerful. When we were working on Restrepo, I just didn’t have the time to explore his work [deeply], and likewise he never read all my books–we were both busy guys. In a funny way, this process gave me a much deeper understanding of my friend than being friends with him had. I got to see years of his photography. And, you know, I got another level of understanding of what a great photographer he was.

In the film, there’s a point where Tim says he doesn’t even particularly care about photography, but that he cares about engaging with people. Do you see evidence of that in his work?

I really feel like he saw his photos not as the point of all these interactions, but as a tool that allowed him to have these interactions. And if he came across a different tool, like videography or even using crayons, he would have done that. He didn’t have an allegiance to the camera. What you see in his work isn’t just a great photographer, but someone using photography in addition to audio to create a video installation like Diary, where you see him thinking really broadly about the human experience rather than about the art and craft of taking photos.


What do you think motivated him to spend time in conflict zones?

What drove him is really the answer of what drives all of us journalists. On the noble end of the spectrum, there is a really sincere impulse to document the troubles of the world so that they can be appreciated and maybe dealt with productively by others who have the means. But then, more personally, combat is incredibly compelling and exciting and dramatic. And addiction to adrenaline is a little bit of an overstatement, I don’t think it’s an addiction, but it’s certainly an experience. And once you’ve had it, like surfers riding big waves, you kind of want to have again. And then finally, Tim was an ambitious man, as I am and as most journalists are. Wars are a place where you can do good work and be recognized professionally for it. So it’s all those things together. They’re not mutually exclusive. They go together quite seamlessly.

In Restrepo, one of the themes is the brotherly bond among soldiers in conflict zones. Are there similar bonds among journalists in conflict zones?

There’s definitely a fraternity, but it’s looser among journalists because they are also rivals of each other–friendly rivals, usually, and they help each other an enormous amount. But they’re not engaged in mutual self defense the way soldiers are. And they don’t live a single unit for months or years at a time. So there is a loose fraternity among journalists, but it pales in comparison to the fraternal connections among men in a platoon.

In the film you mention that as a journalist on the frontline, you carry with you the knowledge that you’re part of a machine that’s fostering some of the very conditions you’re covering. Did you have to wrestle with that cognitive dissonance on this project about Tim’s life?

It’s this weird split. People get excited about doing good work. And I felt like we were doing good work, so I would get excited. And then once in a while I sort of remember that this is about a tragedy. Why am I excited about something that ultimately comes out of a tragedy? You don’t quite know how to feel about it. Like with Restrepo, there’s this very powerful scene that Tim shot where Staff Sergeant Larry Rougle was killed in the middle of combat. It’s a great scene, in fact, but it’s a great scene that exists because of something absolutely horrible that happened to somebody. … But it still can make me feel quite guilty and I know, I know, it made Tim feel quite guilty.


And so you’re constantly sort of negotiating the excitement of doing good work on the one hand, and this understanding that all of it is rooted in tragedy on the other hand. Eventually, that understanding starts to well up in your unconscious and break through in your conscious mind, and you really feel quite bad about how you make your living–even though the way you make your living (journalism) is absolutely essential to the social welfare of the world. Journalism has to happen and people who are dying need to be documented.