Interview with Sebastian Junger
What sparked your interest in the subject of war?
I?d been covering Afghanistan since the mid-90?s, and was very much for American involvement in Afghanistan after 9/11. I thought it would bring a lot of good to Afghanistan, and I was appalled when we went into Iraq and left Afghanistan to languish. So I continued my work there, but I realized as the war got worse that instead of focusing on the Afghans, I should focus on the American soldiers, who I wanted to follow in combat. In terms of war photographers, Tim was at the top of my list. And so I brought him over in September of ?07. And it was a really fruitful story to make a movie about.
What made Tim?s work so special?
Neither Tim nor I were hard news reporters. From the start we were engaged in telling much more immersive, emotional stories. And so doing (the award-winning film) Restrepo, and my book "War," was kind of a natural fit. And Tim and I were a natural fit because that was what we were sort of after in this story - not a sort of political critique or geo-strategic critique. What we wanted to communicate with Restrepo, and all of our work there, was what the experience felt like, to be an American solder in combat in Afghanistan.
Tim had a wonderful way of approaching all of his stories. He really connected as a human being with absolutely everybody. He was endlessly curious about people and just made people feel good and they wanted to talk to him.
Many of Tim?s most striking images show the violence of war through non-violent imagery.
Well, he found combat tremendously compelling, and he went out of his way to experience it. But he also, in combat, realized that there?s more interesting things going on than just people firing guns. And one of those things was the emotional connection between the soldiers, or the fighters, and their sort of vulnerabilities as people once they took their gear off; he was really interested in the emotional context of combat.
Which has to do with, as you express in the film, the notion of how young men see themselves at war, and why?
Tim went back to Libya a second time because he was really interested in this thing he identified in a lot of young men who have never been in a war before, which is their need to know how to act, and how to dress the part. They?re looking for clues about how to present themselves in war, because it?s their first war. So what he found was that these young men in Libya and Liberia and Sierra Leone actively, consciously imitate other young men from other wars that they?ve seen in photographs, or that they?ve seen in Hollywood action movies. And there?s this cycle of repetition of young men imitating other young men in wars, and as they get photographed and documented, they then become the prototype for the next generation of young men in the next war. Tim was really interested in that sort of self-awareness of young fighters, and so he went to Libya to do a series of portraits of these guys, all dressed up in the way they thought they should be dressed up in order to look like soldiers, or look like fighters, and he became quite interested in that.
In the film you spoke about a certain shame you felt when capturing moments of trauma. Can you expand on that?
Well, the suffering of others is very painful to witness, and it?s morally complicated when you are documenting that suffering, and making a living off of it. And the people who are suffering are often absolutely in support of you documenting what?s happening to them. I mean, it?s not like that these people are victims of your lens. They very often want their story to be told. But still, at the end of the day, you?re making a living in situations that are costing enormous numbers of lives, and creating enormous human suffering, and that?s morally complicated in ways that Tim was very aware of. Tim was very much wrestling with that moral ambiguity, and it really weighed him down and caused him a fair amount of pain, I think.
What do you hope audiences take away from the film?
I think there?s a conceit in this country among conservatives that people join the army and fight purely out of patriotism. And among liberals there?s the conceit that war is a massive manipulation of young men and women, that they?re sort of dragged into it and forced to do it and don?t want any part of it. And neither is even remotely close to the truth. I wanted to raise that.
I was very affected by knowing Tim. He was an incredibly inspiring person. He was endlessly curious about the world. And he was very compassionate about the sort of quiet dignity of the human struggle; he was very attuned to that. He was also very brave, both on the battlefield, and, as an artist, he really pushed boundaries, and was not afraid of consequences. He was quite fearless. And while Tim is no longer around to inspire people and to be learned from, I thought if I made a good film about his work and his life, that maybe the film could be a kind of pale stand-in for Tim, and people could continue learning from him.