Tim Hetherington’s new book, Infidel, which I haven’t yet seen, is gathering lots of attention. It’s on the NYT lens blog, with 19 pictures, and to put it simply, I want it.
I’m fascinated by some of the comments it has gathered there:
I’ve looked through this book, its pretty anodyne.
“The great war photographs are usually taken during the 1 percent of the time when fighting is happening”…
or they are of the non-combatants.
Where are the photos of the people living at the bottom of the valley?
Hetherington’s work seems little more than a mindless, locker room portrait of some very dangerous boys playing lethal games. Their glorification serves no purpose journalistically or otherwise.
And best of all,
… duty and sacrifice become revenge and sadism out of boredom by young men who sign up for money so they can kill, and when not killing, their violence turns on each other.
How very unfortunate.
Good work, whether it’s writing or photography, should open us to new perspectives. Prior to the Vietnam War, war photography tended to focus on “our boys.” David Douglas Duncan’s sympathetic treatment of American soldiers in WWII and in Korea is perhaps the leading example.
But all that changed with a new generation of photographers, in Vietnam, led by the likes of Philip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin. Their view of the war was anything but sympathetic; the soldiers, rather than being “our boys,” were men caught up in a brutal and deadly conflict. The photographers’ sympathies now lay increasingly with the victims.
(It helped, perhaps, that Griffiths and McCullin were British; they had no horse in that race. And furthermore, British photojournalism seems to me, even today, to be far more progressive in its ethics than American photojournalism. But that’s a topic for another post.)
The photography of the Vietnam War created a template for war photography that continues to dominate today. We are to be concerned with victims and with the problems of everyday life, not with the dramatic moments of battle. And we are to see casualties.
Hetherington is coming under fire here because he discards that template. We do not see the other side. We do not see the civilians caught in the crossfire. Yet at the same time, he is not returning to the pre-Vietnam school, which was concerned with capturing the action of battle. Hetherington is bringing us everyday life, and when there is action, we see a soldier grinning at his mates in apparent unconcern; it hardly looks like action at all. This is very much a portrait of “our boys,” so Hetherington takes it on the chin.
But what does this portrait actually show us? This is not patriotic boosterism. It’s a portrait of a group of men trapped in a mountain firebase and isolated from the local population, bored out of their skulls most of the time. I particularly like the fifth frame at Lens, of the soldier playing golf, which alludes to Hunter S. Thompson’s early tale of a British expatriate in South America, hitting golf balls off his roof into the slums below.
We don’t see the enemy because they don’t see the enemy; we don’t see the civilian casualties of the airstrikes they call in because they don’t see those civilian casualties. This is a portrait of the experience of war for those men, a portrait that allows us to understand how limited their view is, just as it is a sympathetic portrait of the men themselves. This is far more complex than those simplistic criticisms allow, and it’s a pity that some people are not open to that understanding.