Feeding a Bear
There's a belief tracing throughout the cartography of combat photography that the penultimate goal is to get as close to (understanding) the soldier as possible. This is totally valid – for the photographer as well as the viewer – and some of my favourite photos in this vein are the late Tim Hetherington's images from the Korengal Valley*. Nowhere is this desire most evident than in his "sleeping soldier' portraits. His recent death, occurring in Libya while I was in Suffield (the asymmetry of which was not lost on me), was a shocking event and I will say, without qualification, that he is/was my favourite (that's the wrong word) combat photographer.
Having stated that, I'd offer the documentary Marwencol as a project which takes this notion of knowing the unknown to a compelling but problematic end. In the film, the director, the photographer (who makes the initial discovery) and the gallery in NYC (White Columns) that eventually exhibit Mark Hogancamp's photos are clearly enamoured with the damaged genius that rises out of trauma. They all want to share his pain, struggle and brilliance with the world. Concurrently though, there's an underlying sense of pride in their part in this discovery. Like finding a pygmy tribe and touring them through Europe, there's a sort of "check this out!" sentiment that has an air of well-intentioned exploitation.
In the aftermath of Hetherington's death, his co-director Sebastian Junger received an email from a Vietnam vet. The vet was following up on a previous discussion where he'd told Junger (something along the lines of), "you guys came real close to understanding what it's like to be a soldier." In this coda, the vet told Junger that, the only way they could ever fully know what it's like to be a soldier is to lose a buddy in war. Hetherington was chosen and Junger gained the knowledge... but it was impossible for them to both learn this truth.
Watching Restrapo, but more so, reading through Infidel, there's a strong sense that Hetherington was looking for something. Maybe he was attempting to know "the other", maybe he was trying to find a version of himself in their faces, or maybe trying to see what the difference actually was between himself and the paratroopers. This is not a cautionary tale, though it might be a diversion: Did this draw to the eye of the storm give him something necessary for himself, something that he was unable to break away from?
As is often the case, I have meandered off topic (but from what I understand, this is the point of a blog). What is the necessity to "know"? The attempt almost always has an indelible effect. Sometimes it costs you your life, sometimes your marriage. Sometimes you develop the belief that you've become incapable of producing any other type of art. This is as much hyperbole as it is cold truth.
Here we are – at the point: As important as it can be/is to help the world to understand the grunts, the distance that exists is necessary and is, in fact, sought out by them. Without such distance the intensity of the fraternal bond is diminished – at least until the rounds start cracking... and at that moment it might be too late.
*Hetherington is best known for being the co-director of Restrapo (with Junger) but in 2010 his photo book, Infidel, was published. They are a pair that, at first, didn't really grab me (more than I thought they would) be each time I come back to them I learn and relearn something
Posted by Scott Waters at 06:06