Image of Respite Wins Photo of the Year

We talk to photographer Tim Hetherington, whose image of an exhausted U.S. soldier in Afghanistan just won the World Press Photo of the Year for 2007.

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RACHEL MARTIN, host:

So when freelance photographer Tim Hetherington took a gig for Vanity Fair, signing on as an embed with the 2nd Battalion airborne in Afghanistan, he had no idea that he'd be hold up on the side of a mountain for weeks, facing daily attacks by insurgents. He also had no idea that one of the photographs from that experience would win him the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year. One of the most prestigious awards in photo journalism. It's a striking image of an exhausted American soldier and it was part of a photo essay that also won a prize in that contest.

I spoke yesterday with Tim Hetherington about his time in Afghanistan. We'll post the prize winning photograph on our blog but let's start out with Tim describing the photo in his own words.

Mr. TIM HETHERINGTON (Photographer; Winner, 2007 World Press Photo of the Year): Well, the image itself, if you didn't know anything about where it's taken is of a soldier sitting down, almost sitting kind of slightly back with his hand on his head. And it's a fairly dark and kind of blurry image. It think many people have been surprised by that - used to more traditional forms of photography. It was taken at dusk so that accounts for why it's dark and around - you can't see that much around him. It's actually taken in an outpost, in a kind of bunker area so I suppose it's like the mud walls and the rock walls of what's around him.

MARTIN: When you look at it, what feeling does that image evoke do you think? What emotion?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Well, I mean, for me, I think - well, luckily, in some ways, the feeling that I have from it is the one that a lot of people - it does affect a lot people - which is one of exhaustion. You know, it's definitely the soldier seems - the image of the soldier - he seems exhausted. And I wonder, when I took it, because I was exhausted when I took it, it's an interesting picture for me because it - sometimes pictures reflect also how you feel, or often they do do that, as the photographer feels. And I certainly felt that way.

MARTIN: You took this when you were embedded with U.S. troops in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan's Kunar province. And this has been an area - it's been a strong hold of the Taliban and insurgent activity for a long time. What did you expect out of this experience? What did you expect to get out of it?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: I thought that we were going to be in Afghanistan and I imagined that we'd be walking around kind of in the valleys there and meeting village elders and kind of sitting down for meetings and cups of tea and occasionally being shot at. And I didn't expect to have the kind of intense combat experience that actually happened there. The intensity of the fighting, fighting basically or being attacked or attacking every day.

MARTIN: You were shot at every day?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Yeah. I think - I mean there were exchanges of fire basically everyday, yeah.

MARTIN: Describe what happened on the day that you took this picture. What were the circumstances?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: There was a lot of - it's difficult because, you know, the idea of the fog of war in certain ways also affected me as a photographer. You know, basically we'd wake early in the morning with the first light. You have to get out, actually, before first light because it often means the insurgents may attack at first light. I was getting up at four. Obviously the men are on duty during the night, on and off. So maybe 4:30 you wake up. You get ready and then you wait to be attacked. I remember on that day we were attacked maybe - I can't remember if it's once or twice, but certainly we're attacked.

MARTIN: Were you ever in any physical harm? At risk?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: On that particular day?

MARTIN: Mm-hmm.

Mr. HETHERINGTON: On that particular day - on or around those days, yeah, of course. Yeah. I mean we - as a photographer, as a filmmaker - we were also filming for ABC News - we live with the troops as closely as we can. You know, in fact, I did actually return on a combat operation in October, a month later, and broke my leg - was working with them. So, you are also putting yourself in the center position which I think is the only way to kind of do this sort of work. I there is a certain requirement to do that. To be close to them, to really - I mean they use to say to me, you know, they said, listen, just - they said just let people at home know what this is really like. What we're going through. That was their only - the only thing that they really asked me to do. And they never controlled what I could or couldn't photograph. They just asked me that. And therefore I had a responsibility to live as closely as possible to them and what happened to them.

MARTIN: Do you focus best if you just keep filming, if you just keep taking picture? I mean I have to imagine that in all of that chaos, there would be a moment when you might think should I still be taking pictures or should I put it down and think about my personal security? But perhaps not. Perhaps that's how you keep focused is just to keep going?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: No, I think you're absolutely right. I think that keeping focus is an absolute requirement of trying to - I mean, if you stop being focused, I wouldn't know with myself. I'd get - I mean, the fear would paralyze me, I think. And it's very interesting when you watch the soldiers as well how they operate in this situation. They're use to, in combat, really getting on with their jobs and being extremely focused. I mean focused to a point that sometimes you, you know, you think that the level of danger for them or the risks are almost like a - quite an abstract idea. You know, that the actual bullets become abstract. Because they're so used to - as a team they have to operate. It's not a - I mean when they return fire, they have to stand up and put themselves in harms way and doing that to cover another man and the other man is going to cover another man. So it requires that they all get up and do their bit. And they have to be very focused about doing that.

And so in the same way as like I am, I suppose, in being a photographer, I have a job to do and that focus is very important for me to getting on and doing a job.

MARTIN: Why do this particular photo win?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: I think the photo won because - well, it's hard to know exactly why. The picture gets chosen because it's when the picture meets the kind of the consensus of the jury, and the jury is composed of an international panel including those Mary Anne Golon who is the picture editor at Time magazine, Gary Knight who is the founder of VII(ph), it's a collective of war photographers. And Gary said - he was the chair of the jury - and he said that something like, I think his words were about the picture shows the kind of exhaustion of one member but also the exhaustion of a nation. And it was a suggestion that we - that in the West, we really have been mired in wars now going on much longer than the second World War has, you know, and - both in Iraq and Afghanistan. Now, I'm talking as a - I'm a British citizen. And, you know, we have soldiers in Afghanistan, too, involved in very heavy fighting down in Helman province. And sometime the feeling is how long are these conflicts going to go on for?

You know we all recognize that since September the 11th that the world has fundamentally changed. And we have found ourselves embroiled in conflicts and in a way of living that we would prefer maybe not to be in. I mean we accept we're in that situation now but the reality is, is that the world has changed. And I think we're all - you know, Gary was suggesting, I think, that we are tired and exhausted of being in those situations, of being in embroiled in war.

MARTIN: And finally, you shared with me that you were not revealing the identity of the young man who is in the photo. But have you sent me a copy of it?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Well, they don't have - up in (unintelligible), sort of an internet connection there. In fact, they don't have any running water or electricity.

MARTIN: So he's still out there?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: He's still out there. But I have been in contact with the commanding officers and I did tell them to tell him that an image of him was out there and that I've asked them to ask him whether he wants his name to be reveled. I though that was only appropriate to ask him, first of all, if he wanted me to give his name, I'm still waiting to hear back.

MARTIN: And he will get a picture sometime, right?

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Oh, no, for sure. They've asked. Actually the commander up there, the guys up there have already asked for a - they want a poster size one to put on the wall of the tactical operations center.

MARTIN: Well, Tim Hetherington, winner of the 2007 World Press Photo of the Year, thanks so much for talking with us.

Mr. HETHERINGTON: Thank you very much.

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