If urgent, please contact Johanna Ramos-Boyer at [email listed]
Kind regards, Tim
Thanks to the wonders of the internet, Tim Hetherington technically sent me this email the morning of April 21, although he had died the day before.
In late 1921, an ad entitled “One Look is Worth a Thousand Words” by Frederick Barnard was published in the magazine Printers’ Ink. “So said a famous Japanese philosopher,” Barnard wrote, though he made that up purely to add gravitas to his quotation. Marketing folks are liars and cheats. See also: Mad Men.
It wasn’t exactly a new sentiment, although Barnard was trying to push his industry in a new direction, but here it was phrased cleverly enough to catch on, and now we’re saddled with the cliché for the indefinite future.
But how many lives is a picture worth?
Hetherington, if you haven’t heard, was a photojournalist and filmmaker – co-director of Restrepo – and was killed in Libya by a rocket-propelled grenade. He was not the only one killed in said blast, or the only civilian killed in Misurata (what a fitting name), Libya that day. He is however the one receiving the most attention.
And while I highlighted a similar phenomenon in the coverage of the Tucson shooting, my eventual point was that it is only natural for us to be more affected by some deaths than others, and Hetherington’s threw me for an unexpected loop.
Maybe it’s because I remembered casually mentioning his film – giving it fifty-five words in a rambling opus about art, including it mostly as a kind of name-drop: yeah, I’ve seen that movie; yeah, I’ve digested and can spit out the most important bits – but then thought the morning after he died, about how that was a year of his life, a year of him living in danger so that I could lie on my bed and stream the thing on my ipad.
Maybe it’s because I read that he lived in Brooklyn, and I thought of so many of my friends who live the lives of artists/literati/thinkers in Brooklyn, and I thought of myself, moving there in a few months, and I thought of one of us being ripped out of the world, leaving behind a Brooklyn apartment of carefully collected intellectual knick-knacks, a book collection to impress with at parties, a couple of nice bottles of wine in reserve.
So I don’t know if it was my allergies or a mortar/grenade that had me nauseous that morning, but when your body tells you something that strongly, you listen for all possible messages.
Coverage of the story almost inevitably asks the question, “Is it worth it?” Is it worth having these journalists get kidnapped, beaten or killed so that we can all have our obligatory guilt and grief moments as we scan the internet headlines? Is a picture worth it?
The most haunting chapter of The Forever War, by Dexter Filkins, is to me the one titled “Pearland.” In it, Filkins tells the story of how he and photographer Ashley Gilbertson ended up getting a Marine killed in their pursuit of a picture.
“The life of the reporter: always someone else’s pain. A woman in an Iraqi hospital cradles her son newly blinded, and a single tear rolls down her cheek. The cheek is so dry and the tear moves so slowly that you focus on it for a while, the tear traveling across the wide desert plain. Your photographer needed a corpse for the newspaper, so you and a bunch of marines went out to get one. Then suddenly it’s there, the warm liquid on your face, the death you’ve always avoided, smiling back at you like it knew all along. Your fault.”
Part of that chapter originally appeared in the NYTimes Magazine, and the photograph that went with the story was what made me realize I had to buy this book, had to experience this. The picture, by Ashley Gilbertson, who does striking work, clinched it for me. The Marine turned away from everyone is the one who is later shot in pursuit of a good shot.
But there can be much more to the worth of pictures than letting me have my little emotional moment in the comfort of my home.
Apparently, reports Dan Murphy, one of the issues at hand in Libya is whether or not Qaddafi’s forces are targeting civilians. If they are, then NATO has a pretty good reason to be the heck involved. If they aren’t, argue some, that reason does not exist. Documentation of what’s going on in Misurata, then, is very important. It’s a mission worthy of military status. And Murphy says that journalists have indeed documented “intensifying fire on the civilian quarters of the city.”
Burden is often put on those of us who are still around to not let a person die in vain. We come up with simple or elaborate ways to attempt this. A local teenager where I live died in a car accident; his parents established a lacrosse tournament in his honor.
Do you remember the end of Saving Private Ryan? The 80-year-old playing Matt Damon asks his wife and family if he’s been a good man, if he’s lived up to Tom Hanks’ command to “earn” the sacrifice of all those other soldiers? And we’re all thinking, “well, shit, buddy, you probably didn’t, because a dead Tom Hanks is a whole lot to live up to,” right? At first I thought SPR was stupid because its premise was absurd. Now I think maybe the absurdity is the point.
In Christopher Shinn’s play Dying City, Kelly, a War on Terror widow, describes her theory about Law and Order, to which she is addicted. It’s about a fundamental human “fantasy,” she claims, that when we die, “an entire community” of skilled, sometimes attractive people will come together so that the mystery of our death is solved, “and therefore symbolically reversed.”
We watch Law and Order because it makes us feel we will be immortal. We like Saving Private Ryan because two absurdities (the war, the mission to save) make a right, and we feel like things matter again. It’s like Joan Didion says: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In order to believe life’s worth living.
So Hetherington’s death fills me with the desire to know more about Libya, to better understand. But we should be wary of the emotional “worth.” A Marine dies in the jungle in Vietnam and to his family it may be worth it to stay in that fight for as long as it takes, until those bastards surrender. Ultimately, as a society, we judged that this was not the case – judged wisely, most now think, and also too late.
Luckily, I found another option to earn the sacrifice of photographers and journalists and the ones who risk death – many of them quite happy to do so, I realize – in order to let me fill my life with images.
The same day I got nauseous about Libya, I read an article in Sierra Club magazine. A young guy, Ian Shive, worked in the movie biz but spent all his free time taking pictures of our national parks. He turned his hobby into his career and made a book of those photos. The book, with the help of a non-profit, was distributed to citizens of Afghanistan, in order to show them that there is more to American than steel skyscrapers. Pictures were taken of these men and women and children holding those photos.
“Shive plans to reverse the flow by traveling to Afghanistan, shooting its most scenic wild places, and making a book of those photos to show to Americans. He hopes that someday a photo of a shock-blue lake in Band-e-Amir…will end up in the hands of, say, a New York City cop. And maybe someone will shoot a portrait of that cop displaying the image of that lake, and Shive will arrange to share that photo with a woodworker in Kabul. See if it makes him wonder what the cop’s life is like.”
A few days later, we were performing a series of monologues in our new theater for V-Day, and I took pictures of all the performers holding pictures from my recent trip to India – I tried to match them all with a person or place that connected in some way to their life, or my relationship to them. My friend the fishmonger paired with the merchants of Goa. The elephant advancing on me in the street coupled with my friend and her overly affectionate dogs.
The value of these pictures, or of hearing the hard stories of V-Day, or of reading depressing things like blog entries about Tim Hetherington, is not in making us feel guilty and depressed, which we can handle on our own. I think just keeping these things in sight, and in mind, works a kind of magic on us, and makes us maybe just a little more compassionate, maybe just a little more empathetic, maybe just a little more patient, just a little more wise.
And that’s worth it, if we make it so.