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encounter

Sebastian Junger on His New Tim Hetherington Documentary

Sebastian Junger’s eyes are rimmed in red. He’s not crying, but he seems perpetually on the verge—tears amassing as glistening evidence that this journalist, who made his name chasing danger from the treacherous deep sea to the brutal fields of war, has hit a breaking point. Tonight, he’s come to HBO’s midtown screening room to present Which Way Is the Frontline From Here? The Life and Times of Tim Hetherington, a documentary tribute he made to the photographer, a close friend and colleague, with whom Junger spent a year getting shot at while filming Restrepo, their Oscar-nominated documentary about a single platoon in Afghanistan’s remote Korengal Valley. A friend who two years ago was in the Libyan city of Misrata when he was struck by shrapnel from a mortar attack that also killed fellow Brooklyn photojournalist Chris Hondros. A friend who bled to death in the back of a pickup truck.

Ever since Junger stood up to introduce the film, those tears have held their precarious perch in his craggy, stubbled, 51-year-old face—through 79 minutes of a handsome, smiling Tim taking portraits of blind children in Sierra Leone and footage of his last car ride before the attack; through Junger walking Hetherington’s mother to the podium for her own teary speech; and through a 25-minute Q&A with a roomful of people who, for the most part, didn’t know Tim but still want answers.

One woman wants to know why her grandfather, a vet, read every book he could on World War II but could never speak about it with his family. “The problem about talking about war, particularly if you’re a soldier,” says Junger, “is that if you talk about it for any length of time, pretty soon you’re not just talking about war. You’re talking about people you love who got killed. Killed in front of you in a horrible way.” He goes on, “I think the resistance that old men have to talking about war is kind of simple. They just don’t want to start crying all over again.”

“When Tim got killed” has become Junger’s line in the sand; it’s the day he decided he was done with combat reporting for good. Junger was supposed to be with Hetherington in Libya but had to stay home. At first he couldn’t shake the idea that if he’d been there, he might have been able to stop the bleeding. Now he knows he probably would have had to watch his friend die. He’d never been taught how to fashion a camera-strap tourniquet, nor had Tim, nor have hardly any of the freelancers who make up the majority of the frontline reporting corps. Last year, Junger started a foundation called RISC (Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues) to provide free medical training for experienced freelance combat journalists. “It’s a way to minimize the number of Tims in the world,” he says.

Like RISC, the film has been a part of Junger’s grieving process, a way to spend more time with Tim. “I learned so much more about my good friend,” he says. “It really felt like continuing our friendship.”

One senses his anger at Hetherington, now forever 40 years old, for not knowing enough was enough, but as angry as he is, Junger says, he understands the allure. “That kind of front line has a tremendous gravitational pull.” Easily seduced, Junger knows his only option is to not set foot in any country at war. “It’s like the alcoholic who’s like, ‘I’ll just have one drink.’ ”

A life without combat reporting doesn’t mean a life without risk. Junger recently climbed a tree with a chain saw to do some tricky pruning for a friend. And he’s currently working on another documentary for HBO he can’t talk about much except to say it involves “covering hundreds of miles on foot with some other people. And it’s a little bit illegal. But it’s a profound experience.” But there’s a difference between a calculated risk like those, where your own sloppiness or stupidity is the variable, and something as random as war.

What he’s realized since Hetherington’s death is how important it is for him—and any war reporter—to understand his own motivations, to separate journalistic duty from bravado. “It’s quite dangerous to camouflage your desire to have an experience—an admittedly intense, intoxicating experience—with something more noble like, ‘The world needs to see what’s happening here.’ That’s true. And on Monday you got all the photos you needed to show what’s happening there. And now it’s Tuesday; what are you doing back there?” he says. “Guys shooting guns kind of look the same everywhere.”     

*This article originally appeared in the April 22, 2013 issue of New York Magazine.

Photos: Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/ New York Magazine; Christopher Anderson/Magnum Photos/ New York Magazine