Call it a noble effort that TIME Lightbox would do a 12th anniversary photo-feature on the Afghanistan war when, for most people, the existence of the campaign has been largely erased. And while talking ironies, it’s worth dedicating a few words about the 25th photo out of the 45 – this image taken in June 2008 by Tim Hetherington. Like kids mindlessly handling powerful fireworks on the 4th of July, it never ceases to amaze me how often loaded images are placed in front of the public while defying explanation.
Tim’s close friend and colleague, Michael Kamber, was asked to reflect on the photo, one that has been published several times over the years. In the face of an extraordinarily provocative image, Kamber gives us the surface level interpretation of what Hetherington was going for.
Tim was interested in how war changed and molded, traumatized and hardened the soldiers. He was digging deeper—deeper than most of us, anyway. What is the motivation that pushes 20-year-old kids from middle America to go on fighting and dying half way around the world?It was not for their country, nor to avenge 9/11, nor to free the Afghan people, he said, (though all of those things may have been true), but for one simple reason: the bonds the soldiers formed with one another.
While many other photojournalists were focused on the guns firing, (the mechanics of war), Tim took pictures of the soldiers asleep in their bunks, (“as their mothers saw them”), playing, teasing, wrestling with one another.
If Mike’s quote is technically true to Tim’s intent, it does not account for the homo-eroticism of Bobby’s kiss or the aggressive grip on Cortez’s hand at the edge of the frame or the exhibitionist intensity of the eye drawing Tim himself into the play. What was brilliant about Tim’s sensual photos of sleeping soldiers, and especially, the seductiveness of the boys together, however, was not the implication they were fucking each other. Instead, Tim’s goal was to fuck with us.
As much as Mike, and so many other people who venerate Tim want to normalize the tension in his work, I know Tim would be disappointed about that. Just like he’d object to the characterization here that this photo, or the sleeping soldiers, were so innocent — or just “as their mothers saw them.”
Instead, Tim was fascinated by the simultaneous perversity and cultural sanitization of war. Further, he was deeply mindful of what he perceived as an inextricable and instinctual relationship between war and sex. Because he didn’t think society could differentiate between sensuality, sexuality and aggressive masculinity, his photography exploited that intersection.
This is from a short treatise written by Hetherington and Stephen Mayes, titled “The Theatre of War,or ‘La Petite Mort’” published by David Campbell:
We want our men lusty, lusting and lusted. For some viewers images of aggression are about desire and for others it’s a vicarious expression of suppressed intent and for nearly all it’s about raw emotional fascination with the life forces of sex and death.
It’s easy to see how such fetishes develop. “Defining your masculinity is part of the process [of war]. You go to the front to prove yourself and you’ll be rewarded; defining your masculinity is part of the process.” “And the same is true of photographers,” Hetherington adds, including himself as part of the process and very much more than an invisible observer.
“Young men are instrumentalised by the state using their energy and aggression and that’s why they end up the vanguard of the fighting force. Young men have that energy that can be channeled and that energy is about defining themselves as men. And they’re willing to risk a lot to define themselves as men. And how does society deal with representations of that?”
Hetherington’s answer is to subvert by seduction.
So if you haven’t seen these photos before — 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7 — or even if you have, please don’t squash your discomfort or filter out the desire. Tim meant them to be a little salty.
(photo: Tim Hetherington/Magnum caption: AFGHANISTAN. Korengal Valley, Kunar Province. June 2008. Bobby kisses Cortez during a play-fight at the barracks of 2nd Platoon at the Korengal Outpost.)