Social Media

photo-eye Book Reviews: Infidel

Infidel, Photographs by Tim Hetherington. 
Published by Chris Boot, 2010.

Reviewed by Ellen Rennard
Tim Hetherington - Infidel
Photographs by Tim Hetherington. Introduction by Sebastian Junger.
Chris Boot, 2010. Softcover. 240 pp., 200 color illustrations 6x8".

Infidel, with photographs by Tim Hetherington and introductory text by Sebastian Junger, is as nearly perfect as I can imagine a book to be. Let me provide a bit of context for the way I see it. First, I came of age during the Vietnam War and was profoundly influenced by the powerful, iconic photographs of that conflict. However, my general impression of post-Vietnam photographs of Americans in combat has been that there is always something hidden or unseen; I always feel removed from the situation, peering out a tank window either literally or figuratively. I keep looking for the real thing, images that resonate as powerfully as, for example, Eddie Adams' photograph of the execution of a prisoner of war, and while I've seen some good work, I have not found what I was searching for. Until Infidel.

Infidel, by Tim Hetherington. Published by Chris Boot, 2010.
 The intimacy of Hetherington's portraits of a single US platoon stationed in the Korengal Valley, a dangerous and remote outpost in Afghanistan, cannot help but elicit an emotional response from the viewer, but beyond that, these photographs are just so damn well made, so heartfelt, so intelligent. The book looks like a journal, bound in black, a soft cover that sits in the hands like the personal story that it is. No surprise that Hetherington and Junger were there for five months - this is no fly by night project. One of the things that struck me is the maleness of what is here: it is, writes Junger, a brotherhood that is the true topic of this book. Women are entirely absent except in pictures of pin-up girls that Hetherington has shown just as they appeared: next to fly-strips and a lot of ammunition. I remember as a younger woman wondering what, exactly, went on in men's locker rooms, what they said to one another, how they behaved, and in a strange (and altogether military) way, this book supplies at least a partial answer.

Infidel, by Tim Hetherington. Published by Chris Boot, 2010
The book begins with the landscape, and then zeroes in on the men themselves quite quickly. Following Junger's hard-hitting introduction, one that works perfectly with what follows, are two pages of thumbnail portraits - like those that might appear in a high school yearbook - with the names of each man, followed by one rather amusing group shot (one soldier is yawning), and then a series of stunning portraits of individual men, both in and out of uniform. The next part, graphic illustrations of the men's tattoos, was the least interesting to me; I felt I better understood the idea of this sequence from the title of the book, the text about tattoos, and the photographs of the men's tattooed arms, chests, etc., and so found this section to take away (just a very little) from what was otherwise incredibly compelling. Since these graphics occupy just 16 pages, and since they were at least mildly interesting, it was easy to flip through them. Perhaps if I had taken more time connecting them to the portraits (since each tattoo is associated with a name), I would have liked this part better, but I didn't have the patience for that in light of the amazing photographs and text that surround them.

Infidel, by Tim Hetherington. Published by Chris Boot, 2010.

Next are details, some raw and some raunchy -- men playing cards, passing the time -- followed by photographs of combat. To me, fascinating. That way of seeing behind the walls, of feeling the experiences of these men. The surreal juxtaposition of a shadowy figure holding a weapon next to a man in uniform petting a dog - these are the contradictory elements Hetherington aimed to show. As he writes, "War is absurd yet fundamental, despicable yet beguiling, unfair yet with its own strange logic." I cannot think of another book that gets at the complexity of war as well as this one.

Infidel, by Tim Hetherington. Published by Chris Boot, 2010.
The book ends with text by some of the men, writing that illuminates exactly what is going on here, followed by incredibly tender photographs of the sleeping soldiers. Their vulnerability could not be any more visible. Finally, there are captions accompanying thumbnails of some of the previous images that take you even more deeply into some of the very particular moments that Hetherington witnessed. My friend who needs a new prescription for her reading glasses (so she told me) thought the print was a tad small in this final part, but I did not mind (my prescription is new).

I will use excerpts from this book when I teach my course on images of the Vietnam War because I think it adds something to the archive of war photography that has not been shown before: the individuality and unity of men in combat. An awesome and important book for everyone.—Ellen Rennard

Ellen Rennard is a writer, photographer, and teacher of writing and literature at Groton School in Groton, MA. She graduated from Princeton, where she wrote her thesis on images of Native Americans; she also holds an MA in English from Middlebury. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Fraction Magazine and Photovision; her photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including Black and White and Orion. Images from Rennard’s book project on The Downs at Albuquerque were nominated for a New York Photo Festival Book Award in 2009 and won first place in the 2010 Px3 People’s Choice Awards for Book Proposal and Documentary Photography.