Young men going to war, whether of their own volition or because they’ve been conscripted, is a perennially popular topic in fact and fiction. The emergence of the phenomena of embedding since the Vietnam war has narrowed the opportunities of journalists covering conflict to engage with opposition forces or civilians, resulting in a greater emphasis on reporting the experiences of friendly soldiers, these same young men. While this can be interesting, it of course risks undermining the role of journalists in portraying events in a balanced manner, and potentially makes them little more than an appendage of military public relations efforts.
Infidel takes the phenomenon of embedding to an extreme, for better or worse. Attached to an American army unit in Afghanistan’s Korengal valley, Tim Hetherington turns his camera squarely on the men who hold the small outpost of Restrepo (from which the Oscar nominated film he worked on at the same time takes its name). It’s an intimate portrayal of a small band of men, bonded by unimaginably extreme circumstances – from being shot at on a daily basis to enduring the hellish quantity of flies – and Hetherington documents it by apparently accepting the limits of an embed and using those parameters to tell a very specific story.
After an introduction by co-director of Restrepo, Sebastian Junger, portraits of the soldiers fill the first fifty pages, followed by drawings of many of their tattoos including the ‘infidel’ tattoo from which the book takes it’s name and cover logo (infidel being the term the Taliban use to refer to their American enemy). Then follows images of life in the camp, mixed with a variety of still lives, details like graffiti on grenades ‘4 mom’, ‘NYC’, etc, saturated fly paper dangling next to nude pin ups, photographs of the camp toilet. Together these images convey a great sense of the difficult conditions, the boredom, the hours spent waiting to be shot at, that probably define modern war far more than the images of violence and destruction that tend to characterise much war reporting.
The last third of the book constitutes the fighting that I suppose they, the soldiers, and we, the audience, have been waiting for since the beginning. But it’s a problematic image of fighting because one side is so entirely invisible. Perhaps this aptly reflects the soldiers own view, perhaps it’s an inevitable result of wars fought over longer and longer distances, and increasingly by remote control. Either way for me it is a problem that there is no trace of an enemy, not even a discarded weapon, a drop of blood, a footprint, in the entire book. It feels very unreal, it could all be a simulation, a training exercise, at least until the moment near the end of the book when one soldier in the unit is shot and killed.
The design of the book is nicely judged, from the outside it resembles a leather bound journal which fits the subject matter well but also makes for a book which is a comfortable size to read, and really rather intimate, unlike many war photography books which resemble hulking great monoliths. The photographs, even those of unlikely subjects, are invariably beautiful. One of a single bullet lit by a red safelight for example really sticks in my mind. The portraits are sensitive an individual, and go a good way towards making each member of that army unit feel less like a two dimensional soldier, and instead like a rounded human being.
As I mentioned at the end of my review of Hetherington’s first book, Long Story Bit by Bit, I’ve often heard Infidel described as the work of a photographer at the zenith of his powers. I’ve got admit I’m less certain. With a few exceptions Infidel makes what it shows seem a bit too normal, a bit too comfortable. Perhaps it’s unfair to lay this on Hetherington, perhaps rather it’s the cumulative effect of years of embedded media reports, or perhaps indeed it’s a comment on the effect of them. Still I can’t avoid saying it; Infidel dosen’t feel as disturbing as it perhaps ought to. Regardless, it’s an excellent book, beautifully photographed, that makes the best of the restrictive circumstances journalists increasingly find themselves in when covering modern conflict.