Asking if bullets can right a wrong is not so different from debating if photographs tell the truth. After we’ve run out of arguments, everyone picks a perspective they can live with and gets on with the job. As I hear this story, Jason P. Howe the photographer, has since quit shooting from the frontlines. Harold Monfils the film-maker, sits opposite me in a Hartamas café, telling me about Hoka Hey: It’s A Good Day To Die.
This project began in 2010, when independent filmmaker and then 20-year advertising veteran, Harold, set out to produce a fascinating biography. After scrutinizing several candidates, a friend mentioned Jason. “I researched his work, and found it astonishing that he could take these beautiful photographs with bullets whizzing overhead. So I wrote him an email and long story short, he said ‘yeah, let’s talk’. A couple of weeks later, from the UK en route to Afghanistan’s Helmand Province to be embedded with British troops, Jason diverted to Kuala Lumpur. I put him in front of a camera and threw him a series of questions which was more of a retrospect to understand the man in front of the lens.”
After two days of interviews, Harold equipped Jason with a headcam and off he went. The film initially started in a similar vein as the incredible adventures of Tin Tin as a war photographer. It was estimated to wrap up production in 18 months. But when has life ever acquiesced to a rosy schedule?
Over several interviews, one of the most intimate experiences Jason spoke about is a relationship the self-taught photographer developed with a woman called Marilyn. In 2001, and the start of what is now his best known work, Jason sought out the belligerents of the Colombian conflict—capturing what was formerly a perpetually simmering strife between the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), the paramilitaries and the military. With undefined goals and narcotic profiteering on all sides, a final ceasefire agreement was recently ratified after nearly 52 years of fighting.
Following Jason’s time with the FARC and wanting to meet and photograph their arch enemies, the paramilitaries, he set out to a different part of the country sufficiently far away that he felt there wouldn’t be any crossover.
“They met as he was changing buses en route to a small town called Pitalito. They happenedto get on the same bus and sit next to each other. He explained that he was a photographer who had just spent some time in the FARC zone and the purpose of his trip south was that he wanted to cover the other side of the conflict,” says Harold. She said she knew people in the paramilitaries and military, and ended up inviting him to stay at her family home, with her parents, brother and daughter. They began a happy-yet delicate relationship.
“As her parents’ house had paper-thin walls and she shared her bed with her young daughter, after some time Jason asked if it would make things easier if he stayed at a hotel in a nearby town and she could come stay with him. The next morning, she basically confessed to him that she didn’t only know the paramilitaries but that she was an active participant in the conflict,” Harold explains.
When she expanded on what she did, she had migrated from being a uniformed member of the paramilitaries into working as an urban cell. Her job was to eliminate people, effectively performing as an assassin. On one occasion, she told him she had a target and asked if he wanted to come along and photograph that. Jason felt in some way that going along and watching her kill someone would feel like he was condoning murder by standing by and doing nothing to stop it.
“It’s a decision he doesn’t regret. Anyway, life happens and Jason got pulled away to cover the Iraqi conflict. His first assignment was to cover Saddam Hussein’s spider hole. While he was there, Marilyn sent an email asking for help, saying she wanted to get out of the situation she was in. The line went quiet for several months. After almost six months straight in Iraq, Jason wrapped up and headed back to Colombia to see if he could find out what happened to Marilyn. When he got there, her father came out and was very surprised to see him and his eyes started to fill with tears and he said, ’I guess you know what happened to the girl?’”
And he told Jason that she had died and was buried at the local cemetery, without specifically saying she had been killed. Jason later found out she was accused of being an informer and the paramilitaries had crushed her head with rocks and then shot her. In Colombian Spanish slang, the word they use for informer is ‘sapo’, which also means toad. And the way to kill a toad is to stone it to death.
What you’ve read in these brief paragraphs took Harold four long years to uncover. Of all his memories, Jason just didn’t want to talk about this anymore. By now both men were touching base two times a year to review Jason’s field material. After Iraq, came the war in Lebanon and the start of a downward spiral of disillusionment for him. “There were hundreds of photographers and journalists, and the protagonists of the story didn’t seem to matter anymore. You’d be shouted at in several different languages to get your elbow out of somebody else’s shot,” Harold relays. “Jason felt his profession had changed and become diluted, prompting him to describe it as the paparazzi for the dead and dying. He almost gave it up. Then in 2007, he decided to go to Afghanistan as a last- ditch attempt to take front line photos. From there onwards, he travelled in and out of Afghanistan till 2011.”
On the 11th of November that same year, Jason was detailing an IED (improvised explosive device) clearing with the British army. With metal detectors, they routinely worked each featureless compound after the next. In single file, he was the seventh man to pass through another unremarkable doorway. The eighth was Private Stephen Bainbridge.
“He had stepped on an undetected IED and it blew off both his legs. The medic immediately went to work on him, literally saving his life and the Medivac helicopter was there in 10 minutes and he was whisked into surgery straightaway,” says Harold.
This immaculate description sounds so lucid and fuss free. But Jason’s photos portray the harrowing aftermath; camouflage overalls starkly accentuating a screaming face, a tourniquet strangling a bleeding stump.
“These soldiers were taking enormous risks being out there. It had been 30 years since the Falklands War and a picture of a wounded soldier being published in the British mainstream media. The UK Ministry of Defence (MOD) didn’t want the British public to see Private Bainbridge wounded on the ground under any circumstances. So Jason spoke with him during rehab. He thought the private looked well despite the circumstances. The soldier signed the waiver and out it went.” The MOD unofficially banned Jason from the front line. He will not be allowed back even though a MOD representative assured him there would be no repercussions for publishing these pictures.
With the film’s release, Jason and Harold have put their relationship on hiatus; both men needing a time-out. They’re still incredibly proud of their joint venture and of the final product. When Harold tells me, “My job was to pique curiosity and let the audience develop their own convictions,” I realise his duty is not so different from Jason’s. They want the world to know the truth in war, which is not pretty and even came at personal cost for Jason.
“I’ve always been pro-troops. Jason’s brotheris actively serving in the British army as well. But soldiers are signing up, putting on boots and told to liberate what exactly? I don’t get whatthe war is about anymore. On Jason’s headcam,he blacks out the faces of local translators and guides because if the Taliban see it, they’ll kill that man’s whole lineage. In Syria, it’s become a holocaust, with the Russians, Americans and Brits all getting involved. Now we got IS trying to bomb Malaysia. Civilians are the targets. What the hell is going on?”
Harold’s silvery tone has grown stentorian. For the first time, he looks frustrated, and I feel almost obligated to provide cozy existentialist placations. If anything, Hoka Heyreminds us that the truest value of our humanity is personified in how we treat each other.