Chris Hondros. Photograph of Joseph Duo (2003), the commander of a band of child soldiers in the army of the then Liberian president, Charles Taylor. Courtesy Sunshine Sachs/Getty Images.
by LILLY WEI
Hondros, the engrossing documentary film about photojournalist Chris Hondros (1970 - 2011), premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival on 21 April 2017. It is directed by author and fellow journalist Greg Campbell, who brought to the project not only a professional eye, but also a deeply subjective point of view – he and Hondros had been close friends since high school. The award-winning Hondros was considered one of the best conflict photographers of his generation, and Campbell follows his trail as he records almost every major world cataclysm that took place during the dozen years of his career. Beginning with the war in Kosovo in 1999, he witnessed and, more significantly, photographed strife in far-flung areas of the world such as Liberia, Nigeria and Iraq before he was killed by mortar fire in Libya in April 2011. The film, besides offering action footage of symphonic splendour, also shows more personal aspects of Hondros’s life with sensitivity, grace and, at times, humour. It includes his own telling reflections about his perilous calling as he assesses risks and rewards. A sense of the man – as a son, friend, fiance and colleague – balances the film and gives it enough intimacy that, by its end, you feel you’ve known him, too, and that you also have just lost a good friend.
Photojournalism is an art as well as documentation. There is a challenge in making the horrors of war vivid, to capture its hellish actuality for the world to see, respond to and, perhaps, ameliorate since prevention seems hopeless. Hondros, and the elite international group of like-minded photojournalists that he belonged to, strongly believed that this kind of witnessing and reportage was worth everything, and he, with others, gave everything inspired by that belief.
The following are edited excerpts from a conversation between Greg Campbell and Lilly Wei in New York.
Lilly Wei: Could you tell me a little about yourself?
Greg Campbell: I’m a freelance journalist and a writer. One of my books, Blood Diamonds: Tracing the Deadly Path of the World’s Most Precious Stones, was the source for the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Blood Diamond. I’m a print reporter by trade and have written for the New Republic, the Economist, the Atlantic, Paris Match and magazines like that, usually about international trends and topics. I live in Denver. When Chris Hondros was killed, I was working as a stringer for USA Today and was by his side in Libya. When we began our careers, Chris and I were in Bosnia, Kosovo and Nigeria together. I started a family and decided to stay in Colorado and cut down on the international travel, while Chris went on to be the preeminent photojournalist of our generation.
LW: And you two met in high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina?
GC: We were 14 and in English class together.
LW: Did you become friends instantly?
GC: Yes, we did. It was an easy friendship, one in which we fell right into step with one another. We had very similar attitudes about what we wanted to do, including the expansion of our horizons beyond a small town in North Carolina. We wanted to see the world, to travel. At an early age, we both had an interest in literature and journalism, particularly the writings of Hunter S Thompson. I wanted to combine my interest in writing with what made the world tick and Chris was very much the same way.
LW: Did you inspire each other?
GC: We did. We were constantly challenging each other. The Clinton inauguration is a perfect example. On the day of the inauguration, Chris called me and said: “Let’s go to Washington.” It was the middle of the night, a long drive ahead of us, and no reason to be there. But we made it all happen when we got there. It’s a great example of Chris’s optimism, which was unparalleled. He believed that if other people were doing work we admired, it was within our grasp to do it as well.
LW: Are you optimistic?
GC: Yes, but his was at a level that was quite a bit higher than mine. We once went into a library and he pulled a book off the shelf and said to me: “Read the first paragraph.” And when I finished, he said: “You can do that. You can have a book on a shelf in a library.” And, sure enough, I have four.
LW: How would you describe his style of photography, his approach to photojournalism and to conflict documentation?
GC: In looking at Chris’s body of work between 1999-2011, comparisons can be made between some of his early compositions and some of his most famous images. He always focused on the humanity at the heart of conflict. There is a lot of drama that goes on and it’s very easy to get caught up in a picture of a guy firing a gun or of an explosion as it is happening, but to be able to combine the human element with the kinetic element became his specialty. And the motif that occurs all the time in his work is that of children. I think that speaks to his desire to show the innocence that is caught in the middle, between warring forces. For instance, in Kosovo, his first trip, I was surprised to find images of young children in the midst of a war zone in his photos, usually framed by an indistinct or anonymous soldier holding a rifle, his face unseen. The soldier just becomes the symbol of authority and power and it is the child that is the focus, wondering what will happen next. Even in the most dramatic moments, there was some ability that Chris had to reach through the lens and find something that spoke to the viewer back home so that there was a thread of commonality. It was about feeling. And the photo of Joseph Duo – that was a dramatic photo. [Duo was the commander of a band of child soldiers in the army of the then Liberian president, Charles Taylor.] The look on his face was a universal expression of the dualities of war in which you have horror and elation happening at the same instant. This is something that people can understand, even if they’ve never been in a war.
LW: It has been considered unethical for journalists to become personally involved in what is happening around them. They are supposed to be neutral. How did Chris feel about that?
GC: People in such environments always face this situation; they must face it. You are inhuman if you can easily give a helping hand and you walk away. You reach out to show we are connected. It’s very hard to look at a little girl covered in blood and not want to do something. I know very few people in this line of work who would be that cold-hearted, but there is a line. You could cross into activism quite easily. Chris calibrated that, as we all do. His calculations were his own and he balanced that well. The people who criticise that reaching out haven’t been there to struggle with these questions. And who Chris is informs his photography. If you see cold emotionless photos from conflict zones that are nothing but the hardware of war and marching soldiers, perhaps that photographer would benefit from extending a helping hand. You have to expose yourself to a certain degree to what’s happening in front of you in order to convey to your readers and viewers the truth of what it’s like to be there.
LW: How did he see his role?
GC: Chris said that he truly believed in the necessity of having a skilled and experienced independent witness to what is happening, especially when it’s the US government putting events into motion around the world. Our government is representing us and acting on our behalf and we need to know what it’s doing and hold it accountable.
LW: Such as at Tal Afar in Iraq, where a family in a car at a checkpoint didn’t stop and was fired on by US soldiers, killing the parents and badly wounding one of the children?
GC: Tal Afar is a perfect example of this. As said in the film, the accidental shooting of civilians is a frequent occurrence. But there was no visual proof and it didn’t become a topic of conversation until Chris’s photos of the event. It illustrates why it is important to have independent witnesses, and I believe Chris felt a real responsibility. He was prepared to take a picture in Tal Afar when the shooting occurred. He was one of those folks truly born into his profession and I can’t imagine him doing anything else with the degree of passion and responsibility that he brought to photojournalism. It’s a rarity these days. It was an honour to see him in these situations working the way he did.
LW: You had footage from high school asking him what he was afraid of, and he said he couldn’t think of anything.
GC: We were 16 or 17 at the time and I was filming. It was a project for English class and our group was making a movie about Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. So he was acting when he said that. But it was how he lived his life, fearlessly, recalibrating when mistakes were made. Making mistakes gives you experience and sets you on a path making fewer mistakes. We were on the front lines of Libya, in Misrata, and there is shelling, and guns are blazing around us, mortar fire overhead, and we are running for our lives in one scene and Chris never broke a sweat. “We’ll be fine,” he said. “We have plenty of time to make it back to safety.” I know that he wasn’t cavalier about it. He was simply being level-headed and knew that overreacting and panicking would make the situation worse.
LW: Would you say that Chris felt life most vividly when confronted by death?
GC: To a certain extent, Chris did, but it wasn’t a primary concern. His primary responsibility was to the story he was covering. We retreated on several occasions when we realised in our gut that something was off. And Chris listened to that inner voice.
LW: When does it become easier or more necessary to go to a war, and harder to come home, as happens to many?
GC: I know Chris was aware that it might be something he sought, that heart-pumping feeling, that adrenaline kick, but he was always able to come home. He felt he needed to balance his life to continue. He said: “Iraq is not going to get the best of me. I want to leave Iraq in Iraq.” He wanted to leave every conflict zone behind. He never talked about what he did and was genuinely interested in his friends’ lives. Those who are addicted to wars have a harder time focusing on that.
LW: Could you tell me something about the structure and making of the film?
GC: We put out the call to Chris’s friends and colleagues and we scoured the internet. We knew there were repositories of footage from the Liberian war, for example, and we examined it all very closely and found some wonderful stuff. The hardest thing about the film was finding all that footage and finding some with him speaking in generalities about his work and experiences. But it was also very rewarding because there was my friend again and I get to see him in action. The greatest thing was the number of times we actually saw him taking a picture and we could identify the photo – as if we were looking over his shoulder.
From the structural point of view, it was always about balancing stories: Chris’s story and the larger story of photojournalism and my story as a friend. The thinnest razor’s edge we walked the whole time was not going too far into schmaltzy tributes and not going into a war movie, but running this little line of me introducing my friend to the world and letting my friend take over. We found a lot of lovely interviews. In many ways, it was Chris who structured the film. There was one interview in which he talked about his beginnings, his beliefs and his values as a photographer and summed it up so nicely when he said he couldn’t imagine himself doing anything different, the horrible things he has seen counterbalanced by wonderful things. To me, that’s like having him wrap up. We also talked to photojournalists who knew him well, who had longstanding relationships with him, such as Todd Heisler and Tyler Hicks from the New York Times, Spencer Platt and Joe Raedle from Getty Images, Michael Kamber and others; they added focus to some of the bits.
LW: Do you think journalists are targeted more now?
GC: Yes, they are. Every side in a conflict has the ability to take its own photographs and release its own videos, live even, and journalists are there to tell a different side of the story and check the facts.
LW: Was that what happened when Chris and Tim Hetherington, another legendary photojournalist, were killed in Misrata?
GC: In this particular instance, it was difficult to say if the person firing the mortar knew he was shooting at a group of reporters. They were in a crowd with rebel fighters and it was a highly contested intersection that day.
LW: What would you like the viewer to take away from your film?
GC: One is to get to know my friend a little through this film. He was such a unique person. And the second is to understand his dedication to what he did. He believed in it so much, and thought it was more important than ever. Now, when the concept of truth is being played with by our country’s top leaders, it is more critical than ever to have journalists rededicate ourselves to this work, to being there, to show what is really happening in the rest of the world, so that people at home and around the world can look and know.