'Hondros' He believed in the role of photography
By Stephen Wolgast
The most searing photo Chris Hondros made also faced the chance that it could have been withheld or at the least, delayed.
In the documentary "Hondros," released online last week on iTunes and Amazon, the photojournalist recalls how a U.S. Marines officer wanted him to wait before transmitting photos until after an investigation had reviewed a shooting he had photographed in Al Afar, Iraq, where he was embedded with Marines on patrol.
In the film, a retired corporal who was there recounts the night. A car approached the patrol, but U.S. troops didn't permit cars to get near them without stopping first. This one didn't slow down even after Marines fired two warning shots, so when a captain ordered his men to stop it, their only recourse in the seconds left was to shoot at it.
The driver and passenger, a mother and father, were killed. Out of the back of the car stumbled their surviving children. One was a five-year-old girl. When she squatted down amid spattered blood and screamed, Hondros made the photo that would show the world the human consequences of fighting a war in a city whose population was just trying to get by.
In the film, Hondros recounts what he did to get the photos back to Getty in case the military tried to block his satellite phone signal. The photo was published worldwide.
War stories like that one, though, are not the centerpiece of this energetic film, thankfully. The focus instead is where it should be, on Hondros and the kind of journalist and person that he was.
Ultimately, Hondros would pay the price of war. He was killed, with photographer Tim Hetherington, in a mortar blast that injured two others in Misrata, Libya, on April 20, 2011.
Combat photography is a special calling, and the men and women who take their cameras into war zones are a breed apart. And while some adrenaline has to kick in when working in those conditions, that's not what drove Hondros.
In the film, we see the dedicated journalist, but he’s also a musician who hosts parties in a war zone. His sense of humor comes out often, too, such as when he’s in the empty courtroom where Saddam Hussein was tried, and Hondros stands, gesticulating, in the same dock where Hussein stood to plead his case and gesticulated too.
But we also see a caring side. Hondros is shown to be one of the few war photographers who didn’t mind going out of his way to help photographers who were new to the front lines. The stories, with their mix of heat-of-battle drama and solemn testimonials, keep the emotional focus on the subject.
Several of his colleagues speak in the film, describing Hondros' days in war zones. Pancho Bernasconi, a photo editor who became Getty's vice president for news, explains one of the reasons Hondros covered conflict: "He didn't get involved for the rush. He believed in the role of photography," which in a war zone includes providing verifiable reporting from scenes of chaos.
One of those chaotic scenes would lead to his most enduring image, showing a shirtless rebel on a bridge in Liberia, jumping with joy after firing a rocket-propelled grenade during a crazy firefight. Hondros took the photo but didn't know anything about the man.
"I didn't realize the impact the photo would have," he recalls, so at the time he didn't try to get the man's name.
But two years later, in 2005, when Hondros returned to Liberia to cover its presidential elections, he met Joseph Duo, who by then was adrift because there were few opportunities for someone who had only a tenth-grade education. Hondros encouraged him to go back to school, which Duo did, becoming the chief of police in Paynesville, Liberia, where he has a family of five.
Hondros started his life as a photographer at 16. Seven years later, as a college photographer, he and reporting buddy Chris Campbell, who directed the film, bluffed their way into their first big event. Wearing clothes from Campbell's late uncle, the pair scored passes to an inaugural ball for President Clinton, and Hondros came back with photos of the first couple.
He would similarly take the initiative in less refined environments. His first international conflict was Kosovo, which he visited three times. Though, as his mother tells it, he didn't say where he was going on the second and third trips.
The most interesting parts of the film show Hondros outside his profession. Colleagues recall his interest in literature and music and his taste for fun. Todd Heisler of The New York Times puts it well. "Chris and I would talk for hours and never talk about photography," Heisler says. “Chris talked about ideas. That's the power of who he was and the power of his work."
Even good judgments go bad, though, especially in war. Aid went to the family of the five-year-old girl who survived the shooting of her parents because of Hondros's photo, but it mattered little in the end.
She’s interviewed in the film. Now a teenager, she has no interest in an apology from the retired Marine, delivered by the filmmaker. Defiantly and confidently, she says that she would rather drink his blood. And even then, she continues, her parents wouldn't come back.
Hondros's work is his legacy and how he helped victims of war when they needed it most.
"For him, it was about the people the war was happening to, not just the war," Jonathan Klein, a co-founder of Getty, explains. Hondros' humanity, in the end, is what made him a photojournalist so widely admired.