As I write the first entry for this blog the passing of a fellow photojournalist weighs heavily on my mind. Chris Hondros, an award-winning conflict photographer, was killed while covering the events in Libya. Also killed was British photographer and documentary film producer Tim Hetherington.
It is the passing of Chris Hondros that hits closest to home for me because he was a friend of mine. Chris was a friend to many people. Looking at all the tributes for him it was obvious that he touched many people.
I got to know Chris while both of our photojournalism careers were in infancy. I was Chief Photographer at the Piqua Daily Call in Miami County, Ohio back in 1994. Chris was the Chief Photographer at the competing Troy Daily News.
I left graduate school at Ohio University Viscom the previous year. Both Chris and I hired interns, and one of Chris’ interns was a graduate school classmate of mine, LIsa Kyle. I remember Chris asking the two of us our opinions about the Viscom program at O.U. He was talented, ambitious and passionate about photojournalism and looking for opportunities. So, he left the Troy Daily News to study at Ohio University.
Replacing Chris as Chief Photographer at the Troy Daily News was another one of his interns, and good friend, Tyler Hicks. Tyler Hicks, now, is also an award-winning conflict photographer who is on staff of the New York Times.
The photojournalism world is tight knit. Most everyone is connected to each other, either through where they studied, or papers where they interned or were on staff, or by constantly rubbing shoulders at various assignments and conferences. Over the years I have come to known many other news photographers, but those I got to know back in Ohio when I was starting out are special to me. We were all passionate about our work and willing to help each other out, even though we were often competing.
Although I worked at a competing paper with Chris and Tyler, we constantly interacted while crossing paths covering assignments. After Chris left the Troy Daily News for Ohio University he did not stay gone. He would come back to Troy on weekends to visit Tyler and photograph assignments for the paper.
I remember parties at Tyler’s small, barely furnished apartment, above train tracks, in downtown Troy. The last one was after Tyler’s last day of at Troy. Tyler was leaving to go work for a larger paper in North Carolina. Chris came to the party, and the big event of the party was Chris ceremoniously shaving off Tyler’s beard. Pictures of that, courtesy of another Troy Daily News intern, J.D. Pooley, showed up on Facebook along with many, many other photos of Chris and by Chris, from throughout the years.
Back when I was starting out in Ohio I had the same goals as Chris and Tyler. However our paths took us in opposite directions. I left the Piqua Daily Call to take a staff job back in my home state of Indiana. Meanwhile both Chris and Tyler went to work at larger papers in North Carolina. Tyler took advantage of vacation time to go photograph in such places as Haiti to build up an international portfolio. Eventually Chris got on with the Associated Press, and then later went to work for Getty Images.
By 2000, my friends, Chris and Tyler, went to cover wars, and I went into the Peace Corps. I remember reading emails from Tyler and Chris from the time I was in training and when I was getting settled at my site in Jamaica. Tyler was covering the conflict in Eritrea and Ethiopia. I recall him saying how difficult it was finding buyers for those images because editors were not interested in that part of the world.
Chris, at this time, was covering the civil war in Somalia. It is in that conflict that he took one of his most memorable photographs. The photograph is of a Somalia rebel fighter jumping up in celebration after successfully firing a grenade launcher. The fighter was a young man with wild hair. His expression and body language is like an athlete who just scored the game-winning points. Chris won awards for this photo, and it has been widely published.
Chris returned to Somalia after the fighting ceased and found his subject. The young man was struggling to adjust to post-war life. Chris recognized that the man had potential and helped him get into school. This action was typical of Chris’ character.
While I was in Peace Corps the attacks of September 11, 2001 occurred forever changing everything, especially for photographers. My last job before entering Peace Corps I was on contract with the Times of Trenton, N.J. Many of my colleagues documented the aftermath of the attacks, as I too would have done if I had not left to serve in the Peace Corps.
Several months before 911 I had arranged for my week off to return to the United States to attend a photojournalism workshop that is held every fall by Western Kentucky University. The workshop was less than a month after the attacks. My instructor at the workshop was the Deputy Director of Photography David Frank at the New York Times. Every evening instructors made presentations. Frank presented out takes by the New York Times photographers of the attacks. Having been in Jamaica at the time and only having limited access to media, I had seen very few images of the attacks. Everyone else at the workshop had time to process the events and it was familiar. To me it was as it just occurred. I went to my hotel room and cried.
Seeing those images was way more powerful than reading about the events. In my opinion the powerfulness of images beyond words underscores the importance of the work of conflict photographers such as Tyler Hicks and Chris Hondros.
While I was serving in Peace Corps my friends Chris Hondros and Tyler Hicks were making names for themselves covering the events in Afghanistan and Iraq. At one time I had thought what they were doing is what I wanted to do. Since then I am glad that I took a different path.
Chris’ death has made me reflect on many things. While working on a proposal to photograph Peace Corps volunteers around the world I thought about the work of Chris and other conflict photographers. I greatly admire what they do because they broadcast images to the world of the toll of conflicts. They put a face on foreign policy. They visually show the affects of war. Conflict photographers record for history and posterity what really happened, and the impact it had on people.
Looking at Chris’ recent photographs of the protest in the streets of Cairo, Egypt illustrated the gravity of the moment. It made me realize just how big of a deal what was happening there. The photos Chris took in Libya spoke to the dangers and chaos of a civil war. Danger and chaos that ultimately resulted in his death, just as wars throughout history haves senselessly killed many, many young men.
Chris’ death has left me at a lost. He was so talented. Knowing him personally, I knew what a good guy he was. Back in 2006 after being out of touch with Chris for awhile I emailed him to ask for advice. In the subject line I wrote, “Remember me?” He wrote back, “Rich ….. Knucklehead, Sitler of course I remember you.” He went on to tell me that although we hadn’t been corresponding that I was on his email list and that he kept track of my movements. He then proceeded to give me very good advice, as he always did.
If you read about famous war photographers from the past like Robert Capa, they are usually painted as guys who are bigger than life who are self-centered and have large egos. Hondros was not that way. He was very down to earth. J.D. Pooley recollected how Hondros would often call him from a war zone, just to chat. He was an all-around good guy.
Chris described himself as a ‘conflict photographer’ instead of the previously more widely-used term of war photographer. I believe Chris used ‘conflict photographer’ because he wanted to make a point that he wasn’t in it to glorify war, but to tell the stories of people in conflict.
Chris was passionate about his work and looking at his photographs it shows. In an NPR interview about his work that was played back after his death he was asked about his motivation. The interviewer referred to those who covered conflicts for the excitement and adrenaline rush. Chris pointed out that those people usually did not last in the field because they were in it for the wrong reasons. He talked about how he worked deliberately and that he was very influenced by veteran conflict photographer James Natchwey who takes a Zen approach to his work and life. In doing so Natchwey and Hondros both get to the essence of the human condition in conflict and shed light on the effects of war on everyday people.
It seems paradoxical that I am starting out a blog about peace and photography, writing about conflict photographers. My decision to leave my photojournalism career to join Peace Corps at a time when colleagues and friends were hitting their stride in their photojournalism careers as conflict photographers made me reflect on the larger picture. I believe what they do is important because for there to be an end to conflict and eventually peace, people need the visual reminders of the horrors of war. Even though I think the work of these conflict photographers to be very important, I also believe that there are enough war correspondents in the field. The world doesn’t need another one. I also recognize that although I used to think that I could handle being in the middle of a conflict zone, as I grow older and wiser I have realized my limitations and leave that up to people more able to handle that kind of challenge and danger. I also believe that the stories of people who volunteer their time to serve their fellow man, such as Peace Corps volunteers, do not get enough press. It is the nature of journalism and media to tell the stories of conflict and war over the stories of those pursuing peace.
I have decided to label myself as a “peace photographer.” I do so not to be contrary of those who have dedicated themselves as “conflict photographers,” but to recognize that I am showing the other side of the coin. Even though Chris considered himself a conflict photographer, I believe that he was interested in resolution. For example, the resolution of the young Somalian man firing a grenade launcher, who eventually, with the help of Hondros, was able to go to school and become a successful adult in peacetime. Whether, as a photojournalist, you are visually telling the stories of people in conflict, or in peace, you are showing human interaction at all levels. We are all interested in exploring what makes us human.
Referring to Chris Hondros’ death I wrote on facebook, “War is Hell. It makes me realize that I am glad I didn’t pursue conflict photography.” Ross Wells, a friend from high school who is now a retired Marine, commented back, “I’m glad too. Your pictures tell stories of real life. War is temporary.” His comment meant a lot to me, and put things in perspective.
This blog will continue to explore the use of photography to tell stories of real life, whether it is stories about the pursuit of peace, love, and understanding, or the stories of the struggles of everyday people to overcome adversity and conflict.