Great art often entails taking great risks, and no one knew that better than Chris Hondros, the award-winning Getty photographer whose acute in-the-thick-of-things wartime snapshots made him a legend in the field, until his life was cut tragically short at age 41 by mortar fire in Libya in 2011. “Hondros,” a nonfiction biography directed by lifelong best friend and collaborator Greg Campbell, pays stirring tribute to its subject’s courage, resolve and empathy, the last of which helped elevate his work to the realm of greatness. Doubling as a portrait of the blurry line between journalistic objectivity and engagement, this compelling doc should be a perfect fit for cable TV following its premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival.
Hondros grew up knowing he wanted to spend his life with a camera in his hands, and his rise to photojournalism superstardom was quick, beginning in earnest in 1999 Kosovo, where he embedded himself on the rebel side of a brutal civil war. In 2003 Liberia, he came home with one image — that of a man leaping for joy after firing a rocket grenade from an under-siege bridge — that immediately attained iconic status. He’d subsequently embark on a career-long trek from one global hot spot to another, including arriving in Iraq in 2003, where he’d return repeatedly over the course of the war.
Throughout his overseas adventures, Hondros conveyed a borderline-reckless confidence that helped propel him into dangerous terrain that few others dared travel. However, he was anything but a blustery madman; when not snapping gunmen and their victims, he was a lover of classical music and a voracious reader. And his outgoing personality helped him make friends wherever he went, a trait that was beneficial both personally and professionally.
Numerous colleagues do a sterling job conveying Hondros’ drive, his sense of humor, and his compassion for those he covered. That last attribute manifested itself repeatedly throughout his assignments, from befriending the aforementioned Liberian grenade-launcher (whose education he paid for), to helping a young Iraqi boy receive treatment in Boston for injuries suffered when his family was accidentally mowed down in their car by American soldiers — a catastrophe Hondros captured in some of the war’s most signature, heartbreaking sights.
The fact that the photographer also struck up a close bond with one of the soldiers involved in that calamity speaks not only to his empathy for those he photographed, but to his sense of responsibility toward them, and his desire — after having made them unlikely celebrities in their own right — to help ease their burdens. Such an impulse naturally crossed the line between a journalist’s avowed duty to remain detached and impartial from that which he covers, and an artist’s inherent desire to connect with his subjects. “Hondros” allows that boundary to remain blurred, understanding that, at least with regards to this photographer, up-close-and-personal engagement in dire circumstances invariably led to — and necessitated — trying to make a difference, even if, as in some cases, the consequences were disastrous for all involved.
In video clips of Hondros searching for ideal photographic compositions amid battle, and in his own snapped images, Campbell’s film illustrates how Hondros’ pictures were an attempt to illuminate the darkest, ugliest, most hidden aspects of the world, and, in the process, to affect change. It was an endeavor of the most noble sort, and though he was killed far too soon (on the eve of his wedding, no less), his work — and the inspirational effect it had on the public, and those who knew him best — proves that the risks he took were worth something lasting and great, and that the sacrifice he made wasn’t in vain.