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In Memoriam, Chris Hondros

A personal remembrance of a brilliant photojournalist and a brilliant friend.
April 20, 2011 |
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Earlier today, April 20, photojournalist Chris Hondros was killed on assignment in Misrata, Libya. He was 41 and recently engaged to be married.

His long list of awards -- from being nominated for the Pulitzer Prize for breaking-news photography (2004), to winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal (2005) for "best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise" -- attest to Chris's skill and legacy as a photographer. As one of the many journalists privileged to have known and worked with Chris personally, I wanted to add a few words honoring the qualities that lay behind his work: tenacity, humor, thoughtfulness, and deep loyalty to colleagues and friends.

When Chris packed for assignments -- and over a two-decade career he traveled more than a dozen times to Iraq, as well to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Liberia, Kosovo, Haiti, Kashmir, Nigeria, Angola, the West Bank, and elsewhere -- he packed light. Once I watched him pack for a two-month trip to Iraq in less than an hour, while playing Mahler's Symphony No. 5 on the stereo system of his cramped Brooklyn apartment. Here are the things he carried: as little clothing as he could get away with, maybe a half-dozen T-shirts and two pairs of pants. He always carried two cameras, in case one broke or was confiscated. Yet he also made room, in that well-worn black duffle bag, for at least five books -- that time it was the complete works of Plato (abridged, single volume), Friedrich Nietzsche's The Birth of Tragedy, Sarah Vowell's Assassination Vacation, a history of ancient Greek mythology, and a fifth title that I am forgetting now. The point is that Chris was able to be both intensely present in the moment, as all war photographers must be, and yet forever thinking deeply and broadly about the long march of history, about the rise and fall of empires, and about the drama of individual human lives -- our passionate triumphs, dreams, struggles, and heartbreaks unfolding across a larger stage.

Chris loved Shakespeare. One year, when teaching a photography seminar at the Eddie Adams Workshop, he assigned his students the task of taking photos to evoke each of Shakespeare's "Seven Ages of Man." He could recite at length passages from Hamlet and King Lear.

Chris published essays and dispatches about what he witnessed in Iraq, Afghanistan, Liberia, Haiti, and elsewhere in various outlets, including the Virginia Quarterly Review and Foreign Policy.com. Somewhere, on one of his hard drives, is a collection of field notes that he'd been thinking of editing into a book about his experiences in Iraq. And since 2008, Chris has been hosting concerts -- at first in his Brooklyn apartment and then in larger venues in New York and beyond -- pairing the music of Bach with a slide show of his photographs taken in Iraq and Afghanistan. I attended two of these events, "Bach in a Time of War: A Visual Concert": one in 2008 in Brooklyn and another in 2009 in Bath, England. Both times, I spotted members of the audience shedding tears.

I met Chris in the spring of 2007 in Washington, D.C., on the rooftop of the Beacon Hotel, at a reunion for alumni of the International Reporting Project (IRP) at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. Chris, who had traveled to Nigeria in 2001 as an IRP fellow, had taken the train from New York to participate in a panel on reporters in war zones at the reunion. (I was a newbie, just back from China, as a spring 2007 IRP fellow.) Chris was a loyal alumnus to the IRP program -- always willing to lend a hand, go out of his way, or offer advice to younger journalists -- just as he was loyal to most any organization he was affiliated with, and most of all, to his friends.

Among journalists working on many continents, Chris was well-known and well-loved for being a careful listener. Despite all his many commitments, projects, ambitions, and dreams, Chris always made time. (Last night, quite last minute, I emailed Chris to ask whether he was in New York to meet up. He wrote back quickly, at 1:49 a.m. U.S. Eastern time, "I'm still in Misurata, alas.… Sorry to miss you. We could have had a nice lunch.")

Chris was much more than a continent-hopping war photojournalist. His hometown, the small city of Fayetteville, North Carolina, held just as firm a place in his heart, and he often visited at holidays. There, many people -- including his mother and brother Dean -- will miss him dearly. Life is fleeting, as photographers who devote their careers to transforming flashing moments into indelible memories know better than most.

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