'You Can’t Do War Photography From a Distance': Fstoppers Reviews 'Hondros'

'You Can’t Do War Photography From a Distance': Fstoppers Reviews 'Hondros'

Maybe you're familiar with Chris Hondros, and maybe you're not. I can, however, all but guarantee that you are familiar with his work.

Note: this article contains images depicting scenes of violence and war. Reader discretion is advised."Hondros" is a deeply impactful look into not only the life and work of Chris himself, but also into the very idea of war and the role that photojournalists play in it.

I've had "Hondros" sitting in my Netflix queue since it was released on the service and I took the opportunity a couple of weeks ago to sit down and watch it. I had heard of Chris Hondros before and had seen his images over the past 15 years or so, but had never bothered to learn anything about him beyond reading articles that covered his death in Libya in 2011. The film itself is the passion project of director and journalist Greg Campbell; a childhood friend of Hondros'. Campbell originally took to Kickstarter in 2013 to raise funds to produce the documentary focused on his best friend, setting a modest goal of $30,000. With the support of executive producer Jamie Lee Curtis, who eventually brought on Jake Gyllenhaal as a co-executive producer, the project was successfully funded with almost $90,000 of support. Five years later, Campbell has finally been able to present his film to the world where it has garnered critical acclaim, including taking home the Audience Award, Documentary First Place, at the Tribeca Film Festival

Photo courtesy of Nic Bothma

Campbell paints a compelling picture of Hondros, contrasting footage of the photographer in the field with photos and video clips of Hondros 'childhood and upbringing. His personal status as one of the photographer's closest friends injects the film with a level of heartfelt sincerity that elevates the documentary and breathes extra life into the story being told. Right off the bat, we are given a look at Hondros in the field, snapping photos in the middle of a firefight in a street in Liberia. The harsh cracks of gunfire are sharply juxtaposed against the snap-snap-snap of the photographer's shutter. The scenes of war cut back to interviews with Hondros discussing his thoughts on the role of journalists in war, painting a picture of someone who was passionate not just about the quality of his work, but about the importance of telling the stories of these conflicts and the people caught up in them. "I believe in photography," Hondros says in an interview clip near the beginning of the film. "I believe in the role that journalists, and photographers specifically, play in our whole system of international conflict and how we resolve differences. We have a role to play and I like to be involved in that."

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

One of the qualities about Chris Hondros that really stands out from the film, was his drive to tell the stories of these wars that your average Western citizen might know nothing about; to force attention to the brutal reality of what was going on across the globe through the medium of photography. "Chris had a very firm belief in what he wanted his photography to be about," says Pancho Bernasconi, VP of News for Getty Images. "I could drop him into any situation and I didn't have to explain why he was there ... he believed in the power of shining a light in a place that would otherwise be dark."

Hondros' fellow journalists and photographers speak constantly about his ability to get ahead of stories and oftentimes be the first journalist on the scene of a given conflict. His peers speak of him with a combination of respect, love, and awe, talking about his seemingly endless supply of energy and marveling at his ability to stand in the midst of horrific circumstances yet still retain his joy and humanity.

Photo courtesy of Scout Tufankjian

Early on in the film, we learn the story of Joseph Duo; the freedom fighter shown on the lead image of this article. Campbell details how Joseph and Chris finally two years after the image was taken, with Hondros encouraging Duo to return to high school and even helped pay for his tuition. Duo would eventually finish his university education and even ran for a government position last year. Campbell tells us throughout the film that was who Chris Hondros was; someone who wasn't content to simply document conflict, but instead found ways to positively impact the people he met along the way.

Chris Hondros/Getty Images

A good portion of the film is devoted to the story of Hondros most famous photo (pictured above) showing a young Iraqi girl named Samar Hassan in the aftermath of the accidental shooting of her parents by American troops in Tel Afar. The image was seen in publications around the world and TIME Magazine lists it as one of the 100 most influential images of all time. Campbell travels to Iraq and tracks down Hassan to interview her for the film, contrasting her story with interviews from one of the soldiers who was at the checkpoint and fired on her parents' car. It is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the documentary and a powerful piece of journalism and storytelling.

Photo courtesy of Nic Bothma

"Hondros" is a powerful film that tells a compelling and tragic story and does it with a degree of quality and production value that many documentaries could stand to take notes from. It gives us an intimate and behind-the-scenes look at a photographer who was deeply respected by his peers and produced work that literally changed people's lives. The filmmakers give us a glimpse behind the veil of war and the very unique kind of person it takes to walk unarmed into a battle zone and try to find a story in the midst of the chaos. Chris Hondros death was a tragic loss, but his work and it's impact live on in the beautiful and moving film. We don't have a star-system for rating reviews here at Fstoppers but, if we did, I would give "Hondros" five stars out of five.

Lead image © Chris Hondros/Getty Images. Images used with permission.

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8 Comments

Rob Davis's picture

I will never understand why people who do this kind of dangerous civilian work never get parades.

Andrew Richardson's picture

One of the many things this film showed is the sheer power of the images these guys make. In general, we take the images that go along with our news for granted, but the film shows the sort of global impact that can be had by the men and women who insist on going to the front lines and telling the stories of these conflicts.

Rob Davis's picture

I've seen it. The Tim Heatherington one is also good and of course Restrepo. They're heroes.

greg thomason's picture

I agree, this is a very compelling documentary. Hearing the stories behind some of his most recognized photos was excellent. As Rob mentioned, the documentary about Tim Hetherington, who died during the blast that killed Chris Hondros, is well worth a look. It's called Which Way Is The Front Line From Here?

After you see this one watch THE BANG BANG CLUB. A South African movie about photojournalists covering the country during Apratheid unrest. Interesting story with two Pulitzer Prize winners.

You do realize this is a documentary and the Bang Bang Club is a Disney movie based on a true story. If you want to watch another interesting documentary, watch War Photographer with James Natchwey.

Andrew Richardson's picture

I'm pretty sure he does realize that as he never said that Bang Bang Club was anything but a movie...

It's an amazing film about an amazing guy.
The thing that comes across is the deep personal humanity that Hondros brought to his work.
Interestingly, the recent assorted documentaries on contemporary war photographers all seem to demonstrate an elevated level of simple humanity in the soul of the photographer ... something (it seems) is an integral part of both being a conflict photographer in the first place ... and generating the elevated quality of work under unbelievably dangerous and harsh conditions these photographers seem to generate on a regular basis.