Photojournalists seldom become the subject of the story. The expectation is that they will be objective observers, remaining hidden behind the camera, bearing witness to what’s happening around them, whether at home or the far reaches of the world.
Until his death in Libya in 2011, photojournalist Chris Hondros was true to his craft. The Pulitzer-Prize finalist, Getty Images photographer had spent more than a decade capturing the world’s conflicts in photos, illuminating lives torn apart by war and the horrific moments too often lost in a morass of statistics and geopolitics.
But this weekend, filmgoers attending the Denver Film Festival can see the life of Chris Hondros play out in front of the camera. Thanks to Greg Campbell — Hondros’ best friend and former editor at Boulder Weekly — there is now an award winning documentary on the life and lasting influence of Hondros.
“We shook the bushes to find any footage of him,” says Campbell, journalist, author and director of the new documentary Hondros. “I considered doing a book about Chris’ life, but because he was a photographer it just made obvious sense that I would do a film.”
Although this is Campbell’s directorial debut, it’s not the first time he’s seen Hondros in front of his camera. He used to film his childhood friend on a Super 8 back home in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
“I was running around with my little brother doing these boneheaded action movies and my little brother was tired of having to be the protagonist,” Campbell says. “I needed someone else to be the leading man and Chris immediately struck me as a swashbuckling kinda guy even at age 14. My first impression of him was that he was really confident, even beyond his years.”
The pair met in freshman English class, “bonding instantly,” perhaps because they were both recent transplants, Campbell from Pennsylvania and Hondros from New York. They often skipped school together, driven by a mutual “insatiable curiosity” about the world around them.
“We had this Ferris Bueller kind of attitude about life is moving fast, go out there and seize the day kind of stuff,” Campbell says.
It’s an attitude that led them both to study journalism in college — Campbell attending University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Hondros working for the school newspaper at North Carolina State.
“This is exactly what we wanted out of life: you get to go ask questions of people with whatever randomly pops into your head to satisfy your curiosity,” Campbell says.
The pair made business cards that read “Greg Campbell and Chris Hondros writer/photographer team” and set out to cover the 1992 presidential election.
“We didn’t have an assignment. We were just handing out these business cards, we’re interviewing people, he’s taking pictures,” Campbell says. “We never did anything with it, we never wrote a story but it sure laid the groundwork.”
Later that year Bill Clinton was elected and the pair traveled to Washington D.C. for their first real assignment to cover the inauguration for Hondros’ student paper. After that, Campbell moved to Boulder where he worked for Boulder Weekly first as a reporter and eventually as editor. Hondros went on to get his master’s from Ohio State and then worked as a photographer for local papers in Ohio and North Carolina.
It was Campbell who first got into conflict reporting in 1996. The story is somewhat legendary around the BW newsroom: The war in the Balkans was coming to an end and Campbell wanted to cover the reunification of Sarajevo. So the hat was passed around the office and Campbell spent more than a month in the war zone interviewing everyone from locals to NATO commanders alongside journalists from major news outlets like CNN, the New York Times, U.S. News and the Wall Street Journal.
“It was really overwhelming. I didn’t know what I was doing,” Campbell says. “These guys took me under their wing and made sure I didn’t step on landmines.”
Five weeks and four cover stories later, Campbell flew back to the states where Hondros met him at the airport.
“He picked my brain asking me how I did it,” Campbell remembers. “I really infected Chris with this enthusiasm to go do it. When Kosovo began a few years later, he was off to the races.”
Hondros went to the front lines of the conflict, documenting mass funerals, the rise of the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian refugees.
“Chris immediately found his stride,” Campbell says. “That was what he was meant to do in life.”
Hondros and Campbell worked together some in Kosovo, also in Sierra Leone in early 2001. “It’s the whole teamwork thing, the boys are back, it’s the Campbell/Hondros writer/photographer team doing our thing,” Campbell says.
Then planes flew into the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11.
“The minute 9/11 happened, he was out the door and never looked back,” Campbell continues.
“He was in Pakistan in the days after 9/11; in Afghanistan; he was with the first vanguard of photographers that went into Iraq. He just kept going back, over and over again.”
His photos changed the way people understood wars and conflicts around the world.
Hondros often asked Campbell to join him, but he mostly refused, focusing on local and national journalism in the U.S., a young family, writing books and eventually starting a new business, The Fort Collins Weekly with current BW editor Joel Dyer.
“This period of [Hondros’] life, basically from 2001 onward, he had some very formative experiences that, because I didn’t go with him, I couldn’t understand the scope of what they were like,” Campbell says. “And this is where part of my understanding of who he was as a person eluded me. I didn’t even realize how much it had eluded me until he was completely gone and I took on the task of reconstructing his life and representing his legacy on screen.”
The two were last together in Benghazi, Libya, in the days before Hondros was killed. A few weeks before, out of the blue, Hondros had sent a text with a one-word question: “Libya?” This time, Campbell agreed.
The childhood friends were together again, and Campbell was able to see how his friend had changed.
“When I first went to Bosnia, the seasoned guys were helping me out,” Campbell says. “And then when I’m now in Libya, the seasoned guys are helping me out and Chris is one of the seasoned guys.”
The two covered international criminal court investigations about war crimes and spent hours trying to escape a hospital caught in the middle of a firefight between rebels and government forces as the sun was setting. After two weeks Campbell headed home, while Hondros and other photojournalists talked about heading to Misurata.
“The people that I was with were doing it for the utmost noble reasons in our profession,” Campbell says. “And the reasons were to be a witness to what was going on.”
The city was completely besieged and the only way in or out was a 20-hour boat ride. But these photographers weren’t thrillseekers, Campbell says.
“Chris and the other people were far more sober about the risks and what they were getting into,” Campbell says. “There’s a bit of fatalistic resolve.”
On April 20, 2011, a group of photographers including Hondros and Tim Heatherington covered an intense firefight spilling from houses into the streets.
Later that day, the group decided to go back out and see if anything was happening. While walking down a street, a rocket-propelled grenade suddenly exploded in the middle of the group. Hetherington was hit in the leg and eventually bled to death. Hondros died a few hours later of severe brain trauma.
“I was thunderstruck when Chris got killed. I couldn’t believe it,” Campbell says. “I say that with a good degree of embarrassment. … I was there, I got shelled, I got shot at just like everybody else. But you’re under this ridiculous impression that somehow because you’re there to observe it all, you’re going to be protected. It’s so not true. It’s demonstrably, obviously not true.”
That morning, Campbell started writing at 7 a.m., noticing he had an unanswered email from Hondros that had come in a few days earlier. It was a long thread of exchanges between the friends, and Hondros last message said he was headed to Misurata. Campbell wrote back, “be careful.”
Not long after, a Twitter alert flashed on Campbell’s computer screen — something along the lines of “#Libya Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington killed in Misurata.”
“It didn’t compute at all,” Campbell says. “It was one of those things that come up and then it slowly fades off and I was like, ‘Did I just fucking hallucinate that?’”
It was hard to get information, but soon Campbell got the call, confirming that Hondros was gone. The rest of the day — and year really — was a blur as Campbell was overcome by the grief of losing his childhood friend.
But the fog eventually began to wear off, and Campbell, along with videographer Mike Shum, started thinking about making a documentary to honor Hondros. The idea started as a short film that would follow Campbell as he traveled to Liberia and other war zones to meet the subjects of some of Hondros’ most famous images.
In 2003, while covering the civil war in Liberia, Hondros had photographed Liberian government commander Joseph Duo jumping in the air on a bridge, celebrating having just shot a rocket-propelled grenade into rebel forces.
Shortly after Hondros’ death, Duo reached out to Campbell via Facebook. It turns out Hondros had been paying for Duo’s school tuition for years, following his progress on surprise stopovers in Liberia.
“Let’s go to Liberia and have you meet Joseph for the first time,” Shum suggested to Campbell. “What a weird intersection that you guys have this one person in common.”
This seed of an idea quickly snowballed into the project that became Hondros.
“It would be me searching for those bits and pieces of my friend through the experiences of folks that he encountered in photographs and the places that were important to him,” Campbell says.
Campbell knew that Hondros sometimes kept up with the people he had met and photographed under extraordinary circumstances. He wanted to capture those stories.
“On paper when you’re learning about this craft, you’re told that you’re just a machine and you’re there just to record everything that happens,” Campbell says. “You’re in it for all of 10 seconds and you realize how absurd that entire construct is. … We’re humans, we’re not machines. It’s hard to look away from a little girl covered in the blood of her parents.”
Not only did Campbell go to Liberia to find Duo, (who just recently ran for local office in Monrovia, Liberia’s capital) he also traveled to Iraq for the film in search of Samar Hassan, the little girl in an emotionally charged 2005 photograph by Hondros taken after her family was killed by U.S. soldiers at a surprise checkpoint.
As Campbell called around his journalist friends trying to track her down, he heard that actress Jamie Lee Curtis was also looking for the girl. Turns out Curtis, a serious amateur photographer, felt a strong connection to Hondros’ work and was trying to learn more about his subjects as well.
She eventually got involved in Campbell’s project in “a roundabout way [that] speaks to Chris’ heart that he put into his work,” Campbell says.
Campbell got Curtis’ email and dropped her a note. Curtis responded within five minutes, he says.
“She was really moved by the photo (of Samar) and the story behind it,” he says. “She was our mentor, sort of our shepherd through the processes of Hollywood.”
She’s also co-executive producer of the film, along with her godson Jake Gyllenhaal and others. With this support, Campbell was able to take the film beyond “a tribute to my fallen friend” and into an award-winning documentary coming to Netflix in March.
Campbell finished Hondros a year ago, saving the final edits on the closing scene for the last day — the scene where his friend is killed.
“We’ve got to do it,” Campbell remembers telling final editor and co-writer Jenny Golden. “We’ve got to put him to rest.”
Making the film didn’t necessarily teach Campbell anything new about his childhood friend. Rather, it reinforced what he always knew; Hondros was relatable to everyone one he encountered, memorable to anyone he came in contact with, even if he rarely came out from behind the camera.
“Whether you were a child soldier or a U.S. soldier, he could find common ground,” Campbell says. “And that was always reflected in his photographs. You rarely needed an explanation of what was going on in the photos. You didn’t need to read the captions or anything because he caught some sort of thread of humanity that connects the viewer and the subject. Especially in a polarized climate, which he was usually shooting in, to be able to look at the photographs and recognize a little of yourself in what you’re seeing on the screen or the page is a remarkable accomplishment.
“And Chris was able to do that over and over and over again.”
On the bill: Hondros. Denver Film Festival, Sie Film Center, 2510 E. Colfax Ave., Denver. 4:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 10, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Nov. 11, 4:30 p.m., Sunday, Nov. 12.