4:01 PM EDT, April 21, 2011
When two photographers were killed covering the battles in Libya this week, it was easy to ask who would put themselves in that kind of danger just for a photo?
American Chris Hondros of Getty Images and British filmmaker Tim Hetherington were killed covering fighting on Tripoli Street in Misrata, Libya on April 20. Hetherington was confirmed dead almost immediately but Hondros’ status was unclear for several hours as medics tried to save him despite severe head injuries.
Both photographers were at the top of their professions. Hetherington was nominated for Oscar for a documentary film and Hondros had been a Pulitzer finalist. Their friends, though, say it wasn’t the awards they were seeking. They were committed to telling the story.
Gary Green is a photographer at the Orlando Sentinel and he has known Hondros for many years. Green was interning at the Piqua Daily Call in Ohio and Hondros was chief photographer at the Troy Daily News in the early ‘90s when they met. They were part of a pack of young photographers who all would go on to careers in journalism. Green went back to Ohio University and Hondros followed, working on his Masters. They kept in touch through the years.
They would exchange photos from their assignments through email, comparing work and challenging each other to grow as photographers and feeding off each other’s passion for their profession. Often Green was amazed at the side projects Hondros was doing and would ask him how he found the time.
“He’d say, ‘Gary, you’ve got to find the time. There’s no excuses,’” says Green.
Hondros soon got a job and moved to New York to be closer to the big news agencies. Green said Hondros would save his money to finance big overseas projects he would pursue on his own time.
He planned so well that he decided to buy a cheap car worth maybe $600, knowing that he could leave the dumpy vehicle on the streets of New York while he was gone and no one would steal it. But in the trunk of that car, Green says Hondros always had a sport coat he could pull out and dust off so he’d be cleaned up and ready to go.
Where Hondros ended up going were some of the most unstable areas of the world. There was a time when those people were called “war photographers” but politics have gotten more complicated and things happen more quickly and less predictible than a traditional war. Today, it’s more common to say “crisis photographers.”
Photographers in these crisis regions often see more danger than the combatants themselves. A solider is involved in the firefights his group encounters but otherwise often has long stretches of quiet in between. Photographers pack up when things slow down and go to the next hotspot, seeing more action.
This increased and sustained intensity can be engaging and some people enter into it for the adrenaline rush. But Green said Hondros wasn’t that way.
“I don’t think Chris ever said ‘I want to be a war photographer,” says Green. “It wasn’t about getting pictures of bombs going off.”
Green believes that for Hondros, it was about covering big stories that changed people’s lives. When looking for his next international project, Hondros would scour newspapers looking not for wars but for places where there was about to be big social changes.
“He clearly had a desire to get to know people we was covering,” says Green. Hondros liked to tell a story about returning to Kosovo for a follow-up assignment and a young boy recognizing Hondros from an earlier trip. The boy ran up to him running up to him yelling, “Chris! Chris is here!” And Hondros knew that he had made an impact, however small.
But it’s not just the personal encounters that motivate the photographers. It’s how their photos can reveal and explain the world’s politics and the effects on people’s lives, many who have no one else to speak for them. The photographers are often the only witnesses.
“They absolutely believe in the importance of their story,” said Green of his colleagues. “You have to believe in the importance of the story to put yourself in that situation.”
Getty Images recently had another photographer captured and missing for several days in Libya. In a statement confirming Hondros’ death, Getty Images CEO Jonathan Klein, wrote on the organization’s blog about Hondros' commitment to the story in Libya despite the dangers.
“When he accompanied our colleague, photographer Joe Raedle, home from captivity in Libya a few weeks ago, he sat with me and told me in no uncertain terms that he had to cover the stories and take the pictures — so that the world could know what was really happening and could act to prevent more human suffering.”