The deaths last week of war photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington hit the Triangle in specific ways. Hondros was an N.C. State grad whose former colleagues at state newspapers posted touching tributes, while Hetherington's recent forays into documentary film have been featured in the last two years' Full Frame Documentary Film Festivals, including the one that took place earlier this month, just days before he died. On April 20, they were killed—murdered, perhaps—on a street in Misrata, Libya, where they were photographing house-to-house combat from the vantage point of anti-Gadhafi rebels.
While photographers like Hetherington and Hondros risked their lives repeatedly over the course of the last decade, the American public's perception of foreign conflicts during that time has not been shaped by any single unifying image—unlike the handful of such pictures that emerged from the Vietnam War, like the naked girl fleeing her napalmed village. Instead, the most iconic photos were the fuzzy, semipornographic snapshots taken by the Abu Ghraib prison guards. There, the act of taking the photographs was an act of aggression against the subjects, part of the prisoners' violation and humiliation.
Hetherington and Hondros, on the other hand, brought craft, humanity and artistry to their war photographs. But even pictures as thoughtfully and dispassionately composed as theirs are often fraught with moral dilemma and burdened by a sense of violation. Take, for example, Hondros' 2005 photo of a little girl in Tal Afar, Iraq—the 5-year-old is surrounded by Americans with guns, men who'd just mistakenly machine-gunned her family. The expression of unfathomable terror on her face is beyond description, and it was caught for us by an ambitious young shutterbug who'd been traveling with the troops who killed her parents.
But to blame Hondros for the scene would be to shoot the messenger, of course. Regardless of whether the photographer is prize-hungry and opportunistic or a mournfully unblinking witness to human evil and suffering, it is surely better for us to know this scene occurred than not know. And given the picture of Hondros that has emerged, of a classical music-loving photographer who hosted fundraisers for war victims in his Brooklyn loft, it hardly seems likely that he was merely a cynical, adrenaline-seeking violence chaser. He may have had a taste for action—how could he not, if he returned to the wars time and again—and he no doubt thought it important for people back home to know about the violence across the ocean.
But he was also an artist. A recent visit to the Gregg Museum on the N.C. State campus revealed a hastily mounted exhibit of six Hondros prints in the museum's collection, Photographs by Chris Hondros [see slideshow at right]. The pictures are drawn from Hondros' work in such places as Angola, Afghanistan, Iraq, Kosovo, Liberia and Pakistan.
"He would always try to be in the thick of things," says museum director Roger Manley. "When things would start to settle down or get quiet, he'd move somewhere else. So his subject wasn't a people or a conflict, it was conflict itself."
If conflict is the subject, what is striking is how the photos attain the level of art. In the composition, the lighting and the subjects, we see classical art motifs. A large room with a few Angolan refugees, for example, has soft light coming from high windows to the side, thus resembling Velásquez's "Las Meninas." A portrait of two grieving Kosovo women, brightly illuminated against black negative space, Manley notes, is an obvious descendant of Italian Renaissance portraiture, in the chiaroscuro tradition of Caravaggio. And the women, Manley adds, resemble St. Anne and Mary attending the Crucifixion.
In the museum, context falls away, and shape, composition, posture, light and expression become paramount. The screaming little girl of Tal Afar, Manley says when I ask, recalls Francis Bacon. And to me, a photo of two Afghan soldiers dragging a dead fighter looks like a Pietà—but you have to read the catalog text to know that the dead man is a Taliban fighter and the men dragging him are his enemies.
"Classical art motifs are coming out of the way people think and see things. When Gericault painted "The Raft of the Medusa," with these guys starving to death on this little raft in the middle of the ocean, he's painting in a way that certainly affects things like [the photo of the Afghan soldiers]," Manley says.
But while Hondros may have seen a few of his hundreds of thousands of images find their way into museums and private collections, his daily bread was simply taking pictures for his photo agency, a tough, nasty job that requires grit, guile and a certain swashbuckling fearlessness to survive. Pain and suffering at the fringe of empire, the vast contested areas outside the developed world, wracked by war, poverty, famine and pestilence: this is the habitat of the modern Western war journalist.
"One of the big problems with war is that to some degree it's kind of fun," Manley says. "I've heard fighter pilots talk about it, I've heard tank commanders talk about it: causing mayhem or having powerful pieces of machinery under your control."
Manley says this as we're discussing one of Hondros' most famous photos, that of a Liberian soldier exulting in mid-firefight, having just nailed a target with his grenade launcher. Manley notes that Hondros—who was killed by an RPG or mortar shell—hung this photo in his apartment.