Finding Chris Hondros: Film to explore life of slain war photographer through images

Holly Bailey
National Correspondent
Joseph Duo, a Liberian militia commander loyal to the government, exults after firing a rocket-propelled grenade at rebel forces at a key strategic bridge July 20, 2003 in Monrovia, Liberia. Government forces succeeded in forcing back rebel forces in fierce fighting on the edge of Monrovia's city center. (Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

Chris Hondros and Joseph Duo were the unlikeliest of friends. One was a veteran war photographer for Getty Images based in New York, the other a Liberian soldier who had dropped out of school in the 10th grade to go to war. Their lives couldn’t have been more different, save for a fleeting moment in July 2003 when an iconic image tied them together forever.

It was a photograph Hondros took of Duo, a commander of a militia backing then-Liberian President Charles Taylor, as he leapt in the air with rapturous joy moments after firing off a rocket-propelled grenade at rebel forces during the country’s deadly civil war.

The image of Duo frozen in midair, drunk in the glory of war, became not only an iconic reminder of the deadly conflict in Liberia but one of the most important images in modern war photography and a finalist for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize. It was one of the most famous photographs taken by Hondros, whose celebrated career was cut short when he was killed in an April 2011 mortar attack alongside fellow photographer Tim Hetherington while covering the war in Libya.

The story behind that photograph — and the subsequent friendship between Hondros and Duo — is the backbone of a documentary journalist Greg Campbell hopes to make about Hondros. Campbell, the author of “Blood Diamonds” and Hondros’ best friend, launched a Kickstarter campaign this week to fund “Hondros: A Life in Frames,” which will explore the photographer’s life by telling the stories behind some of his most famous photos.

“Most people just know about him through his photography and the images he shared with people around the world, but at the same time, he was also an amazing person behind the scenes … who got involved in the lives of his subjects and attempted to help them out by doing more than just taking their photographs,” Campbell said. “Not a lot of people know about that aspect of Chris because he was very humble, (and) it’s a story that deserves to be told.”

One of the key stories to be explored in the film is the relationship between Hondros and Duo, who didn’t formally meet until 2005 — two years after what was a chance meeting in Liberia. In 2003, Hondros had merely happened upon Duo and his militia of young men, many of whom were barely teenagers, as they were caught up in a fierce firefight in the capital city of Monrovia.

Photographer Chris Hondros stands in front of a burning building while on assignment on April 18, 2011, in Misrata, Libya. (Photo: Katie Orlinsky via Getty Images)

Duo — shirtless, dreadlocked and “manic,” as Hondros would later recall — had beckoned the photographer to join his ragtag platoon on a narrow bridge as they battled rebel soldiers. Within seconds, the commander had hoisted a rocket launcher onto his shoulder and fired toward his enemy. As it detonated, Duo spun around and leapt in the air, shrieking with joy —a  jubilant battle dance captured in full view of Hondros’ camera. Moments later, Duo was gone, off to the next battle. Hondros hadn’t even had the chance to learn his name.

But Hondros, who moved on to cover other conflicts, including the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and subjects closer to home including the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, couldn’t forget about the man on the bridge.

“He constantly wondered what had happened to him,” Campbell recalled.

In 2005, Hondros went back to Monrovia to look for the man in his photo. With some help from locals, he found Duo, then 28, decommissioned and unemployed, living in poverty with his wife and three kids.

Duo told Hondros that he wanted a better life, and while they were little more than strangers, Hondros felt a kinship with him and wanted to help. Within days, he had found a private school in Monrovia that would not only let Duo enroll and finish his high school education but would teach him how to use a computer, an important skill in a developing country. Hondros paid for Duo’s tuition, telling his friends that he simply wanted the man to have a chance at determining his own fate.

But what Hondros’ closest friends did not know until after his death was that the photographer had continued to play a role in Duo’s life over the years, checking his report cards and even paying for part of the man’s college education as he studied criminal justice.

Campbell said he found out about his friend’s generosity after Duo contacted him and others who had been close to Hondros on Facebook to pass on his condolences about the photographer’s death and tell them how important he had been in his life.

“I kept thinking about how much I was learning about Chris through this guy’s unique context, and how he was learning about Chris through my eyes, and how we might merge our little orbits of understanding about him and each leave a little richer,” Campbell said. “And then we just kept hearing other stories about how Chris had touched people’s lives and had an impact through other photos.”

As part of the film, Campbell hopes to travel to Iraq to interview Samar Hassan, who was photographed by Hondros in January 2005 moments after her parents were killed when U.S. soldiers opened fire on their car in Tel Afar. The image of Hassan, then only 5, screaming and covered in blood, was one of the most powerful images of the Iraq war and one of the first to truly capture the horror of the conflict on the country’s civilian population.

Shortly Hondros’ death, the New York Times tracked down Hassan , who now lives with relatives in Mosul. She had never seen the photo that Hondros took of her. The story was so moving that it prompted actress Jamie Lee Curtis to contact the paper to ask how she might support Hassan or if there was a charity being set up in Hondros’ honor. She subsequently became an early supporter of Campbell’s film, lending her voice to the initial trailer and helping to find financial backers.

The documentary, which is set to begin filming later this summer, comes just over two years after Hondros was killed. Campbell said he had been thinking for a while about how he might honor his friend’s memory. But emotionally, he wasn’t sure if he was ready.

Joseph Duo (L), 28, a former Liberian government soldier, talks with photographer Chris Hondros at his home October 5, 2005 in Monrovia, Liberia. (Photo by Getty Images)

The two had been best friends since they met at age 14 in North Carolina. Campbell fondly notes he was there when Hondros first became serious about photography. Later they traveled a similar trajectory, covering conflicts in war-torn places like Kosovo and Sierra Leone. While Campbell had taken a break from the front lines, Hondros asked him to join him in Libya only weeks before his death — and Campbell went, leaving a week before Hondros died.

“His last words (in person) to me were, ‘We got you out of here unscathed,’” Campbell recalled, “and he gave me a big hug.”

The two emailed until the day Hondros died — and Campbell said that only recently has he been able to feel that he was in the right frame of mind to pay honor to his friend.

“My grief hit me like a freight train, and for the first year after his death, I was incapable of even processing it. I couldn’t comprehend that he was gone. I didn’t honestly realize how much I loved him until he was gone,” Campbell said. “I had no distance from it emotionally. I wanted be able to think about it objectively. … I don’t want to mythologize him. I just wanted to do justice to his memory.”

Among some in the photojournalism community, there has been a sense that Hondros’ death has been somewhat overshadowed by the loss of Tim Hetherington, who was killed just weeks after attending the Academy Awards as a nominee for his documentary film “Restrepo.” Since then, Hetherington has been memorialized in books and in an HBO documentary produced by his colleague Sebastian Junger.

In April, photographer Peter van Agtmael wrote in an essay for Time Magazine’s LightBox that the most “troubling part” of the deaths of Hetherington and Hondros is that “Chris has somehow been dropped from public view.”

“He was a consummate professional and classical photojournalist; quietly, consistently and diligently covering all the major conflicts since the late 90′s in an even-handed style. Amidst his steady approach are two icons of war photography from Liberia and Iraq. He was also popular and highly respected by his peers,” van Agtmael wrote. “Yet his name is often mentioned as an afterthought, if at all.”

Asked about that critique, Campbell, who met Hetherington in Libya when he was traveling with Hondros, said one of his main motivations for doing a film on his friend's legacy was that no one seemed to be telling Hondros' story.

Hetherington, Campbell said, was a “great person” and “deserves every tribute that comes his way.” But, he said, “I didn’t want Chris to become a footnote. I didn’t want him to slip through the cracks and be forgotten.”