Chris Hondros knew what he wanted to be a photojournalist from the time he was quite young, something Greg Campbell could speak to personally, having known him from the time they were freshmen in high school in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Though they would go to different colleges – Hondros to North Carolina State and Campbell to University of North Carolina at Greensboro, they were connected not only by their hometown but in their choice of career, since Campbell would go onto cover the Balkan war in Kosovo and the diamond trade in Sierra Leone as a writer – his book “Blood Diamonds” was the basis for the 2006 Leonardo DiCaprio film – while Hondros flung himself into conflict zones the world over, venturing into Liberia and Iraq to bring the realities of the region into the pages of the New York Times among other major newspapers around the globe. Once they made business cards together, hoping folks would overlook their age to let them do serious coverage of the Bill Clinton presidential campaign as collegians and suddenly, Campbell and Hondros were breaking the kind of stories separately that propelled them to the top of their profession.
It is this knowledge, a mix of personal intimacy and professional respect, that makes Campbell’s film “Hondros” so remarkable, as well as the fact that its subject was such an extraordinary person. Made in the wake of Hondros’ death in 2011 while on assignment in Libya, the film radiates with the kind of insight that only someone who not only knew his friend so well, but understood what he did from a professional perspective could achieve. “Hondros” is a riveting biography of a man who made friends everywhere he went, but never stayed anywhere for long, leaving as much of an impression as lasting as any of his pictures and making a habit of following up with the people he took photos of, honoring the responsibility that comes with snapping his photos at a time of great personal trauma. His compassion is what framed his wartime photos, bringing the horrors inside of them out in terms that made it palatable to absorb and process and as colleagues such as Tyler Hicks, now a NY Times photographer who once interned for Hondros, and Patrick Whalen, his former editor at Getty Images, and even some subjects relay the stories around his pictures, you come to realize the unique combination of mind, eye and heart he brought to every snapshot he took.
While “Hondros” was born out of tragic circumstances, it is truly a celebration of the intrepid photojournalist’s life, able to continue his mission of bringing the the world closer to wherever one lives as his work cut across geographical and emotional distance and doing so quite literally this week as the film arrives in theaters and on VOD. On the eve of the film’s release, Campbell reflected on finding the right way to honor his friend, traveling across the world and going through his own closets to create a complex, comprehensive portrait of someone who specialized in just that.
Was the impulse immediate to make a movie about Chris just after his passing?
The impulse to do something to memorialize his legacy and his life was pretty immediate, I just didn’t know exactly how I was going to do it. I’m a print reporter and an author and it was clear early on that if I was going to do justice to Chris’ work, which is visually stunning, a book wouldn’t be adequate. A film was probably the more logical approach, but never having made one before, I took a little bit of time to make sure this was something I wanted to commit to because it’s Chris’ legacy, it’s Chris’ memory and I wanted to make sure that I had the right tools to do it justice. Before really embarking on the film full guns, I made sure to consult with a bunch of filmmakers I knew and get some people onboard who knew what they were doing and provide some guidance as I went forward with it, and I approached it with caution, but once we got rolling, it was all in.
Where do you even begin from a story standpoint? Do you begin with your own personal memory?
A little bit. We started in a very small little chunk of the film with Joseph Duo in Liberia, this Liberian commander that Chris had made famous with his photograph. [Joseph] had contacted me after Chris’ death. I had never spoken to him before, but he expressed his condolences and his own sorrow at [Chris’] passing and we were just chatting on Facebook and it quickly became clear to me that this guy had a different experience and friendship with Chris than I had. My loss of him was very sudden and I felt there was more to learn about my friend, as I think you could say about anybody that you’re close to.
So initially, we just said, “Let’s meet Joseph Duo” and I’ll tell him a little bit about what I know of Chris and he can tell me how he knows him and maybe we can fill in some blanks in our own knowledge of our mutual friend. From there, it really snowballed. It became apparent that there were a lot of people in the world who had similar experiences, who Chris had nurtured these other relationships [with] and felt very fondly towards him, so that’s how the film roughly ended up looking, but in terms of my own friendship with him, that was a real calibration in terms of how much do we make me a character and how much does my friendship with him come to the center stage from time to time in the film. I decided to mute it as much as possible without really losing sight of who I am as the guide and narrator and when we started to collect some archival footage that was really rich of Chris speaking about his career and his life, that became much easier to then make Chris the narrator of his own story.
You’ve said you had to sift through over 25,000 photographs of Chris’ work and one of the best things about the film I feel is you can sense that for all that you show, every one you include was chosen with a specific reason. What was it like to figure that out?
That was a challenge. It was a wealth of choices, and there are things that I didn’t even know that he covered in countries I’d forgotten he’d been to – that’s how vast his body of work is. [laughs] But there were certain key photographs that were obvious to anchor the film — the Joseph Duo photo, the Samar Hassan series and his photos from Libya and we just saw this real opportunity for the photos to be this storytelling pool, which of course is what Chris did for a living. When we began looking at it like that, then it was like oh, we have a real opportunity here to tell a movie almost in stills. Obviously, there’s more to it, but we ended up with between 250 and 280 photographs of Chris’ work, not even counting the photos of him that other people had taken, and it was a puzzle.
It was tricky to put together. I don’t think I ever found a photograph of him working in Kosovo, which was a part of the whole story, and then other times when we were like, we need a photo of a soldier standing by a truck or something, and sometimes we’d only be able to find an appropriate one in a different country or a different era, so we would have to go back to the drawing board. But that’s one of the things I’m really proud of. The editors on the project were very instrumental in helping choose the types of photos that we chose to display.
You also followed in Chris’ footsteps to some degree to the places he had taken photographs and I understand the search for Samar Hassan, the young girl in Iraq whose parents died just before Chris took one of his most famous photos, helped clarify the structure of the film. How so?
There were a number of things going into our decision to find Samar Hassan, and it sounds like a little open-ended decision because I didn’t know what she was going to say — I didn’t even know if she was going to agree to go on camera before we went out there and I gave her that choice before we even set up the camera, was “Do you want to do this?” and she was eager to recount this important event in her life — and that’s why I wanted to go do it. It was a seminal event in Chris’ life. It obviously changed everybody who was involved in it, including the soldier that was there and we got to hear throughout the years since that photograph was taken how it impacted Chris, how it impacted the soldier and the person we hadn’t heard from was still alive and well and living in Iraq and capable of offering her own perspective to what occurred.
So I felt a journalistic duty to give [Samar] the opportunity if she wanted it and when she made her statements on camera, it was very powerful and very moving in the moment. It was a little surprising at first, just because the emotion is so raw, but that proved why we needed to go there. Otherwise, she would not have been heard from and the audience could be left to fill in the blanks about what her own experience is and I didn’t realize how critical it was [to the structure of the film] until after it had happened because in my view, that whole scene really shows the many, many complexities of the environments Chris worked in and the difficulty in being able to sort through the decisions that are made [by everyone on the ground], whether it’s to open fire on a car that’s approaching or to get the ball rolling to have some medical assistance for some newly orphaned and paralyzed little boy. [This moment] shows the murky and paradoxical world that Chris worked in.
You mentioned all the countries you only learned now that he visited. Were there qualities that you didn’t know about him that surprised you in making this?
Definitely, there was. One was his singular dedication to what he did. He was extremely skilled as a photographer, but I think what gets lost is that he worked on those skills. He practiced them. He took them very seriously and to go back to the Samar Hassan photo, the way that photo is framed with a little girl as the anchor of the photograph, surrounded by murky military figures with hints of violence…more than hints, an extreme patina of violence around it, is something that he actually rehearsed it seemed, from the every beginning [of his career]. When we were going through photographs from Kosovo and Pakistan and other regions that he covered, he really tended to focus on the children. On top of that, he would frame an anonymous military figure either in the foreground or side by side, always with this focus on the children’s perspective. And it just occurred to me when we were pulling the film together that he was preparing for a moment when he was going to need those muscle memory skills to come into play. Obviously, I’m sure he didn’t know what was going to happen [in Iraq before taking that picture]. In fact, I know he thought the car was going to explode, but he was able to switch gears so quickly from “Oh my God, this car is going to blow up and that’s what I’m going to take pictures of” to “Here’s this tragedy,” because he had practiced that particular framing. It just goes to show what a sublime photographer he was and how seriously he took his profession.
Because there are so many amazing stories you probably couldn’t fit into the film, was there anything that didn’t make the cut but that you miss?
I’m really happy with where the film landed. You’re right, there are a lot of stories we could’ve told and a lot of things that we included in earlier cuts and you know, they’re fun to think of in terms of [being] his friend and the memories that they evoke. But from a personal perspective, I think the film is stronger for the things that we had to cull out. And that’s any story, right? You can’t tell everything, so deciding which parts of someone’s life, especially in a biographical piece, you have a lot of responsibility and we just decided to hone in on his maturation as a photographer, as a dedicated, single-minded person from a young age who knew what he wanted and went on to achieve it. Then along the way [he] discovered, “Oh, I got shot up in Iraq and got out without a hair out of place – and that’s an anomaly.” [Or with] Joseph Duo, “I can involve myself in the lives of select people from time to time behind the scenes,” and there’s a happy ending with Joseph Duo and Samar Hassan is the counterbalance to that, so by the end of the film — and the end of his life, I think he became really well-rounded in terms of what he could expect from his work and his photography.
What’s it been like sharing Chris’ life and memory with audiences as you’ve traveled with the film?
It’s been so wonderful to see people connecting with a person who was so important to me and so important, in my opinion, to our understanding of how the world works when he covered the things that he did. And it’s just been lovely to see people reacting the way I hoped they would at certain points in the film. We tried to put a little levity in there to break some of the tension and it’s nice to hear folks laughing along with Chris’ mother, for instance, when we gently mock him for wearing a turtleneck to Iraq. Those are the things that really rounded him out and made him who he was and it’s extremely gratifying to see the wonderful response the film has gotten.