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.
As a new feature film, Steven Silver's The Bang Bang Club, demonstrates, the men who shoot scenes of conflict are a tough breed who ultimately sacrifice as much as they take. Based on a memoir by photographers Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich, the film just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is available on demand for a limited time. It tells the story of one strutting cohort of shooters working in South Africa in the early 1990s, a group of guys who became unusually distinguished, thanks both to their talent and their fortune in working in a place undergoing wrenching political change. The political backdrop is the last-ditch struggle of the white apartheid government to enlist the Zulu-heavy Inkatha party against the Nelson Mandela-led African National Congress. Terrible black-on-black violence ensues.
The film dutifully explores all the ethical dilemmas of war photography, including whether photographers have a duty to intervene—even at the expense of neutrality, let alone getting the money shot. One of the young photographers for The Star of Johannesburg, Greg Marinovich (played by Ryan Philippe), wins a Pulitzer for his photo of a Zulu man being incinerated and hacked to death. But in between taking snaps of the atrocity, he pleaded with the assailants to leave the victim alone. We'll stop, came the reply, "if you stop taking pictures."
A second photographer in the group, the troubled, drug-abusing Kevin Carter, also won a Pulitzer, but his turned out to be more controversial. Where Marinovich was generally untroubled by questions about whether he'd made a sufficient attempt to intervene in the murder he photographed, Carter (played in the film by Taylor Kitsch) found himself ill equipped to answer queries about his instantly notorious photo. You've seen it: A famished Sudanese girl is alone in a field, tucked into fetal position, seemingly near death. And patiently lurking in the background is a vulture.
What happened to the girl, people demanded to know. Did you help her, or were you too busy framing your prizewinning shot like the metaphorical vulture that you are? (Weirdly for longtime attendees of Full Frame, the New York Times photo editor who calls Carter with the news of his Pulitzer is none other than Nancy Buirski, who later founded the documentary festival in Durham. Buirski plays herself in this telephone conversation.)
Although The Bang Bang Club sometimes tries too hard to milk the swaggering bad-boy clichés of the war photographer—the drugs, the sex, the cackling in the face of gunfire—it ends up being a powerful evocation of the physical and spiritual hazards of the work. Only two of the four "club" members are still alive: One died covering the end of apartheid, while Carter killed himself not long after winning his Pulitzer.
Of the two surviving members, Marinovich gave up combat photography after being shot on four occasions, while Silva lost his legs (and suffered grievous internal injuries) after stepping on a mine last fall while in Afghanistan for The New York Times. Last week, however, Silva told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air that he hopes to return to combat zones on prosthetic legs.
Humanitarianism, vainglory, a thirst for danger, a need to make art, a need to make a living—surely all these motives are present in varying degrees in war photographers. In Diary [embedded below], a short film that was seen by too few people at this year's Full Frame, Tim Hetherington offered up something like a window into his soul. It's a sensory evocation of his life in war zones, of strange hotel rooms, mosquito netting, long distance phone calls and rides into the bush, down scary-looking roads, with smiling, gun-toting teenagers riding in the back. It's a beautiful distillation of a decade of his life. But it was only recently that Hetherington began to be famous—he was at Full Frame a year ago with Restrepo, for which he was nominated for an Oscar this year along with his co-director, Sebastian Junger. And it was surely due to that Oscar nomination that his death received so much attention.
While Hetherington's death—along with that of Hondros—is an occasion for sadness, it's also clear that he was fully aware of the danger he embraced. But what is the value of these photos in an age when we're flooded with images, millions of them captured by our cameras and cell phones and dumped into Photobuckets and uploaded to Flickr and broadcast via Instagram and plastered on our Facebook walls? Pictures are everywhere, including images of suffering. One fears that Hondros and Hetherington had to die for us to really take a look at their work; one hopes, however, that the work of capturing those images was its own reward for them, and that their work will outlive our generation and stand as an imperishable record of our violent age.
Correction (April 28, 2011): Hondros' photo of the 5-year-old girl in Tal Afar, Iraq, is from 2005, not 2003.