n just a few weeks, friends were to pack Sacred Hearts-St. Stephens Church in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see Chris Hondros, the Pulitzer Prize-nominated photographer, finally tie the knot. For the 40-year-old Hondros, his Aug. 6 vows with fellow photographer Christina Piaia were supposed to be the start of a new life.
After years of a nomadic life, traveling the world with a camera slung over one shoulder capturing images of strife, Hondros was finally settling down. The once confirmed bachelor was anxious to start a family.
That changed on April 20 in Misrata, Libya, where Hondros and documentarian Tim Hetherington — known for his 2010 Afghanistan war film, Restrepo — were hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and killed while covering the Libyan rebellion. So, instead of a wedding, those same friends came to the New York church in April for Hondros’ funeral. As Piaia eulogized her fiancee, few seats in the church were empty. Hundreds of others watched from around the world, with the services being webcast. They watched from Libya, they mourned from Iraq.
In Cincinnati, where Hondros’ remarkable career got its start, friends watched as well, remembering the affable kid with a talent for tapping into a human factor with his camera.
Born in New York and raised in North Carolina, Hondros graduated from North Carolina State University, then earned a master’s degree from Ohio University. Between the two, he spent the summer of 1995 as an intern with The Cincinnati/Kentucky Post. Sixteen years and a mercurial career later, Hondros still counted his former Post colleagues as friends, keeping in touch via email and Facebook as he went from war zone to war zone.
“That was a part of Chris’ personality — he never forgot a friend,” says Randy Dieter, the former graphics editor at The Post who hired Hondros. “That included people that he photographed.”
Hondros found a home in The Post newsroom, almost literally.
Tim Stein, who served as photo editor for The Post until it closed in 2008, remembers arriving one early morning to a darkened newsroom to find Hondros sprawled atop his desk, fast asleep. Dieter, too, has a story about Hondros’ sleeping arrangements, having once walked into the newspaper’s dark room early one morning, tripping over the sleeping intern. He rarely went home.
It was an eccentricity that was laughed off, considering how talented he obviously was. Hondros’ photos not only captured the news but were also uniquely personal.
Stein tells a story of sending out Hondros for a picture of a Northern Kentucky family — the father, Jessie Courts, needed a kidney transplant. He was to get one, with his 17-year-old daughter as the donor. Instead of a single news photo, Hondros turned the assignment into a weeks-long photo essay of the family’s life, almost becoming a family member himself.
“He came to take one picture of my husband and my daughter for the story,” says Bobbie Courts, who still lives in Covington. “After he was done, he said, ‘Would you mind if I hang around?’ Over the next few weeks, he was there every day. He was there for the surgery and through recovery. He would come over for dinner. We got to know Chris pretty well.”
On April 20, she heard Hondros’ name on the news.
“I had the television on and heard them say Chris had been killed. I thought, ‘Oh, my God, not Chris,’ “ she says.
That personal connection would become a Hondros hallmark, even after he moved on from local news to the international stage with Getty Images. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his photos of the 2003 rebellion in Liberia, and was named a “Hero of Photography” by American Photo magazine for his work in Iraq including an iconic shot of a child covered with his parents’ blood, shot and killed by U.S. troops after failing to stop for a checkpoint.
Hondros tended to focus on the effects of war, putting a personal face on the strife and linking photographer and subject. An Iraqi boy, injured in the checkpoint shooting, was later transported to Boston for medical care thanks in part to Hondros’ photos.
As part of his Liberian coverage, Hondros’ photograph of a young dreadlocked rebel leaping for joy, having just fired off a rocket-propelled grenade, would become arguably his most famous shot. Two years later, Hondros returned to Liberia and tracked down the unknown fighter. He found 28-year-old Joseph Duo and formed an almost instant bond. Hondros would end up paying Duo’s tuition for a private school, helping him find new purpose as a computer technician.
Evan Eile, another Post alum, roomed with Hondros in college. Even now, it’s hard for Eile to fathom his friend’s career and the impact on the lives of those he photographed.
“It’s surprising when anyone you know becomes a world-famous, globetrotting photographer, but Chris believed in the power of photojournalism,” says Eile, now with USA Today. “Early on, he decided that if he was going to do this, he wanted to be there for the big stories where the stakes were high, stories that had impact. Some guys focused on the ‘bang-bang’ stuff. Chris knew it was about the people and how their lives are affected.”
The former roommates traded messages two days before that fateful day in Misrata. Eile remembers signing off with his customary “be careful.”
“Chris had been in so many (dangerous) situations and always found a way to come out fine,” Eile says. “I figured he’d be OK. This time, he wasn’t. That’s hard.”