It was April 20, 2011. A Wednesday. I was sitting in the Milligan College dining hall in beautiful springtime Tennessee and, while munching salad, scrolled through headlines on my laptop. Clicking one that said “Photojournalists killed in Libya”, I read the first paragraph, which made my food lose its taste. By the time I reached the bottom of the article the world itself felt different, like a chunk had just been hacked out of it and knocked into oblivion. Chris Hondros, a photojournalist whose work so often inspired me, was dead.
I didn’t know Chris personally, and the only words I had spoken to him were embarrassingly trite. Eleven weeks before his death, on February 2 in the chaos of Cairo’s Tahrir Square, I saw a photographer crouched by a curb who I believe was Chris. He was photographing a weary-looking man, leaned back against a tree, who had just been bandaged up after having a rock or piece of concrete slam into his face. “Good idea,” I said to the quiet photographer as I waited to also photograph the man. As Chris rose up and I knelt down, our eyes met for a brief instant. And that, I think, is the extent of my encounter with a man whose work I had followed for years and who was now dead in the Libyan city of Misrata, his body to be loaded onto a ship bound for Benghazi and then shipped back home.
In Frederick Buechner’s book Godric, the main character says of a dead loved one: “It’s like a tune that ends before you’ve heard it out.” That’s how I felt about Chris’ death — and that of Tim Hetherington, who had also died in Misrata. I respected their work, the stories they wanted to share with the world, the images they brought home to us. I mean, look at Hondros’s series of photographs taken one night in Tal Afar, Iraq; it includes the heart-wrenching, iconic image of five-year-old Samar Hassan, soaked in blood and crying out after her parents have just been gunned down in a tragic mistake by U.S. soldiers.
The world is not whole. Ask the Egyptian man in the photo at the top of this post, or the Egyptian man in the photo below. Both were hit in the head in a downtown square where others would die of their injuries. Ask Chris, if you could, and he’d tell you about child soldiers in Liberia, or a mother with hacked-off hands holding her baby in Sierra Leone. Ask Libyans living in Misrata right now, or those who carried the bodies of two dead photographers to a ship.
What is the world? Here’s a partial answer: It’s a place with chunks ripped away, and where many tunes end before we’ve heard them out.
To mark the fifth anniversary today, Time has published a short piece in which it asks friends, “What did you learn from Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington?”