Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington: A Reflection

By David Walker

The deaths of Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington in Misrata, Libya on April 20 shocked the photography community, and went so far as to provoke anger and recriminations. In the last several months, other photojournalists have died in Tunisia, Cairo, and Iraq, but none of those deaths stirred the same level of public mourning or collective soul searching.

That’s understandable. Not only were Tim and Chris among the best contemporary photojournalists, but they were generous, caring men that so many people in the industry knew personally. No war photographer is invincible, but who among us doesn’t want to believe that some are too experienced, too good at what they do—not to mention doing too much good—to die so young and so tragically?

That no Western photojournalists with as many awards as they had have died in a war zone for decades only makes it easier to believe that war photographers have, if not immunity, then power over the odds, at least. It contributes to a collective denial that unfortunately may lead some young photographers into war zones without eyes wide open.

Much has been written about (and in praise of) the cool, quick-thinking minds of seasoned war photographers. No doubt experience and a sixth sense protects some more than others. But if those defenses failed photographers of Chris or Tim’s caliber, who’s really safe?

The obvious danger raises the question of why so many photographers take the risk, especially now that there is such a dearth of editorial clients willing to pay for it. Two other photographers—Guy Martin and Michael Christopher Brown—were seriously injured in the attack that killed Tim and Chris. They were in Libya on spec, trying to pick up assignments.

In fact, photographers have poured into the Middle East to cover the uprisings. Inspired by “the enormous amount of work that was not being picked up or published,” Wall Street Journal photo editors Julien Jourdes and Matthew Craig mounted an exhibition of unpublished images by 13 of those photographers.

Some are no doubt driven by a measure of desperation. Conflict coverage may be hard to sell, but there’s even less market for other forms of photojournalism. Just as importantly, though, war photography is celebrated for its machismo, camaraderie, and nobility in various ways. There are awards for the best work, stories about the derring-do (and movies. Now in a theater near you: The Bang Bang Club.) Photojournalists also believe conflict coverage can fast-track their careers, if they manage to get noticed.

Those dynamics were underscored in an April 22 post on the New York Times Lens blog that all but cast Martin’s nearly fatal injuries as a badge of honor, and elevated the stature of his cohort of “Promising Young Photographer[s]” in their 20s.

“The uprising in Egypt proved to be a turning point for Mr. Martin’s war family. There, they learned about the very real perils of conflict photography,” the author’s wrote. What was most troubling was that the story revealed —and arguably perpetuated—the belief of young photographers in their own exceptionalism, their own invincibility. For instance, it describe a decision Martin and his group, including Ed Ou and Ivor Prickett, made in Egypt that could have gotten them injured or even killed—but didn’t because, as Ou said, “We kept each other safe.”

“After that,” Prickett is quoted as saying, “it was impossible to say, ‘O.K., that’s enough.” And on to Libya they went, where they ultimately couldn’t keep each other safe.

Of course, war photographers do immeasurable service to all of us by bearing witness. We must be confronted with images of war and its consequences. Otherwise, there can hardly be honest debate about war or global politics, or much hope of making the world a better place. Nonetheless, photographers owe it to themselves and their families to weigh the costs of what they do.

On April 20, we happened to be editing a taped conversation for our upcoming “Heroes and Mentors” issue between photojournalists Don McCullin and Eugene Richards. McCullin covered wars in Biafra, Cyprus, Vietnam, Lebanon, and other hot spots. He recalls leaving for assignments, and looking back to see his children waving goodbye.

“I often wondered, do they think to themselves, Is he coming back?” McCullin said, while remembering with sadness a colleague—Gilles Caron—who disappeared in Cambodia, leaving his wife and children behind.

Now, McCullin says, “I don’t sleep that well at night. I have so much stuff up here [in my head] that could drive me insane: torture, executions, bodies being taken to the Nile where they fed the crocodiles.” Compounding that distress are McCullin’s feelings of futility. “To be honest about it, I would say 90 percent of the work I’ve done in my life was a waste. I say it failed because the moment one war was sorted out, another one started. Have I achieved anything? So far, so bad. Nothing’s changed. “

McCullin quit war photography years ago, but other young, idealistic photographers with a calling (and perhaps a thirst for adventure) rushed in to take his place. We take those photographers for granted. And it would be difficult for anyone to talk them out of it, because young men and women are—just as McCullin once was—driven mostly by their ambitions and idealism, not long-term considerations like their health and well-being.

So photographers will inevitably go off to cover wars, for all sorts of reasons. A few will get killed, and it will be a tragedy each time. No matter how good the pictures, or how prestigious the awards, nearly everyone—and not just the family and friends left behind—will doubt it was worth the loss.

Perhaps the adulation we bestow on war photographers in the meantime is the best we have to offer for their risk and sacrifice, and it is only human nature to banish from our minds the “what if” question. And so it hits us as unbelievable and unbearable when, on an otherwise uneventful Wednesday in April in New York, news arrives that two of our best have been killed, despite our desire to believe it couldn’t happen, and despite our presumption that they would put away their flak jackets soon enough, raise families, live, love and be loved. After all, they weren’t only photographers, but people who just wanted from life the things most of us do.

Related Articles:
Chris Hondros Dies of Injuries in Libya

Chris Hondros Remembered as Humanist, Friend

Tim Hetherington Killed In Libya

Hetherington Memorialized by Family, Colleagues and Subjects

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