Photographer killed in Libya remembered as 'fearless'

News & ObserverApril 21, 2011 

Chris Hondros, an North Carolina State University graduate who spent the past decade taking photos in the world's nastiest war zones, was killed Wednesday while covering a battle in Libya.

Hondros, 41, was one of a group of journalists who came under fire during a battle between rebels and government troops in Misrata. Tim Hetherington, a documentary photographer who directed the Oscar-nominated "Restrepo," also was killed in the battle.

Employed by Getty Images, an international photo agency, Hondros has won some of photography's top awards for his work on the world's hottest battlegrounds — from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq to Sierra Leone.

In recent days, his images from Libya appeared across the world. On the day he died, his photo of a Libyan man digging a grave for a dead civilian stretched prominently across four columns of the front page of The Washington Post.

Born in New York City, Hondros was young when his family moved to Fayetteville, where his mother lives. He studied English literature at NCSU and graduated in 1993.

While an NCSU student, Hondros was photo editor of the Technician, the student newspaper. One day, Editor-in-Chief Bill Holmes told Hondros his photo budget was being cut.

So he quit.

"He wanted to do a good job and felt he needed the money and those resources," Holmes, now communications director for State Rep. Joe Hackney, the House minority leader. "That has always stuck with me."

Hondros then got a master's degree in visual communication from Ohio University and worked in that area before returning to North Carolina to work for The Fayetteville Observer, where he spent three years on the photo staff.

"He was very well-read," remembered Johnny Horne, the Fayetteville newspaper's photo editor. "He knew a lot about the world around him, which let him make the connections he made with so many people on assignments."

In Fayetteville, he snared top assignments. In 1996, he snapped photos of Hurricane Fran's catastrophic damage.

He left Fayetteville to join The Associated Press in New York City, then moved to Getty, where he set out to photograph the world's battlefields.

He was engaged to be married this summer.

He was always clear about his career ambitions, recalled JD Pooley, who became friends with Hondros when they worked at the Troy Daily News in Ohio during the mid-1990s.

"He could give two flying licks about shooting a basketball game," Pooley said Wednesday. "He wanted to be in a war zone."

But Pooley won't remember his friend as a reckless adrenaline junkie. Hondros went to war zones because the photos and stories were poignant, powerful and important. He had a healthy respect for war zones but didn't fear them, Pooley recalled. The photos made it worth it.

"He was fearless and had a passion for telling stories," Pooley said.

His work has been widely lauded. In 2004, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for work in war-torn Liberia. And in 2006, he received the Robert Capa Gold Medal, war photography's top honor, for his work in Iraq.

His best-known work may have come from the Liberian civil war. Among Hondros' photos are two shots of a young, bare-chested Liberian rebel. In one frame, he fires a rocket from a launcher resting on his shoulder. In the next frame, the exultant soldier leaps high in the air, smiling proudly for Hondros' camera, celebrating a direct hit.

Hondros wasn't overly boastful about his work, friends say, but he liked that photograph enough that he displayed it at his New York City apartment.

But he wanted more. He wondered about that young soldier. Did he survive? What happened to him?

So a year or two later, Hondros returned to Liberia and tracked him down. The former rebel had become a family man, enrolled in school.

Hondros chronicled that part of the young man's life as well, closing the loop.

"That was Chris," Pooley recalled. "He always thought about the people he photographed."

See a gallery of Chris Hondros' work at NewsObserver.com

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