War photographer Chris Hondros had a ferocious talent for framing pictures that appeared to casually encapsulate entire global crises. Most famously, there’s Hondros’s photo of a former child soldier, Joseph Duo, in midair on a bridge in Liberia: Duo is shirtless, with a rocket launcher slung over his shoulder and an expression of awe and terror on his face. This became one of the defining images of the Liberian civil war and of Hondros’s career, though Hondros continued to capture such iconic images at a reliable clip. Another one of his galvanizing photos is of a child, Samar Hassan, crouched in darkness and splattered with her parents’ blood after the latter were killed in the Tal Afar shooting in 2005. Such killings—erroneously committed by the American military occupying Iraq—were and are common, and Hondros’s images commanded readers’ attentions, telling stories that were easy to glance over when related in prose and statistics.
Hondros, a documentary co-written and directed by Hondros’s childhood friend and collaborator, Greg Campbell, is structured as a series of overlapping short stories. Campbell retraces several of Hondros’s steps years after wars have bred further violence, finding and interviewing subjects like Hassan and Brad Hammond, an American soldier involved in the Tal Afar shooting who refuses to forgive himself. Hassan won’t forgive him either, saying that even a blood offering wouldn’t satiate her need for vengeance. It’s jarring to hear Hassan, now a young woman, speak so virulently and viciously, as documentary participants often safeguard themselves with platitudes. Hassan evocatively contrasts with Hammond, a dramatically overweight veteran on a giant Ziploc bag’s worth of anxiety medication who speaks softly, trying to suppress his tears. These interviews are among Hondros’s most powerful moments, as they offer a filmmaking equivalent to Hondros’s photos, serving a similar purpose of cutting through political obfuscation to reveal the human tragedy that’s inherent to endless war.
One occasionally wishes that Campbell had more rigorously stuck to his primary concept, following the paths his friend had treaded years ago—on adventures in which Campbell himself could’ve partaken. Hondros was killed by a mortar in Libya in 2011, and there’s more than a suggestion of survivor’s guilt in Campbell’s obsession with honoring his friend, as well as a hint of curiosity over the road not taken. Hondros might have been more personal and idiosyncratic if Campbell had been willing to interrogate his need for making this film, and if he’d maintained the role of emotional detective. Like its subject, the film is all over the place, weaving the personal with the political, though this messiness allows for astonishing moments. Testimonials conventionally asserting Hondros’s fearlessness and brilliance, from his colleagues at Getty Images, alternate with terrifying home-video footage of his campaigns in Liberia, Iraq, and others, in which American journalists dot in and out among soldiers pummeling one another with gunfire.
And there are Hondros’s photos, of course, to which Campbell devotes an admirable amount of time, allowing us to absorb their troubling majesty. A theme gradually emerges from the pictures, as Hondros captured the everyday textures of extreme human conditions. His images frequently contrast civilians with the bulk of the machinery that oppresses them—machinery that can also ironically offer these individuals a sense of transcendence. When Duo jumps up in the air on that bridge, he could be celebrating a brief taste of power. As violent as Hondros’s images could unavoidably be, they are never hopeless, which affords them a hard-earned grace. An intellectual and an aesthete, Hondros sought to reconcile peerless beauty with unfathomable atrocity, and Campbell’s film follows suit.