You’re hunkered down in a war zone in a foreign country, surrounded by strangers. Percussive bursts of gunfire break out frequently enough to keep you on edge and erratically enough to jangle your nerves every single time. You don’t have any weapons with which to defend yourself, but you can’t run either. Absurdly, your mobile phone won’t stop ringing. Even more absurdly, you answer it. Hello. Uh huh. Listen, gimme a call back in half an hour, okay?
Most of us couldn’t imagine being in such a situation, but this is exactly how Greg Campbell’s new documentary Hondros begins. The preternaturally self-possessed person who answers that ringing phone during a gunfight is Christopher Hondros, a photographer for Getty Images. Before his death in 2011, Hondros was well-known for capturing some of the most striking images from the United States’ myriad entanglements in the Middle East. One series of photographs, which depicted the bloody, heartbreaking aftermath of a routine Army patrol gone wrong, shone a spotlight on the Iraq War in ways that recalled the photojournalism of the Vietnam War era.
Hondros’s work was important and influential, a fact that Campbell highlights by building his documentary primarily around photographs and video footage shot by Hondros himself. Campbell was also a close personal friend of Hondros, and that friendship is the driving force behind the film as a whole. Hondros is not just an informative piece of nonfiction filmmaking; it is also a tribute to a man who was remarkable for reasons beyond his bravery and facility with a camera. Campbell and his interview subjects are upfront about their fondness for their friend, and it’s hard to blame them if Hondros ends up feeling a bit idealized and remote as a result.
It helps that Campbell doesn’t let his affection for Hondros cloud his vision when it comes to the overall enterprise of photojournalism. The adventurous war photographer is an undeniably romantic figure, but Campbell makes it clear that noble motivations do not absolve people of responsibility for the consequences of their actions. The heroic globetrotter who ventures into foreign danger and benevolently works for the good of the locals is an ideal that is well-established in the Western imagination, but it’s an incomplete picture that prefers to ignore the complexities lurking just outside the edges of the frame.
Hondros’s photos brought attention to the suffering and forgotten. This had positive effects and even made some subjects of his photography famous, but fame was a double-edged sword for some of them. The documentary’s most sobering section explores how one family became a target after their images were splashed across news outlets all over the world. Campbell interviews one member of the family, and it is galvanizing to witness her bitterness and grief over the price her family had to pay in the name of increasing American awareness of their own government’s actions.
In light of this late sequence, Hondros is at once both a simple and a complex documentary. It is an encomium to a beloved friend and a good man—what is simpler or more understandable than that? But it also acquires subtler shadings the longer one looks at it. One of the Hondros photos that Greg Campbell chooses to highlight in his film depicts a doctor in surgical scrubs, presumably on his way to try to save another life. Slung over the doctor’s shoulder is an AK-47. Even the best of people can’t be entirely insulated from the demands placed on them by a fractured world.