WHEN WE LIVED IN FAYETTEVILLE, NC, during the mid-1970s, my oldest son, Edward, was friends with a boy who lived a block away and was a year and a half younger than he was. They were inseparable companions — “best buddies” — for six years. Then, when Edward was 12, we moved to Greensboro; and though we made the 90-mile journey back to Fayetteville once or twice a year, absent the vital, almost daily contact that sustains childhood camaraderie, their friendship languished.
Over the years, my wife stayed in contact with Christopher’s mother; and we were aware how, as both our sons matured, a similar passion for photography — nascent during their childhood years — shaped and determined their later career choices.
Christopher was a stringer for the local newspaper, The Fayetteville Observer, while he was still in high school. At North Carolina State University, he worked on the campus newspaper, The Technician; then, after a master’s degree from Ohio University, he returned home to work again for The Observer, this time as a staff photographer.
Then, in 1998, some strange attractor deflected the trajectory of his life away from what had, until then, been a predictable course. He moved to New York City and from that base honed his photojournalistic skills in all the major conflict zones of the past dozen years: Kosovo, Angola, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, Kashmir, the West Bank, Iraq, and Liberia. Following September 11, he took photos at Ground Zero, then later covered the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the earthquake in Haiti.
His photographs appeared on the covers of Newsweek and The Economist, and on the front pages of The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times. His work was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize and honored with numerous other awards.(1)
On April 20, 2011, Chris Hondros was killed — along with fellow photojournalist Tim Hetherington — by a rocket-propelled grenade in Misrata, Libya, where he was covering the Libyan civil war. He was 41.
His friend, Greg Campbell, shared this on hearing of his death:
We talked about this special breed of journalism he was drawn to and how important it was to bear witness to atrocities that take place far from most of the world’s eyes. He believed entirely in the power of photojournalism to change the world, to enlighten hearts and minds, and to bring justice and possibly comfort to those who are suffering the most. His deepest commitment, from the very beginning, was to honor those he photographed and bear witness to their struggles.(2)
Chris Hondros was the product of the great American melting pot. His mother, Inge, had been born in 1936 in that part of eastern Germany which Poland annexed in 1946. His father, after whom he was named, had been born in Greece. His parents, child refugees after World War II, had met and married in New York. They moved to Fayetteville shortly after he was born, and he grew up in a large house and extended family that included his father’s Greek parents and his younger brother Denos.
Everyone’s life traces back to the mysterious, always improbable, intersection of two other lives. This is true whether your parents first met on the playground in pre-school or — like Chris’s — were war-weary refugees washed ashore from the chaos of distant lands and forced to negotiate the intimate commerce of their shared daily life in a language that was alien to both. The embryo bursts forth from this fusion of two lives. To put the metaphor to further use: Perhaps, like its nuclear counterpart, the fusion creates a cache of latent energy.
When viewed from outside, Chris’s life for its first 28 years seems to move within a predictable orbit. Then, at the point of inflection, a firewall is breached and the latent energy is unleashed. In the 13 years that follow, the distance he travels away from the immigrant Greek community of restaurateurs and shopkeepers of his childhood in Fayetteville rivals the distance his mother and father traveled in the journey to his conception.
How does one explain this? How does one account for those uncommon few among us who — in dramatic and undramatic ways — seeing wrong, are stirred to try to right it; seeing suffering, try to heal it; seeing war, try to stop it?(3) How does one account for the young civil rights activists who — a generation earlier — rode interstate buses into the segregated South, for the leavening of college graduates who gave two years of their lives to Peace Corps service, for the conscientious objectors who protested the violence of the Vietnam War? How does one account for those who cannot do what most of us usually manage well enough: just see facts flat on, without some horrible moral squint?(4)
Those were the questions I pondered at Chris’s funeral, where I joined my son Edward and my daughter Shannon. The trajectory of his life had come full circle, ending here in a packed Greek Orthodox Church located not two blocks from his childhood home. The Greek community that filled the church to overflowing was the familiar community of his childhood and youth. My daughter, who in recent years had reconnected with Chris and visited him in New York, had an answer for my questions: “It was Inge,” she told me; and she sent me something Chris had written:
I grew up hearing tales of war from my mother… the sounds of American bombers flying over her village; the feelings of hunger when food ran short; the sight of her older brother Herbert in uniform and sent off to fight the Russians, [a cipher in the] columns of German troops marching east in tight formations, and returning west bedraggled and doomed after months on the front. [Then, during] the summer of 1946… all the ethnic Germans like my mother [who was 10] were forcibly expelled from the eastern fringe of Germany by revenge-minded Polish troops, who then annexed the lands…
So when I started covering war as a journalist, she understood what was driving me better than many mothers might. When I showed her pictures of Kosovo refugees packed onto rusty trains, she nodded knowingly and related her own similar experiences. Tales of barbarity from Iraq elicited from her not empty platitudes, but informed observations of how easily stable societies can come unglued, and how quickly the horrific can become commonplace. My mother, like me, sees war as an abomination, but not an aberration; she has no expectations that humanity can ever fully escape the call to arms. We will probably always fight wars, but if we do we should know what war means. Fulfilling that mandate is my main mission as a war photographer.(5)
Probably, there are no universal answers to the questions that gnawed at me. What kindles our compassion and spurs us — often against our own narrow self-interest — to act for the sake of another is always a part of our own unique story. Why this movement of grace happens in some lives and not others is shrouded in mystery.
But some lives do shine, some lives do sparkle. More than others. And Chris Hondros lived such a life. In his autobiography, Report to Greco, the great Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis, explains his motive for writing. As you read the words, substitute photography for writing and perhaps you will have a small window into Chris’s soul:
The more I wrote the more deeply I felt that in writing I was struggling, not for beauty, but for deliverance. Unlike a true writer, I could not gain pleasure from turning an ornate phrase or matching a sonorous rhyme; I was a man struggling and in pain, a man seeking deliverance. I wanted to be delivered from my own inner darkness and to turn it into light, from the terrible bellowing ancestors in me and to turn them into human beings.(6)
These ruminations have been informed
in part by the news I received in early July, a month after Chris’s funeral: Theodore Roszak — a social critic and cultural historian of the first rank, whose seminal book, The Making of a Counter Culture: Reflections on the Technocratic Society, helped define the generation that came of age during the tumultuous 60s — had died at his home in Berkeley, California, at age 77.
Though Ted went on to write some 20 books — including notably The Voice of the Earth: An Exploration of Ecopsychology (a field of inquiry he pioneered) and seven novels — most of the tributes published after his death focus on his early book which:
… offered a rationale for the so-called Summer of Love in 1967 and the eruption of student dissent a year later. He warned middle Americans that their greatest enemy lay not in Red China or Moscow but “sat facing them across the breakfast table.” Roszak’s thesis held that technology and the pursuit of science… had alienated the young. Consequently they sought comfort and “meaning” in psychedelic drugs, exotic religions and alternative ways of living.
His “counterculture” neologism defined this “alternative society.” Its members, he said, were long-haired young people, many smoking dope or dropping acid, listening to psychedelic rock or protest songs by Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen. When they gathered at pop festivals, “love-ins,” or student demonstrations, their concerns ranged from racial discrimination to global poverty and included what are now called “green issues.”(7)
The book argued that science-dominated modern society was ugly, repressive and soulless; that youthful dissent was coherent enough to be termed a culture; and that this anti-rationalist “counterculture”… might offer the foundation of a new visionary civilization.(8)
Few of the tributes mention the book that was the occasion for my working with Ted. He had called me during the summer of 2007 with a novel proposal. He had completed the manuscript of a book and then been frustrated by a long and futile search for a publisher. He thought of the new book, The Making of an Elder Culture, as a kind of sequel to the earlier book. “Boomers don’t read,” he had been told by would-be publishers, “and even if they did, they wouldn’t read books about aging.” He asked if Second Journey wished to publish the book online.
After a 40-year hiatus, Ted had returned to the boomers because he believed there was for “America’s most audacious generation” a second act: In the “elder insurgency” Ted imagined, what the “boomers left undone in their youth, they will return to take up in their maturity.”(9) In its youth, the boomer generation had discovered “the politics of consciousness transformation. ‘You say you want a revolution… Well, you know, we all want to change your head.’” In its elder years Roszak believed it would perceive that:
Aging changes consciousness more surely than any narcotic; it does so gradually and organically. It digests the experience of a lifetime and makes us different people — sometimes so different that we are amazed, embarrassed, or even ashamed at the person we once were. Pious people often claim that religion offered them the chance to be born again. But, curiously enough, growing old can also lead to rebirth, a chance to leave old values, old obsessions, old fears, and old loves behind. Aging grants permission. It allows us to get beyond the assumptions and ambitions that imprisoned us in youth and middle age. That can be a liberating realization. Perhaps there is a biological impulse behind that possibility, a driving desire to find meaning in our existence that grows stronger as we approach death. It may even lead to rebellion, if one has the time and energy to undertake the act.(10)
Think of the gift of “all those extra years of life,” he urged us — the nearly 30 years of extended life expectancy that medical science and improvements in public health have over the past century created — think of them as a resource:
…a cultural and spiritual resource reclaimed from death in the same way the Dutch reclaim fertile land from the waste of the sea. During any one of those years, somebody who no longer has to worry about raising a family, pleasing a boss, or earning more money will have the
chance to join with others in building a compassionate society where people can think deep thoughts, create beauty, study nature, teach the young, worship what they hold sacred, and care for one another.(11)