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Book Of War Photos Is 'Testament' To Slain Journalist's Work


Three years ago this month, the photographer Chris Hondros was killed on assignment in Libya. Hondros and British photographer Tim Hetherington were traveling with Libyan rebel forces. They came under mortar fire by pro-Gaddafi fighters, and both men died in the attack. Chris Hondros, who worked for Getty Images, took some of the most searing war photographs we've seen since 9/11. Now, friends and colleagues have put together a book to honor his work. It's a collection of photos and essays by Hondros, and it's called "Testament." Jonathan Klein is the cofounder and CEO of Getty, and part of the team of editors who put the book together.

JONATHAN KLEIN: Well, there was just an enormous amount of material. You know, going through Chris' files and his hard drives. And then as we started putting the book together, we saw the quality of his writing, as well as his photography, which made it a unique book.

MARTIN: Let's talk specifically about some of the photos included in this collection. Perhaps the most famous is the picture of a young, Iraqi girl who's screaming after her parents were mistakenly shot and killed by U.S. soldiers who had fired on their car.


MARTIN: And Chris spoke to my colleague, Renee Montagne, on Morning Edition back in 2007, about this photo, and here's how he described it.


CHRIS HONDROS: It's a - such a, in some ways, a straightforward news image. I mean, here's a blood-splattered little girl, you know, crouched next to the boots of a tall, U.S. soldier. And people have cited things like the stark lighting, which is sort of reminiscent of schools of painting, and the streaks of blood on her cheeks, which reminded some people of crucifixion imagery, tears of blood. I mean, we share a huge visual memory bank, mostly through painting and other images in history. And, you know, I think when a modern photograph taps into those, sometimes very subliminally, it makes people respond.

KLEIN: That's the first time I've heard Chris' voice in many, many months. And the way he refers to painting and to all these other areas, it reminds me of the breadth of the man. And I don't think Chris was looking to make an image like that. You need to remember that this happened very, very quickly. And it was almost serendipitous that the image captured all of those deep emotions. It was a very fraught moment, yet Chris always kept his head. When you look at the book, you can try and step back and say, how could he possibly take a photo given everything that was going on around him?

MARTIN: I knew Chris, and he was a friend. We had met in Baghdad in 2007. And I always thought him to be someone uniquely suited for this kind of work because he did have an incredible capacity to empathize and to capture the human dimension of a story with a photo, but at the same time, maintain that critical kind of emotional distance that allowed him to keep going back to these places where these horrific human events were transpiring.

KLEIN: I don't know how he and his fellow photo journalists are able to do that, but he was definitely able to get that balance. If you look closely at the images of the people in the book, you'll see that the empathy and the humanity and the dignity of the subjects come out notwithstanding their horrific conditions. And although Chris had particular views, frankly, on just about everything, he didn't let that color his work

MARTIN: Chris Hondros also loved classical music. He wrote an essay back in 2005 - which you have included in this collection - in which he is trying to find the soundtrack, really, that would best convey what was happening in Iraq. Can you tell us a little bit about that particular excerpt, and why you wanted to include it?

KLEIN: Classical music was just front and center in Chris' life. I think it drove him in his photography. And as you can see, when he writes about what the music was in his head around what he was seeing, it would have been incomplete without the music. Also, Chris was a phenomenal storyteller, and that was also part of the music one associated with Chris. He would lapse into the place where he was. For example, the photo on the cover of the book, he tells the story about what it was like to be in Monrovia between the rebels and the government forces. And you literally felt that you were there.

MARTIN: We should describe that photo. He was covering the civil war in Liberia. I believe this photo is from 2003. And it's a young man, a fighter, midair. He's jumping up. He's got an - what looks to be an RPG over his shoulder. And the expression on his face - it's hard to know if it's panic, if it's joy. But it is a moment. Why was this the photo you wanted to put on the cover?

KLEIN: In a lot of ways, it's one of the photos that we most associate with Chris. The photo is taken on a bridge, and the bridge was being fought over between the two forces for a very long time. And it was backwards and forwards between who would have it. And he became a fixture there. He became well-known to both sides. And Chris would say that they'd come up to him and say, you know, I've got a message that I'd like you to bring over to the other side of the bridge, and they're not going to shoot you so you can go over there.

And Chris would go over, and he'd talk to the other side and then come back. And it was almost surreal. And then when he captured this moment - I think it was exhilaration that you're seeing with this guy. And the composition is just absolutely perfect. And then when you take your eye away from the subject and look at the condition of the bridge, the bridge is falling apart. There's just bullets and shrapnel everywhere. And another thing that people always notice about this man is he's in unbelievably good shape. I mean, it's unreasonably good shape, notwithstanding the fact that they'd been through hell in that area. Chris actually kept in touch with him.

MARTIN: He met him later, didn't he?

KLEIN: Yes he did. This guy had no idea how famous he'd become because this picture had won so many awards. Chris kept going back. I mean, that's another aspect of Chris, which you're probably aware of. He went to Iraq and Afghanistan about 20 times. For him, the story wasn't just the big moments. He wanted to tell the story about the people, about what happened before, during and after a transition in power or an election. And he kept coming back. And I think that also comes through in his work. There's a knowledge of the place and the people, not just flying in there for a couple of days, doing the sensational work and then going back home.

MARTIN: Jonathan Klein is a founder of Getty Images, and an editor there. He helped put together a book honoring the work of Chris Hondros, who died in Libya three years ago this month. The book is called "Testament." Jonathan joined us from our studios in New York. Thanks so much for talking with us and about Chris Hondros.

KLEIN: You're most welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.