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The legacy of a life ended too soon

Submitted by on Thursday, 21 April 2011 No Comment

The guys are not squeamish about the news – there’s really no way a kid can be growing up in a military community, where events continents away can flare and invade your life. So when they looked over my shoulder yesterday as I looked at an online slide show, the questions began to rain down.

Is it Afghanistan? Is it our soldiers? Are the soldiers beating the bad guys? Are Americans fighting?

No, it’s Libya, and in this case the soldiers are the bad guys. That was hard for them to grasp when Egypt was in the news a few months ago, but they get it now. Americans aren’t fighting, but there were Americans there reporting on the war, I said. One of them was a man I used to work with. He was a photographer.

Oh, he takes pictures like you do? Boots asked.

No, I thought. I take pictures of cute little kids for your school yearbook. He traveled the world to capture always spectacular, usually gut-wrenching images from dangerous places because he saw things the world needed to know.

“He was a much better photographer than I will ever be,” I said, aching at the shift to past tense. “And I’m not really a photographer. I just do it for fun. My job at the newspapers was writing and editing.” It struck me that they know so little about what I spent a big chunk of my life doing,  but, then, I quit doing it before they were old enough to notice the late shifts, the all-nighters, the disrupted plans.

It was during one chapter of that past life that I crossed paths with Chris Hondros. He and I weren’t close, but on a small staff such as the one at what was then the Fayetteville Observer-Times everyone knows each other. It was, shall I say, a highly social group at the time, too. I missed that in later years.

Chris was at the beginning of his career, which would take him to virtually every dangerous place on the planet over a decade. Kosovo. Nigera. Pakistan. Afghanistan. Iraq. Liberia. Egypt. And, finally, to Libya, where he died this week. He was 41.

Could he have avoided going there? Absolutely. A Pulitzer Prize nomination, which he earned in 2004 for his work in Liberia, will pretty much let you write your ticket professionally. I’m not sure, though, that being a war photographer was ever a conscious choice for Chris. Things are happening. Someone has to tell them.

I felt incredibly guilty about that over the years as I watched Chris’ career from afar. Sure, I had some locally – and two nationally – “big” stories. Government corruption here, election money laundering there, a huge murder case or two. But in the end, it nagged me that I was walking away without ever having done anything that “mattered.”

Chris’ work mattered. It mattered a lot, to all of us. He approached it with an artist’s flare, a playwright’s pathos, a historian’s perspective and a bulldog’s determination.  A co-worker of ours – and a close friend of Chris dating back to their days at North Carolina State University – called his work “intimate,” and he’s right. Chris put a face on the conflict. His images often were uncomfortable to look at, but they told the story.

Chris, in turn, was keenly conscious of the importance of his role in those stories. “We need soldiers. We need diplomats. We need journalists,” he told MSNBC in 2007.

He also was aware of the dangers. He talked to Lens magazine in February about assaults while covering uprisings in Egypt. Photographers “were able to just squirm out of there,” he said.

Why did he do it if he knew it was dangerous, Big Guy asked.

Because he had to, I said.

In a way I hated to tell them that, because at their age it easily could be used as license for all sorts of misbehavior. Why did you take your brother’s candy? Because I had to. Why did you talk in class? Because I had to.

I hope, though, that when they’re older they’ll understand the “had to” that drove Chris Hondros.  I hope they’ll find the kind of passion – be it professional or personal, career or family – that propelled him.

I hope they find something that matters as much to them as Chris’ calling did to him.

Copyright 2011 Debra Legg. All rights reserved.

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