By Callie Oettinger | Published: April 20, 2012
My best friend lives hundreds of miles away. I call her those nights when the moon is full, sitting low and large in the sky, as if George Bailey lassoed it in for a better view. Always, I ask: “Does the moon look the same to you?” I want to know: “Are we sharing the same thing, so far apart?”
I look at April 20 this year, like my friend looking at the moon, hundreds of miles away. Trees and clouds change up her view. Hindsight changes up mine.
I woke up April 20, 2011, thinking I was a pro.
I went to bed April 20, 2011, knowing that I was an amateur.
End of day, April 20, 2011, news about the deaths of photojournalists Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington started breaking.
By that evening, I made the connection between Chris and a high school friend.
I grew up in an Army family and for as long as I can remember, have known others visited by Death. Family. Friends.
April 20, 2011, was the first time Death stopped me in my tracks.
Steve talks about doing what you love—that thing you would do if you were the only one on the planet.
Last year I admitted that I wasn’t doing it.
And almost every day since, I’ve thought about Chris, doing what he loved.
And I’ve asked, “Why him?”
I’ve known veterans and their families who have experienced the same loss, but Chris’ stayed with me in a different way.
In an interview Steve did almost two years ago with Sunni Brown he quoted Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk:
“I had this encounter recently where I met the extraordinary American poet Ruth Stone, who’s now in her 90s, but she’s been a poet her entire life and she told me that when she was growing up in rural Virginia, she would be out working in the fields, and she said she would feel and hear a poem coming at her from over the landscape. And she said it was like a thunderous train of air. And it would come barreling down at her over the landscape. And she felt it coming, because it would shake the earth under her feet. She knew that she had only one thing to do at that point, and that was to, in her words, “run like hell.” And she would run like hell to the house and she would be getting chased by this poem, and the whole deal was that she had to get to a piece of paper and a pencil fast enough so that when it thundered through her, she could collect it and grab it on the page. And other times she wouldn’t be fast enough, so she’d be running and running and running, and she wouldn’t get to the house and the poem would barrel through her and she would miss it and she said it would continue on across the landscape, looking, as she put it “for another poet.”
I know that train. It visits me when I’m reading Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. Their voices call out to the ones circling about, and chase them into my head. And if I’m lucky, I capture them in the margins of what I’m reading, grabbing that pen, writing as fast as I can because I know they’ll be gone by the time I hit my computer.
Until April 20th, I wasn’t racing as hard. Those voices ride the express train and I’d set myself up as a local station, not even on its route.
I know a few things about Chris.
I know his brother was the subject of his experiments, that he asked him to run, to jump, so that he could practice capturing motion, and that his photographs wallpapered the room they shared through high school.
I know “he found his life’s calling once he had his first camera.” “I got a cheap point and shoot camera and was taking pictures and showed him,” said long-time friend and journalist Greg Campbell. “And then he went out and bought the same camera. He was 16 and he came barging in when I was a busboy at the Lobster House. He burned through that camera and bought a Yashika from a pawn shop. He had found his life’s calling once he had his first camera. He’d have it 24/7.”
I know he figured out how to be where he needed to go. “The first story we worked on, for his college newspaper, was Bill Clinton’s inauguration,” said Greg. “We didn’t have press credentials. We talked our way into the inaugural balls and got super close pics of Bill and Hillary. My aunt had an apartment at the Watergate and he broke into my dead uncle’s closet, and was wearing dusty clothes and had this drive —this grab-life-by-the-shoulders approach.”
I know he cut his teeth in Kosovo and, from Greg, I know that when some were pulling back from the dangerous work “Chris took the opposite approach and was in every war and natural disaster in the last 10 years.”
I know that he had fire. It was translated into his work.
There’s a quote from GEN George C. Patton that I keep going back to:
It is foolish and wrong to mourn the men who died.
Rather we should thank God that such men lived.
I wish Chris was still here. I wish this for his family and for his friends, and for all those yet-to-be-taken images, still riding that express train.
He lived out loud.
April 20, 2012, I am thankful for this connection I’ve felt to him. I never met him, but when I think about wanting to quit, thinking about him reminds me to be a pro. To feed my passion. To do what I love. To translate fire into my work.
The Chris Hondros Fund was set up after Chris’ death, “supporting and advancing the work of photojournalists and raising understanding of the issues facing those reporting from conflict zones.” Please visit the fund’s site to learn more about Chris and to view some of his work.