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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Chris Hondros fights for life, like those he pictured in war

April 20, 2011 |  1:19 pm

Hondros This post has been corrected. Please see note at bottom for details.

Chris Hondros made headlines Wednesday when he became the victim of one of the wars he has chronicled so brilliantly over the years.

Hondros, 41, was one of the photographers gravely injured in an attack in Libya that killed Tim Hetherington, a photographer for Vanity Fair who gained acclaim for co-directing the Oscar-nominated documentary "Restrepo," about soldiers in Afghanistan.

The terrible news about Hondros, who the New York Times reported suffered a critical brain injury, reminded me of the several occasions when the photographer had spoken to me with passion and insight about his dangerous craft.

I first became aware of Hondros in 2005, when Newsweek published photos that I still believe have been the most chilling images to come out of the long war in Iraq. The photos showed terrified and blood-spattered Iraqi children, just moments after their parents had been mistakenly shot to death by a U.S. military patrol.

After seeing the pictures of the children, I contacted Hondros for a long project I was working on -- a story that showed that American newspaper and magazine readers were seeing very few scenes of the bloodshed in Iraq.

“There can be horrible images, but war is horrible and we need to understand that," said Hondros, a freelancer whose work is distributed by the Getty Images agency. "I think if we are going to start a war, we ought to be willing to show the consequences of that war."

Published in Newsweek and several newspapers, the pictures sparked discussion of the military's rules of engagement and provoked an outpouring of aid for the children, who became known as "The Orphans of Tall Afar." The shots also got Hondros banned from any further work with the unit, part of the 25th Infantry Division.

Rick Loomis, one of my Times colleagues who worked with Hondros in some dangerous places, described him as a man with a quick wit and gift of gab.

"It seemed his duty to document the chaos and unrest in these various hell holes," Loomis said. "He operated at the highest levels.  He never expressed fear about returning to these places.  He is always more nonchalant about the danger than I could ever be."

Though I never met Hondros in person, a handful of email and phone exchanges over the years made me feel like I had a friend out in the world's hottest news zones.

After visiting an exhibit at the Getty last summer that featured one of the great war photographers, James Nachtwey, I emailed Hondros. I wanted to know his take on the state of the photo business. His response was typically ebullient and wise.

Hondros said changing technology was making some people uneasy, but he had no doubt photography would continue to thrive. His response, in part: "Doubtless many Victorian portrait-painters were consumed with indignation and doomsaying for the craft when Cubists and Dadaists arrived on the scene, but the art and profession of painting is still with us, if in a different way than a hundred years ago."

He avowed that documentary photography would never be a path to riches. But he continued to shoot great pictures right up until the attack that suddenly put him on the other side of the news. His pictures from the front line in Libya appeared this week on the front pages of the Los Angeles Times, the Washington Post and, doubtless, many other papers.

Hondros' words came last year from "the middle of the desert in Afghanistan." He wrote them after 2 a.m., local time. But the message certainly could have applied to his work, even this last week in Libya.

"The still image -- the honest, raw, unadorned still image, whether published in print, hung in a gallery or blinking up on a computer screen -- still holds the elemental power it always had."

For the record, 2:28 p.m. April 20: A previous version of this post misspelled photographer Tim Hetherington's last name as Herrington.

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: The 2005 images of distraught and bloodied children who had just seen their parents mistakenly shot to death by U.S. forces in Iraq were among the most troubling of the war. Chris Hondros, who shot the "Orphans of Tall Afar" pictures, was gravely injured while photographing the civil war in Libya. Credit: Chris Hondros / Getty Images

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