Monday, April 20, 2009

Iraq War photos and Bach

Posted By on Mon, Apr 20, 2009 at 12:47 PM

Chris Hondros is a war photographer. As he noted this past Sunday, in the South Side photography studios of Jeffrey Swensen, he also listens to a lot of music during the inevitable and often lengthy stretches of waiting that punctuate the life of an embedded conflict photographer.

Thus was born a rather stunning art event. While Hondros showed a half-hour's worth of slides from his six years in post-invasion Iraq, Pittsburgh Symphony concert master Mark Huggins played Bach's wrenching Partita in D Minor, a solo piece for violin.

It was a word-of-mouth show, and not surprisingly the 80 or so attendees were heavily drawn from the local photography community, in which Hondros is, deservedly, lionized. (He once lived in Pittsburgh briefly, and last year visited to give a couple lecture slide-shows. Swensen was his roommate at Ohio University.)

Hondros, 39, is a New York-based senior staff shooter for Getty Images. Over the past decade and half he's been all over, including Kosovo and Angola, Sierra Leone, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the West Bank. His stuff's published worldwide. He's been a Pulitzer finalist, and iconic images like one of a Liberian militiaman, airborne in exultation over a direct rock-launcher hit, are sufficient testimony. Hondros has it all: beautiful compositions, unflinching intimacy and, maybe best of all, a sociological acuity. In his pictures, you sense him not just reacting, but also thinking.

That came through, too, of course, in how he grouped and ordered the photos in the show Sunday. One sharp sequence segued from scenes of Iraqis at worship to images of U.S. soldiers at prayer, like the one in full uniform, gripping his assualt rifle.

The whole thing was engrossing, including a recapitulation of a sequence that includes one of Hondros' best-known photos -- the almost unbearable one of a tiny Iraqi girl, barely a toddler, wailing after the shooting of her entire family by American soldiers at a nighttime checkpoint.

Most striking to me, though, was a passage that subtly contrasted the everyday lives of Iraqis with those of U.S. soldiers in downtime. Even in an occupied country fractured daily by violence, the Iraqis are clearly connected, to the place and to other people. The U.S. soldiers, meanwhile, are isolated, thrown back on each other, sprawling in front of big-screen TVs.

We know this disconnect from the people they're meant to protect is largely necessary -- a matter of security and psychological decompression -- but you can't help thinking it only makes the mission that much harder.

Huggins' beautiful performance of the Bach work was a perfect accompaniment. Hondros hopes to do some version of this show elsewhere. If you hear of another, run don't walk. No matter what you think about Iraq, you'll think something different after you've seen this.



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