In its own way, the South Bronx itself was a war zone back in the 1980s. "I got here in '86 and it was awful. Shootings every day, just really bad violence," said Mike Kamber. He'd taken all the money he'd saved shooting photographs for The New York Times in actual war zones, and bought a building in the South Bronx in 2010.
"I knew there was a need," he told Special Contributor Ted Koppel. "I felt like we could make a difference."
Kamber and another photographer, Tim Hetherington with Magnum Photos, had this dream: a place where disadvantaged kids could learn about photojournalism.
"We've got about 60 students and they're all from immigrant families," Kamber said. "Also a lot of West African families now: Mali, Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso."
Kamber's friend Hetherington had spent years in West Africa, and did some of his most creative work there.
"He was in the midst of war, went on combat missions every day," Kamber said. "He would do these incredible close-ups. He would do these beautiful landscapes, photograph graffiti."
For more than a month, the Bronx Documentary Center has put on a special exhibit, featuring Hetherington's work in Liberia alongside that of another veteran photographer, Chris Hondros, who worked for Getty Images.
Kamber said of Hondros, "Chris was looking for the action. Looking for really kind of visceral, powerful photos that would end up on the front pages of newspapers. He was looking for impact."
In 2011, they were both killed while on assignment in Libya.
In the documentary "Hondros," Chris is heard explaining his calling, just months before his death: "The problem with war photography is that there's absolutely no way to do it from a distance.
They're something of a breed unto themselves, these combat photographers. As Hondros said, "You have to be close. You can't do it from your hotel, you can't do it from across the street, across the bridge. You have to be there."
Often, what's "there" is chaos, absolute bedlam, as in the scene from "Hondros" when Chris took a phone call in the middle of an intense firefight in Liberia:
"Hello, this is Chris. OK, things are fine, things are fine. Let me give me a call back in about half an hour."
"The minute I heard that, I knew that we were gonna open the film with that; that was him in a nutshell. He was cool and collected under fire," said Greg Campbell. He and Hondros knew one another since high school. Campbell directed the documentary "Hondros" as a tribute to his friend.
It's not an act. It's a state of mind – this ability to find and capture a moment of absolute clarity in the midst of total madness, such as the picture Hondros took in Liberia that put him on the map, of a fighter just moments after firing a rocket-propelled grenade on a contested bridge in Monrovia. The photograph ended up on front pages all around the world.
Here's the part, though, that got no attention: After the war in Liberia ended, Hondros found that young fighter, Joseph Duo.
"At that point, I was just a 10th grade student," Duo said. When Hondros learned that Duo wanted to go to school, he paid for his education.
"By the power of God and him, my life turned around and I reintegrated myself back in society," said Duo.
Tim Hetherington forged similar close ties to the people he photographed.
In the documentary "Which Way Is the Frontline From Here?" Hetherington said, "I think the thing for me is to connect with real people, you know, to document them in these extreme circumstances."
Essentially low-key, Hetherington still drew attention. "He was a tall, handsome Brit, right? So, people just noticed him," said Sebastian Junger, himself a photographer, documentary-maker and author. He recalled the first time he and Hetherington met at an airport: "I looked up, because I felt everyone at the gate looking up. And they were all looking up because Tim was walking in."
Junger and Hetherington would spend the better part of a year in and out of Afghanistan – embedded with U.S. troops at a remote outpost. The documentary the two men produced, "Restrepo," went on to be nominated for an Academy Award.
"If you have a video camera and there's combat, you know, it's very obvious what to shoot," said Junger. "But when there's nothing going on, when it's a hot day and everyone was knocked out with the heat, Tim was creeping around taking everyone's photographs as they slept. And I was like, 'Tim, man, what are you doing?' And he said, 'Oh, don't you get it? They don't have their gear on. They look like little boys. What I'm photographing is what their mothers see when they think of their sons.'"
On April 20, 2011, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were in Misrata, Libya, in the middle of yet another war.
Sebastian Junger had planned to be along on that assignment. "At the last minute, I couldn't go," he told Koppel. "Tim went on his own, and was hit with a fragment from an .81 mm mortar, the same mortar that killed Chris Hondros."
Their friends found a variety of ways to remember:
Greg Campbell got a tattoo of Chris Hondro's initials.
Koppel asked, "When did you do that?
"I don't remember precisely, but it was in the weeks, I'm sure, after he was killed. That whole period is a real kind of a blur in my memory," Campbell replied.
Sebastian Junger was haunted by the knowledge that his friend could have been saved: "So I started a program called RISC, Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues. Its purpose is to train experienced freelance war reporters in life-saving first aid techniques, so that other journalists confronted with a situation like Tim's might know what to do."
Several hundred freelance reporters, said Junger, have taken the program, which is free.
So, too, are the photography classes offered at the Bronx Documentary Center.
Founder Mike Kamber knows what he's teaching: "Journalism is not opinions. Journalism is facts and evidence. We teach them that this was Tim's method, and that's made a huge impression on them."
That's also what filmmaker Greg Campbell believes.
"One of the things I've learned about the photojournalism community is that they're incredibly self-policing. They value the truth and the honesty that a news photograph can and should deliver," he said.
Kamber told Koppel, "You never fake a photograph. If we ever saw a photographer altering a scene in any way, they would never work again. That was really the code, was it had to be done with complete integrity."
"And yet we live in an age of Photoshop," said Koppel. "We live in an age where altering photographs, every 12-year-old kid can do that."
"No real documentary photographer alters a photograph. It's completely against our ethics," Kamber said. "It's against the very reason that we're out there on the frontlines risking our lives. We've got to tell the story correctly."
That exhibit of Hetherington and Hondros' photographs from Liberia opened to a packed house: Friends, members of the Bronx community, and the United Nations Deputy Secretary General, Amina Mohammed, who said, "We are here to celebrate the work of two of the finest human beings, the bravest photojournalists of our time."
Kamber noted, "Chris is dead. Tim is dead. My friend, Martin Adler, is dead. Joao Silva lost both of his legs. Giles Duley, my friend, lost both legs and an arm in Afghanistan. These men and women went out and put their lives out there every day because it made a difference."
And that, Kamber believes, is a legacy worth passing on.
For more info:
- Bronx Documentary Center, Bronx, N.Y.
- Exhibition: "War and Peace in Liberia: Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros," at the Bronx Documentary Center, Bronx, N.Y. (though January 13, 2019); an exhibition catalogue is available
- Chris Hondros Fund
- "Hondros" (Documentary), available via Netflix and iTunes
- Tim Hetherington Trust
- "Restrepo" (Documentary)
- "Which Way Is the Front Line from Here? The Life and Time of Tim Hetherington" (Documentary)
- RISC Training
- Committee to Protect Journalists
- Magnum Photos
Story produced by Deirdre Cohen.