“Quiet Spectacle: An Interview with Chris Hondros” by Jen Saffron

This interview with Chris Hondros originally appeared in Afterimage Vol. 35
No. 6 (May/June 2008)

Through a growing thicket of visas, checkpoints, Humvees, and dust,
war photographer Chris Hondros shoots on—cycling in and out of Iraq,
chronicling the war since its beginning. His images appear on the covers
of major newspapers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post,
as well as in art galleries and academic publications.

Unlike the expected war photographs (man with gun, reduced victim,
hero-portrait, suspected terrorist), many of Hondros’s images offer a
slower examination of the conflict, exploring the tedium representative
of millions who did not ask for this war. In these pictures, citizens glean
on: market shopping, playing ball, cleaning fish, lounging on street
corners. The incredible sadness of these war pictures is not due to fast,
graphic ugliness. Instead, the emotional weight is the human struggle
to matter, to bring meaning to life despite it all. This is relatable and
these public images therefore succeed by offering personal narrative
beyond the traditional “war story”—connecting us to Iraq, if only (and
necessarily) at a distance.

Five years into the war, we have amassed a visual vocabulary of Iraq
cobbled from images of remote chaos, channeled through limited-access
news outlets. It is a compressed view and Hondros builds on this squeezed
sensibility by sometimes photographing street life from inside a cramped,
moving Humvee. Considering the street photographer as one engaged in
the ultimate disappearing act (you don’t see me but I see you), these street
scenes astound, because of both Hondros’s invisible nature and his overt,
distinct gaze that offers up a quiet spectacle of lives beyond the western
dream of painlessness.

JEN SAFFRON: I want to start out talking about the pictorial space
of your pictures of Iraq. One of the reasons I like your pictures
is that they have an absurdist quality.

CHRIS HONDROS: Well, I think absurdism is important in war photography
because what else is war if not absurd, right? To understand war, it
helps to capture these absurdist elements. That’s in fact one of the basic
elements of war photographs: the juxtaposition of conflicting ideas that
lends itself to absurdity. An example is a photograph I took in Baghdad
of a soldier leaning against and guarding a completely demolished
wall, just surrounded by rubble and a damaged wall. It ran as the New
York Times’s front page the next day. A lot of people commented to me
about that picture’s inherently absurdist elements: somebody guarding a
destroyed brick wall.

JS: We’ve talked about the notion of “living under a sign of
personal exodus,” your “going out” to war as a temporal shift
in preparing to make war photographs. How can you prepare
to make images of such tragedy and ruin?

CH: I think anyone who goes to war—soldiers, journalists, aid workers—
has to get into that “going out” space. And I think they often talk about it
in those terms, so the “going out” process is kind of getting into that space,
getting in a mode that can handle totally contrasted, completely different
places, places where even moral underpinnings of life are different. I
think it’s more a twentieth-century issue because in previous centuries,
when people went to war, they went from their homes and marched off
to war and some months later they found themselves in foreign lands
in pitched battles. But now people fly to war, and often arrive quickly.
How can the human mind even get into that mode—“going out” in the
way you’re talking about? How can you just—how can you get out fast
enough? I don’t think anybody really can. You just deal with it as best as
you can.

JS: There’s a photographic tradition of this “going out” that’s
less about war, but about exploring, like Ansel Adams and his
total exploration of California. How do you feel about yourself
as an explorer?

CH: Well, what is an explorer? An explorer, most basically, is someone who
goes places that other people can’t go, and reports back through essays or
photography about what they see. Like the survey photographers of the
American West, Lewis and Clark, and before that, Drake and Magellan.
Photography and exploration have long been intertwined, like when Sir
Edmund Hillary topped Everest, he had a camera, took a picture, and
came down. Same for the men on the moon. And Ernest Shackleton
famously made space for a dedicated photographer on his Antarctic trip
who continued to shoot even after they were marooned for months. Now,
in our world, there are essentially no unexplored places, at least not on
land. When even a tourist can go to the top of Mount Everest, where
are the places people can’t go? Only the war zones. Bill Gates or George
Bush might make a trip to the South Pole or to Everest. But they can’t go
to Ramadi. Sure, either might make a hurried trip to the Green Zone or
something, but, if you want to talk about riding on patrol in a Humvee
in a dangerous part of Iraq, that’s actually an activity that’s limited to a
few. Ninety-nine percent of people can never have that experience. So
the war photographer reports back from places others can’t or won’t go.
The modern explorer.

JS: This is the first war where there are soldiers with digital
point-and-shoot cameras, blogs. How do you feel that this
proliferation of snapshots has impacted your work, if at all?
ch: Well, soldiers have carried cameras for a long time, as long as there
have been snapshot cameras. Though it’s more immediate now—soldiers
can share and upload their pictures almost instantaneously to a huge
audience. That’s changed the dynamic some. And of course, that was
relevant in the Abu Ghraib scandal—in that case, it was enormously
important. Though, I think it can be overstated. Broadly speaking, I
don’t think the face of photography has been affected by soldiers ambling
around in Iraq with digital cameras. Abu Ghraib and perhaps one or two
other [situations] aside, not many pictures by soldiers have achieved any
sort of large dissemination or cultural relevance.

Perhaps more notable to me is the emergence of the Iraqi local
photographers. At this point, a large majority of [the] pictures from Iraq
[are] from a handful of western news organizations. All those organizations
employ Iraqi photographers. My own organization (Getty Images) only
employs one, but the larger wire services employ dozens. They can, in
that particular kind of conflict, go places that western photographers
can’t go. And that goes to the heart of what you need a photographer
for. Is a photographer trained to go into a war zone as an observer …
to produce imagery that is relevant and to cut through visual clutter and
clichés to bring back profound moments? Or, can local indigenous peoples
be trained in such a thing in large scale, quickly? I mean, there have always
been local photographers, but I’m wary of the development for a lot of
reasons. Probably the primary one is that I don’t believe there’s a universal
standard of journalism. That’s quite obviously true.

JS: War pictures, either by soldiers or journalists, are a response
to chaos. Can you talk about the magnitude of the scale and
chaos in terms of photographing in Iraq?

CH: Iraq is very challenging for the photographer, for the reasons that
you bring up. Yes, the camera is, or can be, an ordering tool. And
photographs can be instrumental [in] bringing order to chaos. But Iraq is
spread very wide and very thin, which is naturally bad for photography.
The country itself is very broad and flat, without a lot of mountains,
except in the north. But in the places that we consider the heart of the
American conflict in Iraq—Baghdad, Bacouba, Ramadi, Fallujah—it’s
an unrelentingly flat and unremarkable land.

The American presence has mirrored that—there’s no towering citadel
to the American occupation in Baghdad. It’s just the Green Zone,
which is four or six square miles of spread out, essentially empty land
in the heart of Baghdad, with the occasional ugly ministry building and
hundreds of blast walls—concrete, 12-foot-high walls—everywhere. It’s
one of the ugliest places on earth and it’s very difficult to capture that
ugliness in a compelling way because it is so spread out. If people could
just go and spend time in the Green Zone itself—walk it from end to
end for instance, as I have in more reckless moments—that experience
alone would color a lot of their ideas about the Iraq War project. The
Green Zone [is] the nexus of American power in Iraq, and rather
than being some sort of symbol of western prosperity or beauty, it is
just unrelentingly ugly. Nothing but trash, concrete, barbed wire, and
endless internal security checkpoints.

JS: We’ve dealt with chaos: what about speed? When I imagine
war, I think speed, that something’s happening, 24/7; the wrong
notion that everybody is running around with a gun, destroying.
Some of your photographs engender this stereotypical war
rush and then some of are very meditative—the fact of the
matter is, there are guys there to cook food…

CH: Sure. That’s easily the majority. I forget the exact statistics, but maybe
one in six of the soldiers in Iraq are actual infantry combat soldiers. Most
of the rest are support staff. Many a soldier in Iraq spends an entire year
doing nothing but fixing tanks or whatever, and never sets foot outside
the base. It’s important to capture because war is very rarely speed. It
is sporadically so, but if there’s anything that’s a hallmark of war, it’s
actually silence and stillness. In contrast is, say, New York—that’s a city
of speed, never slows down. When war did come briefly to New York, on
9/11, one of the most commented on aspects was the stillness: the eerily
quiet streets and air of downtown Manhattan.

So when a war is going on, a city is generally deserted and still. In
Fallujah or some Baghdad neighborhoods, the notable aspect is the
lack of activity: empty markets, abandoned houses and cars. So that’s
an important aspect of war that must be conveyed. Soldiers throughout
history have written about the extreme boredom of war.

JS: Your Humvee pictures capture a quieter mood, in terms of
tone and subject. For one, you’re photographing from a true
interior space. And there is the tension that you are looking,
and in some cases being looked at, from an armored vehicle in
the middle of this day-to-day life—kids playing, a marketplace,
street scenes of pedestrian life. Are these Humvee pictures a
point of departure for you in your war experience?

CH: That series speaks to my experience in Iraq after five years of trying
to stay sane and safe—reduced sometimes to photographing from inside
of a heavily armored vehicle. Perhaps it’s a bit of a photographic protest,
in a way. On the other hand, it’s an odd thing that shooting through the
window of an armored Humvee provides one of the oddly intimate ways
to photograph Baghdad. Iraqis are often reluctant to be photographed
and the difficulties for a westerner operating on the streets there are well
known. But, if there’s anything that Iraqis are inured to at this point, it is
Humvees rumbling around their midst. So, a Humvee rolling right next
to them, even inches away, barely makes them interrupt whatever they’re
doing…. The Humvee disappears and you can just photograph real,
street photography. In a way I would say it’s street photography in the
tradition of Garry Winogrand or Lee Friedlander, photographers who
worked with their often-unaware subjects. In our society, a photographer
on the streets, with a small camera, doesn’t attract too much attention,
but this is completely out of the question in Baghdad. So that leaves the
Humvee as a kind of meta-camera: a large black box, dark inside, rolling
through the streets of Baghdad. And it is the vehicle, literally, for getting
intimate looks at the street life, since that large camera disappears from
the landscape.

JS: These Humvee pictures, to me, really express “street”—
urban engagement, proximity/closeness, confrontation, and
of being seen, in a scene. Do you consider these to be war
photographs?

CH: Absolutely. This is a country at war, under U.S. military occupation,
and the street scenes are every bit as relevant to understanding the
conflict as the gun battle. The gun battle brings forth raw, primal human
emotions no matter where you are—Iraq, Africa, Europe in WWII—
the emotions come through the same way, but the day-to-day culture
in different conflict zones comes out differently. The street life brings a
more human element, especially in this war [that] is supposed to be about
bringing “freedom” to the people. Knowing how Iraqis live is a critical
aspect to understanding the place and whether or not we should be at
war there—you always hear this kind of thing: “Is this war making things
better for Iraqis?”

JS: Do you engage in more traditional street photography in
Baghdad?

CH: This last trip, for the first time in about three years, I actually
did do street photography without U.S. military protection. Briefly, I
experimented with it. There are certain neighborhoods where it’s safe
enough where this sort of thing could be risked. So, I ventured out
in the Karrada neighborhood, which is like the Upper West Side of
Baghdad. It went off alright, there were no close calls or anything, and
it was a positive experience. Yet it was still a little rattling, things can
go bad rather quickly: shooting street photography in Karrada is not
the way to die. When I go back, I am going to try to do some more of
that, but it’s tricky.

JS: War is the total breakdown of infrastructure, and indigenous
art production can grind to a halt. Yet, here you are, purveying.
Is there dissonance in that for you?

CH: Well, the issue of art production in Iraq the last five years is a
fascinating one. I think it’s actually been quite under-covered by our
own academics. I mean, yes, we’re talking about the western news
photographers going and creating some semblance of art out of the
tragedy of the Iraq war. But there are so many other art issues in Iraq.
Take the dichotomy between the western influences and the Islamic
influences. In my experiences, these don’t overlap very much, not nearly
as much as we’d hope they would. This would be an important line of
exploration: What is art in Iraq? Western with “Islamic influences”?
Are there things that Iraqis consider art that we wouldn’t? Certainly the
reverse is true. There’s an important line of questioning here.

The Saddam [Hussein] regime was fundamentally a secular one. And,
its art was sort of socialist-realist. But, it also had an indigenous, sort of
more highbrow art scene—a lot of [artists] operated underground, but a
lot of them didn’t. I remember when I was trying to get into Iraq before
the war, when Saddam was still in power. I was having a hard time getting
a visa. I remember a guy at the Iraqi embassy suggested that I apply for
the June 2003 Baghdad Photo Expo, to get a visa that way, and then get
in as a participant. And I said, “June 2003 Photo Expo?” You know, this
is in March 2003, the invasion was imminent. “You actually think that
there’s going to be the June Photo Expo in Baghdad? Are you out of your
mind? There’s going to be an invasion here in a week or two, man.”

So, in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was a sort of brief
flourishing of what we would consider art. Like, for instance, when the
Saddam statue was torn down in the central square of Baghdad, a copper
sculpture that somebody pressed was put up in its place, and actually—
last I checked—is still there. We still haven’t registered the enormous
disconnect that we have with the Islamic traditions. especially the Shi’ite
tradition in Iraq. So, the Shi’ites who have taken power there—they’re
pious, religious Shi’ites. They would not identify the public sculpture …
replacing the Saddam statue, as indigenous Iraqi art. They would see it
as western corruption—it’s a sculpture in their minds.

JS: But don’t you think they see it as “western corruption”
because what is art but free expression, choices?

CH: Well, it does to us—it actually doesn’t to them. If you think about
it like in the Islamic tradition, freedom of expression is not paramount.
I’d say the main Islamic art forms are architecture, usually manifested in
mosques, calligraphy, and rugs, textile design. But, if you look at all those
things, there’s no premium placed on originality in the western sense.
It’s not a totally personal expression. It’s more the collective idea. It’s
more like tapping into long-held tradition and adding … to it, but staying
very much within the rules. We also see this with the fashions—the black
unadorned abaya, for instance. Millions of Iraqi women wear that. We
can’t just airily discount it as if it doesn’t exist and they don’t have any
sense of fashion. That’s their culture—we have to process it.

JS: Some photography, certainly street photography, involves
luck—right place, right time. Like photographing the Iraqi
family just after they’ve been shot up. That’s a certain luck.

CH: Luck, as it pertains to documentary news photography and its
pictorial elements, is important to understand. And it’s part of the
creative process, and in a way I don’t really think it’s any different than
other, more imaginative visual arts. So for instance, in the pictures of
the checkpoint family shooting, people have remarked a lot about the
issues of lighting, the streaks of blood on the little girl’s face that many
people have likened to tears of blood, characteristic of Byzantine
crucifixion paintings. And of course, it’s easy to dismiss that as “luck.”
And also, to imagine, conversely, that the photographer’s looking for
those kind of pictorial elements. But the reality is, it’s a creative process
… I don’t think a painter would sit there and necessarily say, “oh, I set
out to paint a painting that incorporates these specific visual elements.”
It comes from somewhere deeper than that, and comes out like how a
novelist talks about where their characters come from. Very often they
don’t totally know themselves. So, I think it’s very much the same within
photography—that these elements recur again and again in the imagery,
without the real conscious looking for them, setting out to find them.
They just seem to exist in the world of war.

Jen Saffron, MFA, is an instructor in the Film Studies Program at the
University of Pittsburgh and an independent writer and curator.

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