Homage to a friend
Régis Le Sommier was a close friend of Chris Hondros. Together they covered the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan several times. Régis wrote this beautiful article about Chris for the last issue of Paris Match.
I learned the news when I landed in New York. Your picture was all over the CNN airport television screens. You were, they announced, between life and death, hit in the head by shrapnel in Misurata, Libya. Immediately, I pictured you, lying in the back of a pick-up truck on your way to the hospital. I pictured you, your lifeless legs, rolling around in those heavy boots you always wore in the field. Six months ago, those boots were with me every day. Climbing through the Kandahar minefields with the 101st Airborne Division soldiers, I tried placing my feet in your tracks. A crazy precaution when you know that it sometimes requires only a few centimeters to lose your legs, that a mine can also explode where people have already walked. I sometimes walked ahead of you, and it was you who placed your feet in my footsteps. Each time we returned from patrol, we would look at each other and let out a deep sigh of relief. During our five trips together in Iraq and Afghanistan, I imagined a host of tragic scenarios, except the one where I would have to write these words.
You often said to me “Régis, you have to come to Iraq.” At the time, as the American correspondent for Paris Match, I was writing more and more frequently about disfigured soldiers returning home with war injuries. “You’re missing a piece of the puzzle” he would often say. In March, 2006, after having convinced my editors, we wound up at a country hospital north of Baghdad. After that, I followed you everywhere. You taught me patience during the endless waiting that took us from one entrenched camp to another. You taught me humility, because in war, it is useless to force things, they come to you quickly enough. You taught me how to sleep, to take advantage of the slightest dose of free time to close your eyes and recharge your batteries. The only trail of yours I didn’t follow was musical. You were crazy about classical music. One day when we were driving through an incredible hurricane in Texas, you made me listen to Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “You hear it? Glenn Gould’s piano notes are like rain drops falling”. It was raining so hard we could barely hear the music. So I agreed. Go for the piano imitating raindrops. You hated the techno I put into my ears, in the evenings, in Iraq, to forget my fear. But that wasn’t the soundtrack to our adventures. Sometimes it was the sound of the muezzin for prayer, like that long patrol one evening in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. I was the one who took the camera this time and pushed the shutter button. You were sitting on the roof of an armoured vehicle, at sunset. It was Saturday, March 13, last year. You were 40 years old. Sometimes, it was country music. You had spent so much time with the American troops… There was jazz, too, hesitant notes ringing through the post-Katrina New Orleans we paddled through, alongside hungry dogs and floating cadavers, in the city’s flooded streets. You had just come to work with me, replacing Alvaro Canovas who had to return to Paris. And it was with Alvaro in Misurata that you spent the last day of your life! Chris, you didn’t have any children. You were going to rectify that with an August wedding to your fiancée, Christina. You loved mine. You had often photographed them. Your most memorable picture would remain the little girl, covered in the blood of her parents accidentally killed by the American forces while driving at a checkpoint. Several days after this tragedy, you received a phone call from Paul Wolfowitz. Even though the picture revealed Bush’s military vagrancy, the Pentagon’s Deputy Secretary of Defense admired your work and invited you to lunch to ask you how to become a war photographer. Today, I wonder who I will be able to talk to on the other side of the world. And if ever I return to Afghanistan, I don’t know who will show me the way.
Régis Le Sommier
Directeur adjoint de la direction de Paris Match