broadsideblog

The Touch of Fire

In behavior, business, journalism, work on January 13, 2012 at 5:51 am

If we’re lucky, at some point in our lives, we’ll feel the touch of fire — time spent with someone so inspiring, accomplished and genuinely interested in us and our talents, however latent — that brands us forever.

It’s happened to me twice (so far) in my life, both when I was in my mid-20s. The first was on my fellowship in Paris, founded and run by a charismatic, bossy, imperious, charming legend named Philippe Viannay. The man, even then in his 60s, dressed elegantly, laughed often and had created more social value in his lifetime than almost anyone I’ve had the privilege to meet since: he was a Resistance hero; co-founded a major newspaper; founded a home for wayward boys; founded a sailing school; ran a journalism school and, (whew) founded and ran Journalists in Europe, the program that chose me and changed my life and worldview forever.

We had an immediate rapport, and he introduced me to everyone as “le terrible Caitlin!” I was deeply offended until I realized it meant terrific. The fellowship changed everything for me: how I felt about myself as a person, as a writer, showed me I could thrive in another language and culture. I’m honored to have known him, and that he shared some of his time with me.

When I returned to my native Toronto, and got my dream job as a writer for The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper, I briefly met Jill Krementz, a photographer whose work is well-known to Americans, and the widow of writer Kurt Vonnegut. She came to Toronto for a day-long photo shoot for a book called A Day in the Life of Canada and, as a reporter, I shadowed her throughout the entire day.

I’d started my career eager to become a photographer and then — in the mid 1980s — there were relatively few women working at her level in that field. The notion of meeting her, let alone spending an entire day with one of my idols? Swoon!

It was amazing to me, (even with parents working in film and television), that people of this stature would make time to talk to me, get to know me a bit, share some of their wisdom and insight. At the end of the day, back when shooters used film, Krementz sat cross-legged on her hotel bed as she counted film canisters, and I pelted her with questions about her career and how she’d achieved what she had. She was tough as nails. Is that what it would take?

(Yes!)

I have a young friend in Tucson, far from the bright lights and easy professional contacts of a New York, Los Angeles, London or Paris. Roxana is quiet, pretty, soft-spoken, Hispanic, not a culture that necessarily “gets” a young woman eager to sell her news photos for a living. In her social circles, the odds of meeting a world-famous, globe-trotting star of her industry is slim-to-none.

But she did, and her meeting with Chris Hondros — killed April 20, 2011 in Misrata, Libya while on assignment– touched her deeply. They spoke, emailed, stayed in touch.

With her permission, I include her account of this amazing and life-changing experience:

In 2007,  my first semester in journalism, I took an ethics course. One day we were viewing one of Chris Hondros’ famous pictures, the one with a little girl covered in blood where all you can see next to her are the boots of a soldier. Powerful, powerful image and story.

We were discussing in class about how it should be published. My opinion was front page and in color — people need to know. For the course I decided to write my report on war photography and focus on Hondros’ work. One day, I friended him on Facebook just in case. Maybe I would be able to ask him some questions personally instead of citing a book.

Five minutes later, he messaged me back. He wrote, “Perfect timing.” He was going to be in Tucson a few days working on an economy piece for Getty Images. I was so excited, I jumped from my chair, smiling ear to ear.

Minutes later we were talking on the phone and I was helping him with information about Tucson, while another of my friends, also a great photojournalist, James Gregg, teamed up to help Hondros find what he was looking for. When he arrived it was like meeting a celebrity.  He was in Tucson for four days. I went out photographing with him one afternoon and felt so lucky. I kept blushing and was nervous.

But Hondros was so down-to-earth. Every time I asked him about his work he gave short answers, very to the point. He was more interested in talking about my work.

The last night he was in town we had coffee and I brought my work for him to see it. It was my first real news portfolio, mostly pictures taken for my college paper. I was very nervous. He glanced at them very quickly closed the book and kept talking about something else — before we left I asked him about my work. “It’s a first portfolio. Mine was bad when I started.” We laughed.

But he told me that I was very passionate and he believed that I would become better. We walked to his hotel, he gave me a huge hug and told if I was ever in New York City to look him up.

I don’t have a picture of me and him, and I wish I did. I felt too embarrassed to ask.

I never knew that I wouldn’t see him again.

After that visit I was in constant contact with him through Facebook, email, sometimes Skype. We chatted online when he was sent to Baghdad, or Afghanistan on assignment and I was always picking his brains.

The last portfolio I sent him to see, he said it looked good and sharp. He once told me that when I was ready he would take me to Getty Images. I was honest with him and shared my frustrations with journalism and finding a place to publish me. He would tell me not to give up on photography because I was good at it.

The day he died was so tough for me. I had never had anyone close to me die so suddenly.  I turned on CNN and there it was Tim Hetherington, confirmed dead, but Chris was still in critical condition. At the same time I was chatting online with a photographer from Kosovo living in France. He knew Chris too, and had helped him in Kosovo.

This community of war photographers and foreign journalist is small. Most know each other, and I’m so glad to be linked to them.

I prayed for Chris all morning and I didn’t leave my house. The hardest moment was seeing the woman on CNN say, “We have confirmed that Chris Hondros has died.” My mom held me tight.

I had spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier when he was in Cairo covering the revolution. All I could think of was our last chat. I didn’t think that he would leave so soon. I miss him so much. I still feel that he’s still out there photographing the world.

He is my drive and inspiration.

Have you been touched along the way by someone like this?

What effect did it have on you or your career?

  1. I just spent a week travelling with people who have touched me in this way. Their names are not huge in the field, but their talent, achievement, and passion has helped reinvigorate my understanding of my life, my goals, and my own achievements. I have had the opportunity to meet a few of my own idols, and often found them gracious and giving. To me, a sign of a truly successful person is one who carries his/her success with grace and modesty, never assuming anything but willing to share with those who are willing to listen. Thank you for a lovely post.

  2. This probably sounds incredibly weird but for me, that touch of fire came when I met my son. He pees his pants. He picks his nose. He is the most brilliant example of how to live a furiously happy life.
    P.S. Loved “le terrible Caitlin”, and glad you clarified. I was thinking it was an insult, too!

  3. That’s an incredible story. How lucky she was to have such a great mentor.

    I still keep in touch with my 2nd grade supply teacher. She’s a tough lady and the only one I keep in touch with via snail mail. She always believed in me even though I was the reject runtling in her 2nd grade class. When I tell her how far I’ve come, she’s one of the few people who are never surprised.

    • Love this!

      I am sure she saw much in you that you could not see for yourself. We are so fortunate to meet even one of these people in life. Their belief in our best selves is like jet fuel.

  4. You and Roxana were prepared to be lucky in meeting your mentors. Too often we don’t recognize who or what is right in front of us. I would like to think a father or grandfather, a mother, an aunt or uncle would fill the mentor void – but for me it never did. The rather new phrase “pay it forward” works. No electrical spark in my life, just friction shocks from all the carpets I’ve tred upon.

    • I think that’s true. Jose did the same. I guess we all want our J-careers so badly…

      I actually believe a non-related mentor is far more powerful…they have no reason (i.e. blood ties or loyalty) to help you other than desire and your innate talent. I think that, for me, is more powerful than someone I would (like you) have somewhat expected to help…not that anyone ever did!

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