How does a 16-year-old Hungarian refugee in the United States become a photographer of both the Vietnam War and of a legendary Mayor of Chicago? László Kondor did all of this completely on his own, without any formal training: by his own admission, he is his “own worst critic.” Hungary Today recently had the pleasure of sitting down with the Hungarian-American photographer, who spoke at length about his adventurous life, the secret behind the “incredible” shots he managed during the Vietnam War, and his decision, after nearly 40 years of work, to put the camera down and leave photography behind.
This interview has been edited for concision and clarity and translated from the original Hungarian.
When and why did you leave Hungary? How did you end up in the United States?
I left Hungary in 1956. When the Revolution broke out, I was in my second year of high school, living in Kaposvár, but my older brother was in Buda, and became involved in the Revolution. In fact, he was wounded on November 7th in the Castled District over the course of three days of fighting. I was 15 and a half at the time. While I didn’t fight [in the Revolution], at the time all state institutions had a giant red star atop their roofs…three of us decided to climb onto the top [of the school] and saw the star off. At that point there were already a few thousand people standing below, God knows how many photographed us as well…
Could it be said that these photographers are what forced you to leave the country?
Yes. I brought my older brother back to Kaposvár, and my father, who was a lawyer, analyzed the situation. He saw that there would be retaliation here, as in 1848-49; but these weren’t Austrians, these were Russians, meaning that there would be trouble. He told my brother that he needed to leave, as there was no future for him [in Hungary.] Then he looked at me: “And you little idiot…they’re going to expel you as well.” On November 30th, we headed towards Sopron by train, and at the border a peasant showed us where we could cross. We made our way to Traiskirchen and stayed in a barrack that had been converted into a refugee camp. The question was, where to go from here… Thanks to a conversation I accidentally overheard about it, I had the opportunity to finish high school in Austria. Then in 1961, I finally made my way to America.
And how did you end up in Vietnam as a photographer during the war?
The biggest thing happening in the world at this time was the Vietnam War. I did everything I could in order to be able to photograph there, I applied to every newspaper, and to the Associated Press, that I would gladly go…but I didn’t have enough of a background, and so this didn’t work. Was I discouraged? Of course not! At age 28, I signed up for the US Army. I went through basic training, and within five months I was sent to Vietnam, where I was assigned to an infantry company in the Americal Division.
So initially you weren’t a photographer then?
No, no. That too was an accident. I was at a training on the seaside, when a guy rode up in a jeep, got out, and began talking to people and photographing them. I asked him, “what are you doing, is this your job?” He was a divisional information officer, and a reporter, but he had to photograph as well, because he couldn’t find a photographer. I told him, “here I am.” He replied that I would need to make up some sort of experience and background for them to take me on. I began thinking: If they call the Associated Press, then the AP will tell them right away, that this Hungarian has never worked for them before. And so, I decided to tell them that I was Chicago Mayor Richard Daley’s photographer. I knew there wasn’t a major in the army brave enough to give the old man a call.
What was it like as a photographer during the war? Was is similar to how Robert Capa wrote about it?
It was, quite literally, exactly what I had wanted. The army writers never wanted to go out to the battlefield. And so, I did what I wanted, and didn’t have any competition. The civilian wire services were under tremendous pressure, every day they had to take and send in photos…I would stay out on a battlefield for a week or even ten days. This great freedom lasted for nine months, when I was promoted and assigned to the army’s elite group of photographers, DASPO (Department of the Army Special Photographic Office). We lived in a beautiful villa in Saigon, wore civilian clothes, and had diplomatic passports…but my work suffered from it.
How did you photograph the war?
Larry Burrows was also in Saigon, he was a photographer for Life magazine who was killed during the war in 1971, and who was incredibly talented…We would often get together at night, together with Horst Faas, the Associated Press’ Asia photographer, who already had two Pulitzers under his belt. I brought up Robert Capa’s quote “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” and asked “this was just some bullshit from Capa, right?” They said no. They did a really good job of explaining to me why you have to be there on the battlefield. In a war, you can’t photograph the tanks, the planes, and the bullets, they all move too fast. If that’s what you’re interested in, you can go photograph far more peacefully in Texas.
A war is about people, since on both sides there are people who are killing each other. I didn’t support the war and felt a huge deal of empathy for the 18-20-year-old soldiers who were there. But that’s what war is about: murdering the other side while saying “we are in the right.” But what happens to human beings in all of this. A person is like a rubber ball: he will buckle under pressure but will bounce back once that pressure is gone. And when a soldier buckles, when, in war, an 18-year-old face looks 50, that’s what you have to photograph. What do they do after a really tough fight? How do they look? As that buckling, disappears… it’s a divine series of photographs. But for this, you need to be close. I didn’t use long lenses; in this Vietnam Collection, 90 percent of my photos were shot in 35-mm, which is the human perspective.
And when you returned to the US, you actually did become Daley’s photographer.
Yes, my first job was to create a portrait of Daley, since he had at this point been mayor for 18 years, but his official photo was from his first term. He bore no resemblance to it anymore. I said to myself, “no problem, I’ll sit him down, it’ll be done in 15 minutes, we’ll make a good portrait.” But Daley would have seen this as a sign of extreme arrogance. They told me to stick with him, to go with him day and night, that must lead to something. I shot four or five rolls of film… not one picture was good. Then, at one press conference, a reporter asked Daley something on his way out: he turned around, replied, and then a huge, sardonic smile appeared on his face. That was the photo.
What is your best photo?
There was one I took in 1968, in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood. I usually went around with two cameras, and on this day one of them happened to have a 400mm lens. There were three African-American children on a field, waving little paper American flags. The 400mm lens did a really good job of focusing on them, while softening the background. One of the little children just turned around, the sun shone on him perfectly, so that his face was almost shining as he sang with his little flag. I took six frames, and I knew that the last one was the best. Later this became one of Life Magazine’s photos of the year. It was a good photograph. I knew I had it at the sixth frame, and that I didn’t need any more.
Are there any photos that you thought were very good when you were young, but on reflection no longer seem that way?
Interestingly enough, the photos I looked at back then and said, “that’s good,” are still ones that I feel the same way about today, forty years later. And what’s bad, is bad. When I started photographing, I took a ton of pictures; I believed that at least one would definitely be good. This isn’t true. If you don’t have an idea in your head of what you want to see, then you shouldn’t even load the film into your machine. There were times when I developed 36 frames at once, that was what I learned the most from, as I never went to film school. I printed them out, looked them over extremely critically, and I thought: good God, what did you do here, what did you want to say, what even is in this photo? Nothing. 36 empty frames, money thrown away.
I learned more from the bad photos than from the good ones. I had to practice self-criticism, because there is always something happening, that’s what you have to focus on. A photographer hunts. Every human event, including, for example, us sitting here, has a beginning, a climax, and then an end. You have to wait for that climax, you can’t rush it. And if it’s disappeared, then it’s disappeared. For this, you need to be able to see that something is happening. At first, I didn’t even see what was happening around me, I had to learn how to look. After a while, I came to understand that four or five frames are enough, because the fourth frame will capture that moment. When I understood this, that’s when I became a good photographer.
Do you still photograph today?
No, never. I put it down. I spent 30-35 years of my life, or God know exactly how long, peering out from behind a box. I realized, that I hadn’t lived life…that’s when I put the camera down. I decided that I would live the second half of my life. I’m not going to go to a party, take photos, and be looking for the best angle and the best setting; no, I’m good to drink, and eat. I’m going to devour life, not stare at it through a lens. To be honest with you, I don’t miss it. I wanted to get out from behind the little box and laugh, swear, and sing. Somehow, through photography, you shut yourself out of reality. These days, everything is insane; instead of watching a concert and paying attention to the performer, people take videos and selfies. This whole “selfie-ing” thing is crazy…I hope my hand falls off before I ever take a selfie.
Reporting by Fanni Kaszás
Translated by Tom Szigeti
Photos by Vivien Cher Benkő