Chris Hondros spent nearly two decades taking photographs on the front lines of this century’s most dangerous war zones and volatile conflicts. After the Twin Towers came down in Manhattan, he was there. When the U.S. invaded Iraq and then Afghansitan, he was there. When civil war erupted in Liberia, Hondros was there.

Hondros had an uncanny ability to cut through the horror of his surroundings to find the humanity that lurked beneath. His most iconic photograph depicted a spirited Liberian child soldier leaping through the air after firing a grenade launcher. The photo was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and sparked a lifelong friendship between Hondros and its subject, Joseph Duo. Bolstered by the encouragement of Hondros, Duo returned to school and has since run for public office in his native Liberia.

Theirs is just one of the stories explored in Hondros, a searing new documentary directed by Hondros’ childhood friend and colleague, Greg Campbell. Campbell last saw Hondros in Libya, a week before he and fellow journalist Tim Hetherington were killed in a mortar attack in 2011.

By assembling footage of Hondros’ exploits behind enemy lines, and by talking to the people whose lives he touched along the way, Campbell has crafted a moving portrait of a man who put his life on the line to show us the reality of the world we live in. Here’s Campbell on how Jamie Lee Curtis and Jake Gyllenhaal came on board as producers, the dangers of war photography, and why Hondros’ work and legacy matter more than ever in the age of Trump.

Hondros is now playing in select theaters and available on VOD. It premieres on Netflix July 1.

What was the genesis of the film?
After Chris was killed, a lot of people reached out to me and just shared stories of how he had impacted their life. One of those people was Joseph Duo, a commander in Liberia who Chris had taken an iconic photo of. Joseph expressed his own sorrow over Chris’ death, and it occurred to me that Joseph knew Chris in a very narrow, distinct way, and I knew him in a completely different way. So we decided to get together and share stories about Chris, and learn from each other and flesh out our mutual friend. That’s how it began.

What were some of the immediate challenges you faced as a first-time filmmaker?
Well, we started it of with absolutely no money. Getty Images was enthusiastic about the film and came on board right away. They were cautious because I’d never made a film before, but hopeful that I would surround myself with people who knew what they were doing. So we found some accomplished documentary filmmakers to come on board pretty quickly and help point us in the right direction.

How did Jamie Lee Curtis and Jake Gyllenhaal get involved?
Our initial Kickstarter goal was $30,000, and we nailed that in four days, so I knew we were onto something. We decided to see if we could track down Samar [Hassan] in Iraq. My producer called the Baghdad bureau of the New York Times, who told us to call Jamie Lee Curtis, of all people. So I emailed her, and she emailed me back immediately. It turns out that she was so moved by Chris’ photo of Samar and basically said she would do anything to help us out. She acted as our mentor, our patron and gave us feedback on our early cuts. She and Jake are godmother and godson, and out of pure luck, I happened to be in L.A. showing scenes at a private house up the canyon, close to where Jamie lives. Jake had visited her that day and just asked what she was working on, and she showed him our film. From there on, it really took off. They brought so much creative firepower to it and really encouraged me to think outside the box.

Was part of your objective to dispel any myth that Chris was a reckless thrill-seeker?
For sure. We would always laugh about that. Chris was very frustrated at the clichés and stereotypes around people who did his job. When we were working together in the last days in Libya, he was cautious. But there’s a need to do the things that can appear dangerous to people who aren’t familiar with the decision-making process. Obviously, you need to be close to capture the human impact—it’s what photographers have to do. So there’s a trade-off. There’s caution, but in order to get the job done, you learn how to face your fears, and Chris was always really good at that. He had a higher tolerance for risk than a lot of people did. It was important for me to show that he could contain it and that he didn’t get off on the thrill.

So fear was a part of the equation for him.
Yes, and the fear was necessary. It was that tingly sensation that told him he needed to leave an area immediately, or not to go down that road today, or “It’s too quiet, I’m getting spooked, let’s leave.” He had to be really finely tuned to that but not allow it to take over. I think Chris really perfected the ability to do that. If you’re someone who just loves the adrenaline rush, then you’re not going to last long. He knew that in order to survive and have the longevity that he had, he needed to calibrate it.

Was there an element of addiction at play, given how often he went back?
I don’t think so. It might sound quaint to some people, but Chris was a true believer in the role of photojournalists and what they brought to the international discussions about the things that he was going to see. He knew the risks better than anybody, and he also knew that if we were going to get involved in places like Libya, or leading the way with a NATO-enforced no-fly zone and openly advocating for the removal of Gadaffi—what does that mean? What does it look like? What’s happening on the ground? Those are the stories that he sought out in order to grab the attention of a media-saturated consumer market.

With the press being called into question by the president, do you hope this documentary also serves as a testament to the importance of the work journalists do?
Absolutely. He’s attacking an industry and a belief that my friend lost his life for. To say that we’re fake news and to question the veracity of people like Chris Hondros—or anybody who put their lives on the line in order to bring us the truth about what’s happening around the world—yeah, I’m offended. I’m offended by everything that comes out of that office, especially in regards to the profession that I chose to do and that Chris gave his life for.

Is this film meant as a eulogy or a tribute?
When you look at Chris’ body of work, he made a lot of effort and took a lot of time to examine the impact of the things that he covered on the people who were directly impacted by them—the civilian population and the soldiers. He focused on the human beings that were involved in these higher-level policy decisions. We wanted to reflect that ethic as much as possible, which is why we examined the lives of other people who were peripherally involved in Chris’ life. He was always interested in how the story unfolded over time, because taking a thin slice of what was usually the most dramatic moment of a person’s life and then presenting it to the world, wasn’t necessarily representative of who the person was.

What do you think separated Chris from other war photographers?
There’s a moment before you embark on this career when you decide if you’re going to be a hardened individual and let things bounce off you, or if you’re going to open yourself up too much and bring in everything that you see and allow it to affect you psychologically and emotionally. It’s really hard to find that line between being too closed off and being too open, and I think Chris really got it, and it’s very evident in his photography. And it’s not always empathy. He’s trying to a find a human connection in a way that you can understand it as a viewer.

If you take the Joseph Duo photograph—there’s so much paradox in his expression and the way he’s celebrating like he just scored a touchdown. But the reality is he may have just killed someone. The viewer feels that exuberance and also wants to condemn an image of war. Chris had a supernatural ability to find that essence of what he was covering to the point where you almost didn’t need a caption to tell you what’s going on.

Do you think he ever crossed a line by engaging with and befriending some of his subjects?
I think Chris engaged with people that he photographed as a means to balance out some of the horrible things he saw and experienced. It allowed him to be reminded that there are people in the world who need opportunity and can have a better life. If Joseph Duo had just asked him for money, Chris wouldn’t have gotten involved. But to hear Joseph say, “I want an education—otherwise, I’m going to be a mercenary,” Chris wanted to help, and Joseph took that opportunity and ran with it. Chris was killed while Joseph was still in school, and Joseph could have easily dropped out, but he stuck it out and graduated.

Soldiers often suffer from PTSD after returning home. Do photographers who witness similar carnage risk a similar fate?
Definitely. But Chris had a real good way of compartmentalizing—almost too good. I wish I had talked to him more about the things he saw and experienced. I certainly tried on many occasions, but he often changed the subject. I think Chris was preserving himself so that he could continue to go back and keep doing it. If you dwell on it long enough, you crack.

He was described as being cavalier, a good coper, an optimist. Are these accurate?
Totally. And “aloof” is another word that I would apply there. But again, it’s that psychic distance that you have to create. But in order to create the kind of photos that he did, you also need to be able to look through the membrane. It’s a real careful chemistry to mix that empathy with detachment. If you have too much of one, the photos are flat, too much of the other and you can’t take a photo because you’re so emotionally overcome with the things that you’re seeing.

Is it problematic to talk about his photos in terms of their aesthetic merits, considering the nature of what they depict?
Everybody can take a photograph. If something were to happen right here that was worthy of all of us covering it, everybody in here would have a different photo. But if you had a photojournalist in the room, then that person would know how to compose for the storytelling aspect of it. That’s what Chris did. He took it to a level that was a little bit beyond your natural storytelling. His photos were truly arresting. While there is an innate artistry there, I would say it’s more skill than anything

In the film, you cover the sea change that happened in the Middle East in which journalists suddenly became targets. How did that change affect you and your colleagues?
The impact is that doing your job is much more dangerous. Just look at James Foley and what happened to him and the people who were captured with him. When I started—my first war is in Bosnia and Kosovo—you could drive in an unarmored car up to a heavily fortified checkpoint with everybody pointing rifles at you, and you could make your case that the only way they can explain themselves and why they’re fighting is through you. You’re the only one who’s willing to tell their story. You’re their microphone to the outside world. Even if they rejected you, they’re not going to shoot you because your colleagues will learn about it, and they’ll be further demonized. Nowadays, they’re the ones with the magazines, drones and video crews. So when we show up to actually look at the facts and counter their propaganda, it makes it exponentially more difficult because you’re no longer welcome on the battlefield. You’re a nuisance.

Can you talk about the relationship that develops between a soldier and a war photographer?
Soldiers don’t know what angle you’re coming from. There’s not mistrust, but you’re not in the unit, and you’re not part of the band of brothers that trained together. You’re an added responsibility. It takes a lot to build a bond of trust with soldiers, and sometimes you don’t. I’ve been with military units where from the jump, you just know you’re not going to click. But then you get to another unit, and it’s like you’ve been with them your whole life.

It’s a testament to Chris being able to build relationships that the soldier in the film contacted him and asked him how he was coping with what they had seen in Tal Afar. Chris was responsible for putting the worst day of that soldier’s life—when he accidentally shot two civilians to death in front of their families—all around the world. And that the soldier still reached out to him shows me that Chris approached the soldiers from such a high level of professionalism and empathy.

Take me inside the relationship of a fixer and a war photographer?
They’re local people who can be helpful to you without being a hindrance. They’re wheel-greasers who can line up interviews, give you local-background suggestions on the culture and tell you if there’s any landmines, both physically and figuratively. They’ll even recommend what to order from an Arabic menu, so they do a little bit of everything. And what a story Ahmed [Jallanzo] has because he wanted to be a fixer, but because the war was going on in Liberia, he couldn’t work. So he borrowed somebody’s cell phone and borrowed money for a cab and drove to the hotel where all the photojournalists were staying and told them about a dead body in his neighborhood. So Chris hired him for the day and told him to give him a call tomorrow.

What is Chris’ legacy?
His fiancé and Getty images put together a foundation called the Chris Hondros Fund that provides money for emerging photojournalists. Part of the evaluation is whether the candidates embody the same characteristics and spirit that Chris did. There’ve been some great photographers that have won that award and done some very important work with it. I also think his legacy will include the fact that he was a true believer in the role of what journalists do, and what a great time to be having that conversation.