Last Sunday, December 15, 2011, author, debater, atheist and professional lightning rod Christopher Hitchens died of cancer-related pneumonia. I met and photographed Mr. Hitchens and it is an experience I will never forget, but for reasons I hadn’t predicted.
It was 2007 and I had been following the works of Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. I had also recently bought Mr. Hitchens’ latest book god is not Great. Raised Catholic, but more a disciple of science, I have always been fascinated by that place where science and theism collide. But I am not going to talk about that. I am going to talk about the human—the person—I met on a clear summer night in Seattle all those years ago.
I had only recently begun a relationship with Town Hall Seattle. A wonderful depot of intellectual and artistic experience. Housed in a beautiful Roman-revival-style building dating to the early 20s, it was formerly a gathering place for the Fourth Church of Christ, Scientist community. Its pews and non-denominational stained-glass windows indeed give it the feel of a place of worship, though now it was raw knowledge worshiped instead of dogma. It seemed the most perfectly fitting place for someone like Mr. Hitchens.
Truth be told though, I was scared to death of the man. Forceful, bombastic, cutting and aggressive, Hitch never pulled any punches. And as has been sufficiently noted, the man liked his smoke and his drink; something that would ultimately cause this bright flame to burn twice as bright but half as long. He was scheduled to arrive at Town Hall a half hour or so before his lecture. I would have the requisite 15 min with my subject for a portrait. (I would also be given the luxury of photographing him while he spoke.) I expected rudeness, shortness and apathy. So many “celebrities” bring with them the self-endowed weight of their own perceived importance, that it is sometimes hard to see the human underneath. Instead, what showed up was quite the opposite. A short, squat man by stature; what he lacked in height he made up for in vigor. “Hello, pleasure to meet you” escaped his mouth as we shook hands. He then took my fiancée’s hand, who was assisting me on this shoot, in both his hands like only a father would and reiterated similar pleasantries. This courteousness would not wane the entire session.
Having scouted the location earlier, I decided on an environmental portrait. A short Google search showed that most photos of him were simple bust portraits, often with a cigarette in hand. The green room at Town Hall has the typical makeup chair with lightbulbs surrounding a mirror. To me, there is no better metaphor for fame. But instead of seating him in front of it, I chose to put a stack of his previously published books there instead. He would sit across the room, on the couch, almost in renunciation of fame. Or, more to the point, indifferent to it. He was game for the idea. The portrait turned out great. And the framed illustration of Shiva, the hindu destroyer of god hanging behind him, was pure, poetic coincidence.
He was gracious to the point of me feeling guilty at times. I could have asked him to wear a bunny suit and I bet he might have considered it. The portrait at the beginning of this post is an outtake. I don’t know why but I liked the dark hallway with the faint lit door at the end. Now, with him gone, it too seems metaphorical. Almost as if the frame, like life, is bisected by light and dark. Life and death.
After our session, he jaunted off to pre-sign some books for VIPs. There, local Seattle author/musician/icon Sean Nelson met with him as a writer for The Stranger. Hitch turned to Sean and said “Go for a drink after this?” I thought, “Sean, you lucky sonofabitch.” But I can think of no better candidate for such a meeting than Sean.
I watched and photographed his lecture in awe. He commanded the attention of the entire audience from start to finish. He waved his arms and stared at people in the face. From this pulpit, a mortal gave sermon to his congregation without the slightest pang of irony. And the audience drank him up. Interestingly, and until now I have never felt comfortable sharing this, but he had no security detail. No bullet-proof vest or bodyguard. Considering the fates of the likes of director Theo van Gogh, this struck me as risky. In retrospect, it makes sense. Hitch will allow no one to force anything upon him or restrict his freedom. He showed up a simple man, just like every one else.
At the conclusion of his talk, he turned from the podium and made a cigarette suddenly appear in his hand like a skilled magician. To this day I still have no idea how he did it. Backstage, he courteously offered to smoke out of doors. But where? I jumped in and offered to escort him out to the back alley. It was there that I had his full attention for the entire length of that cigarette. (If only he smoked 100s!) We talked about life and death. Upbringing and growing old. But most importantly, for me, what a non-believer can do after the loss of a loved one, when the idea of eternal afterlife gives no comfort. He talked about the death of close friends and family. He also talked about his children and his own legacy. He and I, in the back alley as guests unknowingly exited the hall past us, talking as two humans about the simplest and grandest of topics. It changed my life forever.
I was upset when I learned of his initial diagnosis. I also knew how upsetting it would be when his detractors would ascribe grand reason for his illness. But in truth, I didn’t care because I know he didn’t either.
I was in Southern California caring for my elderly father when the news came of his passing. My heart sank despite knowing this day would come. I always thought to write a letter to him to say thank you for his graciousness that evening—but never did. Later, in an interview with the BBC, when the illness had turned his body into a shell of its former self, he talked about the many letters of support he’d received. “If you ever wonder whether or not to send the letter, do. Just do. It matters more than you know,” he said with a rasp to his voice brought on by the now-metastasized scourge. “Just do.” A message from beyond the grave that assured me he would no doubt have the much-vaunted eternal life. But not in a biblical sense. His words will live on in those who chose to listen.