Photo Books

Exposures: Michael Christopher Brown’s Journey into the Libyan Civil War

February 26, 2016

By Sarah Coleman

Early on in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the narrator goes to see an old war buddy whose wife doesn’t seem happy about the visit. Told that the guest is writing about World War II, she harangues him, saying she’s sure he’ll glamorize war like every other writer and movie director. “You’ll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra or John Wayne,” she says. “And war will look just wonderful, so we’ll have a lot more of them.” No, the narrator tells her: He wants to write a different kind of book. One that reflects war’s horror.

That Vonnegut passage greets readers on the first page of photojournalist Michael Christopher Brown’s new book, Libyan Sugar (Twin Palms), and it couldn’t be more fitting. No one could accuse Brown of glamorizing the Libyan Revolution: His photographs show war in all its bloody, visceral reality. Woven through the book is a narrative of self-discovery, told through journal entries, emails with family and photographs from home. The combination is striking. Through Brown’s experience, we grasp how war can feel both disorienting and shockingly raw.

It was Brown’s first experience covering conflict. “I’d never been interested in the frontline before that,” says Brown. In 2010, he was living and working in China when news of the Arab Spring started reaching him. The media was reporting that a drought in China might have contributed to the uprising. “The Chinese needed to buy more wheat on the world market, and due to their consumption there was less wheat for bread in north Africa and the Middle East,” he says. People’s hunger was stoking their appetite for change.

As it happened, Brown himself was craving a change at the time. He’d been driving around China in a van, trying to channel Robert Frank and capture the country’s mood. But inspiration was lacking. Some days, he recalls, he felt “like an alien in a spaceship touring another planet. I just didn’t want to get out of the van.”

Libya was “the next thing to photograph, it was a big part of the story [of the Arab Spring],” he says. He’d never seen war up close, and the prospect was scary—but he was compelled to go, and in February 2011, embarked on the first of six trips he would make to the country that year. “I was looking for the experience of being alive, a certain involvement in society,” he says. “There was a need to understand the revolutionaries, but also myself. What was I looking for, why was I a photographer, what was I living for?” Wryly, he adds, “I was also having a revolution.”

Once inside Libya, he found himself immersed in chaos. Rumors flew: then-ruling dictator Muammar Gaddafi was using poison gas; Gaddafi had issued orders to shoot journalists. Perhaps serendipitously, a week into his first trip Brown dropped and broke his SLR camera: He started using his iPhone instead. Using the Hipstamatic app, he could take only one image every 20 seconds, which changed the way he worked. “I needed to be more centered within myself, more selective,” he says. Being mistaken for an amateur also meant he could access places that his colleagues were barred from. “I decided to continue with just the phone,” he says.

That sense of self-inquiry within a swirling, hectic war makes Libyan Sugar feel particularly direct and sincere. “There was so much that was not being reported, as must be the case in every war,” Brown says. Though he didn’t set out to document slaughter, it was “just what I saw. A lot of dead bodies, shreds of flesh, brutality.” These kinds of graphic images weren’t making it into the press, so he shot them, intent on creating a record of war’s true cost.

Contrast these with the bucolic images from home that appear in the book: Brown’s father walking through green fields, his mother watering her flower garden. Brown edited and designed the book himself, and decided to include those images because they show how individuals are also members of families and tribes—all of whom are ultimately connected. To chart his inner journey, he also included journal entries and correspondence with loved ones. “I pored through hundreds of emails and text messages, taking the ones which meant something,” he says.

That journey almost ended on April 20, 2011, when Brown was with fellow photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Misrata. Hetherington and Hondros were killed in a mortar attack. Brown narrowly survived, losing half the blood in his body. “I’d had many close calls, and had seen hundreds of dead bodies during the war, but… it was only when I saw those I had known [die] that I realized what war was,” he says. The story of the mortar attack and its aftermath play a central role in the book, and its intimacy makes us feel the shock all over again.

Watching the blood pour from his own body that day, Brown remembers thinking that he needed to make his experience count.  “The only way to really give back is to do something only you can do,” he says. “So I needed to tell the story my own way.”

Luckily, he lived to do just that.

Related: 12 Photographers, 12 Views of Israel and the West Bank, 12 Books

Picture Story: Ghosts of the Libyan Civil War