Picturing Conflict: An Interview with Michael Christopher Brown

A rally in Benghazi (all images courtesy Michael Christopher Brown/Magnum)

In 2011, photographer Michael Christopher Brown took a “road trip” through the Libyan Revolution. His new book, Libyan Sugar, chronicles that extraordinary journey. This is a photo book of war, and a painfully graphic one at that. But it isn’t just a book of images; it also offers up journal entries by the photographer, as well as emails that he exchanged with friends, family and colleagues.

Libyan Sugar takes us inside the broad conflict — but only so far. More so, it’s a vivid (at times, quite bloody) taste of war through the eyes of one man. That singular perspective — as opposed to any totalizing overview of the conflict — is evident and acknowledged throughout the book. And it is striking both for its potential limitations (in its historical summary) and its freedoms (in admitting that history is never authored in any truly objective manner).

The book aims to give a personalized treatment to the coverage of war. Brown’s journal entries give some access to his perspective (at times naïve, but progressively more harrowing and sobering) and simultaneously help to orient the reader on what was happening in Libya as he was covering it. And the included emails add a whole other dimension to this book. They permit a personal glimpse into the parts of Brown’s life that exist away from, but are often affected by, the dangerous revolution he is documenting. These messages allow highly intimate access, for instance, to Brown’s parents’ concern for his safety, as comes across in their anxious notes to their son.

Brown wants the text to play an integral role in this book, giving the emails and entries a significant amount of space. In fact, the captions for the photos are pushed to the back of the book, forcing the reader to make sense of the images through the lens of the personal exchanges and journal entries. In this sense, Libyan Sugar strives to tell the story of conflict in an unexpected way, creating simple if novel points of entry and identification for the reader.

*   *   *

Lauren Walsh: How would you summarize your book, and what motivated you to do it?

Michael Christopher Brown: This book is about going to war for the first time, a diary of a road trip through a war zone, and the relationship between conflict and love, war and home. The book captures the state of mind I experienced while in Libya during the revolution. It is about an evolution of my awareness and my transition from youth to adulthood. Some men have an innate need to test themselves in some way, to find their limit. That was partly my motivation.

And why Libya in particular? Some of the reasons include: the phenomenon of the Arab Spring; this eccentric dictator Gaddafi; that Libya was largely closed to the world and there was a lack of modern imagery from the area; the book In the Country of Men [by Hisham Matar, 2007]; a desire to experience a revolution, perhaps one similar to Egypt’s, as I regretted not going there; that I had been working in China on a road-trip project that had largely failed in my eyes; and that I was looking for an experience that would challenge me in all areas of my life.

LW: In your introduction, you describe the book as a way of revisiting the past in order to find yourself. Part of that revisiting was returning to the site in Misrata where you were seriously injured and photojournalists Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington were killed on April 20, 2011. Did you succeed in the endeavor of “finding yourself”? Was the same man, from before heading to Libya, to be found?

MCB: The man was there, but he was different — more intuitive. I think of this work as a rite of passage. Nowadays, we do not have these rituals as we did, say, in hunting societies — the passage of a boy to a man. That process has been lost. But there is a primal innate yearning for it— at least I always felt it growing up. When do we become men? That transition from youth to adulthood, I was referring to: there is a time in our lives when we are tested in some way that causes us to “grow up.”

For me, this test happened after losing a lot of blood in the attack on April 20 and wondering if I might die. I was even just wondering what the hell I was doing, and feeling I had not cared enough, that I had not helped others. There was a tremendous and immediate feeling of selfishness when I was injured this second time and lost nearly half the blood in my body. [Prior to this, on March 7, 2011, Brown was shot in the leg, but that injury was less critical.] I felt myself bleeding out and then I passed out. I got close enough to death to see that what was important in life was love and caring for loved ones. This is ultimately what, at least for myself, being a man entails. Loving one’s partner, family and community, understanding one’s place in the world.

LW: Do you see Libyan Sugar as conforming to or breaking with conventions in the coverage of war?

MCB: It breaks the conventions in several ways. I used an iPhone, which at the time was both technically challenging and ethically contestable by some, due to the quality of images it produced. Also, in this book I do not allow myself to be John Wayne, something I often think war photographers do, or did; they become heroes and feed off this persona —  and this includes myself, at least at the time. In addition, the book breaks with tradition in that that I placed myself in the story as the main character, when some would say it should only be about the Libyans. I also incorporated many images of the dead in ways that might be ethically debatable; these are images that would never, say, run in the New York Times.

But the book also conforms with conventions in some of its other images—there is classic revolutionary imagery, for instance. At the same time, there is also a more artistic interpretation. So it bridges photojournalism with a more contemporary art perspective.

LW: In some ways, Libyan Sugar feels like a modernized Telex Iran. Gilles Peress’s 1984 book covers the five weeks he spent in Iran in 1979-80 during the seizure of the American embassy and hostage-taking by student groups. Telex hauntingly depicts the disorder Peress experienced, a sentiment that is carried forward by the book’s structure, where the text on the pages exists in a separate register from the images; the telexes — communications with editors and others — don’t specifically explain or caption the photos. And that “disconnect” makes the experience of his book, and of the chaos of covering the revolution, more layered. Likewise, the words on the pages of your book often don’t caption, in any traditional sense, the image beside them. What was your goal in pairing personal email communications with photos of the conflict in Libya? 

MCB: Since the focus of my book is a revolution, the immediate reference point becomes Telex. And yes, this book was influenced by Telex Iran, but the text is more personal than in Peress’s book. Where Telex created a sort of confusion, my text explores important themes about the relationship between Libya and home, war and peace, hate and love. I put myself on the line; I am not afraid to tell the reader how naïve I was. By contrast, in Telex, we do not see a weakness in Gilles. It offers his official communication with the outside world; we do not see his inner world, which is fine. But it’s just one reason why the two books are very different.

Also, whereas Telex displays a certain mastery of photography, Libyan Sugar is not a photography book per se; there are many mediocre pictures in there as it is meant to be read before being “looked at.” Many images are there to compliment the text and provide more context for the experience being read about. So the goal was to explore this relationship between war and home, and to create or highlight contrasts between war and peace, violence and beauty. The dynamic between text and images carries this exploration forward.

When planning the book, I combed thousands of texts, emails and notes, and I incorporated what more directly related to my experience, the family connection and the emotions of being there. That process took shape after I had laid all the images out. Though there was a chronological arc— the beginning of the revolution through its end — I saw how empty the images were without my experiences injected alongside them. I wanted to capture my experience in this book, both for myself as a memory and for the world.

LW: You refer to yourself at one point as “just a foreign photographer,” so how do you respond to those who criticize the outsider’s interpretation of another’s conflict?

MCB: I’d say there are benefits to both the insider and the outsider interpretation. Eugene Richards has done incredible work in America throughout the years, but so has Robert Frank, who was Swiss-born and emigrated to the U.S. in his early 20s. An outsider may bring something to the table that an insider cannot, and vice versa. That doesn’t mean we are right, but sometimes we see certain scenarios more clearly. That Robert Frank was not born an American probably allowed him to see America more clearly in The Americans [Frank’s seminal 1958 photo book].

Learning antiaircraft weaponry at a captured government army base in Benghazi

LW: Your book is dedicated to “the Revolutionaries.” Why do you call the rebel forces “revolutionaries,” and do you feel an affiliation with rebel fighters in Libya? Do you think the politics and actions there, since 2011 going forward, have simplified or complicated your book’s dedication?

MCB: This book is from a certain time, the first Libyan Civil War in 2011. This includes the pictures, the text I wrote, and the dedication. The publisher asked this same question about the “revolutionaries,” as some of these fighters may have joined the Islamic State or otherwise created havoc since. My answer was that in 2011 they were considered revolutionaries by the population. That is the spirit of what carried me through my experience. That is, that they were doing something good for the people, changing their situation for the better. The revolutionaries did do horrible things, as horrible things happen in war; but their collective efforts were generally seen as positive by Libyans during that time. And yes, they were rebelling against the government, but they were not rebels per se; they were fighting for the revolution as revolutionaries.

LW: What cameras did you travel with in Libya, and why did you decide to do a book with primarily iPhone images?

MCB: I brought just one camera, which broke at the end of my first week in Benghazi. Others offered me their third backup cameras, which were mostly amateur type cameras that I had no experience with and no desire to use. Meanwhile, I’d been using the iPhone a bit that week and earlier, when I was in China [in 2010], so decided to just continue with that, as I enjoyed the novelty of it and the aesthetic feel of the images. I made several trips to Libya throughout the year and, partly to keep the images cohesive, continued using the phone.

It was difficult, though, because Hipstamatic, the iPhone app, would often crash and I’d lose all the images. Hipstamatic was more instantaneous than the regular iPhone camera, so for me it was the only choice to capture key moments. But you could only take one image every 15-20 seconds or so, and often the images were “noisy,” with splotches and color casts.

But the limitations of the iPhone also permitted me to see and photograph differently. For instance, it allowed me to be more spontaneous and to not appear as a photographer — and occasionally, that led to more access. Sometimes hospitals were closed to photographers, but journalists could still get inside. So I’d go in with a pen and notebook, and my phone.

The now destroyed Nasser statue, constructed in honor of the former Egyptian president

LW: The emails from your parents provide a glimpse into the stress this work caused for those who love you. Why did you want to make that aspect so public?

MCB: Why not? What should be public and what should be private?

LW: In one email your father offers pithy advice:

Years ago when I had an experience that I felt could be life changing (going to Haiti, Romania, death of my father) I was always surprised how life went on.

People would ask me about it…. then say “how about a movie tonight?” or “well… good now I have to pick the kids up..”

I would realize that “life goes on”… and that the change would be in me… in my personal experience as it is for all of us.

My impressions would change only me… then I would sometimes see the world differently…then I would revert back to some old worries…

The change would be there but ….. only in me.

Our view however can give the taste of experience to those around us who would listen

and one would hope gain empathy for our view.

Taking time to think… and share… in time…. is important.



Do you think others listen often enough to develop empathy for another’s suffering? Is listening or seeing (photos) the more powerful tool for developing empathy?

MCB: It depends on what is meant by “listening.” The power of an image is that it may transmit an emotion. Sound can do this as well, perhaps more deeply, whereas photographs may prove that something “exists.”

But photographs are most powerful when they transmit emotion. I think VR is the future of this empathy transmission. But one reason I included the personal texts in this book was to create a character with which a viewer might identify. That helps create empathy not only for my situation, but also for the experience in which I was engaged, in this case a revolution. We recognize ourselves in others if we are able to relate to them — and then we may understand the experience more fully, even to begin to understand the experience of a revolution. Just showing the photographs was not enough. The viewer ultimately wants to be a sort of voyeur into another world, so by allowing them to see “secrets” — personal exchanges — they may become more actively engaged in the work.

From “Libyan Sugar”


LW: Partway into the book you create what I think of as a “visual chiasmus,” a repetition, in reversed order, of imagery. One page spread: your dad, wearing a baseball cap and holding a rifle for hunting (left page) alongside the soothing, grassy landscape of Skagit Valley, WA, the place where you’re from (right page). Next page spread: a tank, cutting up the otherwise green, grassy landscape on the outskirts of Al-Marj, near to Benghazi (left) alongside a male fighter, wearing a camouflage hat, draped in ammunition belts, holding a light machine gun (right). Why craft this visual parallelism?

MCB: The green mountains in Libya reminded me of my home. There was a similarity in the landscape and also in the expressions of both the Libyan and my father, an expression of amusement or enjoyment in their respective environments. My father is seen here in his home country and this other man in his. They become reflections of one another, even if only in certain aspects — they are men with guns, both hunting. Again, I’m focused on the relationship between home and war, life and death, and land. Land of course is the cause of major battles; it’s about territory as identity. Our culture and history are attached to territory.

LW: You have some incredibly graphic images in this book — bloody and maimed bodies, people destroyed almost beyond recognition as human. This one might be considered “tame” by comparison. Why did you include such graphic photos in this book?

A body at a morgue. He was killed during fighting in Benghazi

MCB: These are the real pictures of war, images we never see. In the book, I quote Jon Stewart on this: “We can only make decisions about war if we see what war actually is.” Without these images, we cannot understand the full story of what war does to people. We need to show the world the extremes. In this sense, most big publications are not doing their job, for various reasons. Neither is the U.S. government. They do not allow this sort of coverage of American troops. But why? It’s easy to see how these sorts of images, of, say, dead American soldiers on the front page of the New York Times could rapidly change the depth of involvement in the Middle East. Millions of folks here in the U.S. might be in the streets as happened during Vietnam if they saw this type of imagery.

Often, we the media use the excuse that it is unethical or somehow improper to show these images to the public. I believe that is not only dishonest but dangerous, as wars may continue at a greater scale and for a longer time because these types of images are not being shown in the mass media, which generally shy away from depicting the horrors of war. But how can we reconcile such serious matters without knowing the extremes they entail?

LW: Is this an anti-war book?

MCB: Anti-war is a sort of grand statement. We cannot stop war. I often think both photojournalism and art works about war just make people, including myself, more curious about war.

LW: You write: “Libya is not my country, nor was it my revolution. I did not go to change anything, but there was a sense that I could do something if I went, and I went for myself.” What was that something you thought you might do, and did you do it? In the end, is this book more about you or about the conflict in Libya?

MCB: The book is about my experience more than it is the Libyan Revolution — just as, say, Star Wars is not about the battle between good and evil as much as it is about the characters, about the development of Luke. Those characters are what we can identify with; they each represent certain emotions and personas we can relate to, so we are made to feel empathy for them, and as we learn more about them, we learn about ourselves and our potential.

Creating the book is when I discovered this. I am not a photographer. I am, primarily, a collector, and ultimately, of course, a human. So this book is more about myself, and the full body of this work includes physical artifacts as well as footage that I’m making into a 4-channel video installation.

LW: What do you hope your reader takes away from Libyan Sugar?

MCB: Perhaps an inspiration to share their own story and experience with the world. To not be afraid of who they are and where they come from, to reach for the experience.

Michael Christopher Brown is represented by Magnum Photos. He has worked recently in Cuba and the Dem­ocratic Republic of the Congo, and in 2010, he was in China. His photos have appeared in National Geographic and the New York Times Magazine; he was the subject of the HBO documentary Witness: Libya; and his photos have been featured at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Instituto Cervantes (NY), the Brooklyn Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), and the Annenberg Space for Photography (Los Angeles).

Libyan Sugar (2016) is published by Twin Palms Publishers and is available from Amazon and other online booksellers.

comments (0)