Bit­ter sugar

Pho­tograph­ing the Libyan up­ris­ing

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS - Casey Sanchez

IN the chaos of the Libyan up­ris­ing that broke out dur­ing the Arab Spring of 2011, for­eign jour­nal­ists swooped in to cover a coun­try that had banned for­eign re­porters for decades. Few were more ea­ger — and per­haps more un­pre­pared — than Michael Christo­pher Brown.

The pho­to­jour­nal­ist had never been to war and had no in­ter­preter. On his first day in Libya, his cam­era was smashed, leav­ing him to shoot im­ages from a war zone us­ing his iPhone 4. Un­daunted, he down­loaded Hip­sta­matic (at the time, it of­fered faster shut­ter times than the na­tive cam­era app) and per­sisted for eight months, sur­viv­ing a car bomb­ing and a gun­shot wound to his leg.

“It was my first time in a front-line po­si­tion. I had very lit­tle train­ing. If you wanted to cover the gov­ern­ment side, you had to be based out of Tripoli and spend a few hun­dred dol­lars a day on a ho­tel,” Brown told Pasatiempo. “Be­cause I was there on my own and go­ing on a lim­ited bud­get, I spent my time cov­er­ing the rev­o­lu­tion from the rebels’ view­points. The gov­ern­ment story was some­thing I saw on TV or would see in the af­ter­math of a bat­tle.”

Brown’s pho­tos from his time dur­ing the Libyan Civil War are col­lected in Libyan Sugar, re­cently pub­lished by Twin Palms, and win­ner of the First Pho­toBook cat­e­gory of the pres­ti­gious Paris Pho­toAper­ture Foun­da­tion Pho­toBook Awards. The book is some­thing of a de­par­ture for the Santa Fe im­print, which is known for pol­ished fine-art books.

The pho­tog­ra­pher said Libyan Sugar is a doc­u­men­tary road trip through a war zone, a frac­tured col­lec­tion of im­ages uni­fied only by their im­me­di­acy. “I just went on my own, out of cu­rios­ity. I had been work­ing seven years as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist. Pho­tog­ra­phy was al­ways a way to es­cape my sur­round­ings; it was more of a ther­apy for test­ing my lim­its, find­ing my­self,” Brown said. “We were all try­ing to fig­ure out how the rev­o­lu­tion would play out. We’d all be go­ing to the same front line in the east and gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion of where was dan­ger­ous and what was hap­pen­ing.”

He cap­tures the thrilled faces of young men as they ride a tank whizzing about the streets of Mis­rata af­ter leader Muam­mar Gaddafi’s cap­ture. In other im­ages, he re­veals wartime Libya as a largely ru­ral na­tion. On the out­skirts of Beng­hazi, herders on horse­back push packs of camels across the desert. Many of the rebels ap­pear as fear­less teenagers. Some are stone-faced child sol­diers clutch­ing ri­fles nearly as tall as they are.

The pho­tos can be dif­fi­cult to look at. There are sev­eral charred faces and con­crete walls cov­ered with bloody hand­prints. In one shot, a hu­man form can be dis­cerned from the out­line of pow­der on the ground — a ghostly sil­hou­ette only com­pleted by frag­ments of the man’s skull and his black­ened ri­fle bar­rel.

The im­ages con­vey a sense of the bat­tles’ ev­er­shift­ing lo­cales. To es­cape de­tec­tion, rebels in street clothes crawl on their hands and knees across the high­ways en­ter­ing Bin Jawad. Civil­ians, if pic­tured at all, seem al­ways to be mov­ing, lug­gage bal­anced on their heads, wheel­chairs strapped across the top of rusty sta­tion wag­ons al­ready weighed down by their hu­man cargo.

Some of the most af­fect­ing pho­tos fea­ture no peo­ple at all — like a shot of a chem­i­cal-weapons de­pot that sprawls for acres across the sun­baked earth. One of Brown’s most haunt­ing im­ages fea­tures no blood or weapons — it sim­ply shows the stunned face and sparkling eyes of a cap­tured gov­ern­ment fighter con­va­lesc­ing on a hos­pi­tal gur­ney, his hands shack­led to the bed.

Pho­tog­ra­pher Michael Christo­pher Brown said Libyan Sugar is a doc­u­men­tary road trip through a war zone, a frac­tured col­lec­tion of im­ages uni­fied only by their im­me­di­acy.

Brown doesn’t shy away from doc­u­ment­ing his own wounds. Fol­low­ing a set of pho­tos show­cas­ing a bul­let’s im­pact on his leg, he in­cludes a jour­nal en­try from the day of the shoot­ing, likely the re­sult of friendly fire. “Some­thing ex­ploded over­head, look­ing like tiny as­ter­oids soar­ing in a tree for­ma­tion. Bul­lets whizzed by, and a fighter and I ran at a slight an­gle for the side of the road to take cover,” he writes. “Then a bul­let passed through my right calf, feel­ing like a rock thrown by a school­yard bully.” He wound up in­side an am­bu­lance, where he kept tak­ing pho­tos of him­self and the other pas­sen­ger, a man “with a gap­ing chest wound, in shock and at­tempt­ing to sit up while held down by two physi­cians.”

Emails, texts, and Face­book sta­tus up­dates to his fam­ily back home in the Sk­agit Val­ley of Wash­ing­ton State punc­tu­ate the wartime nar­ra­tive. Af­ter read­ing about his son’s shoot­ing, Brown’s steely-eyed dad sends back an email, “your impressions are im­por­tant ... free­dom ... you’re see­ing it’s [sic] birth. Kind of messy.” His mom passes along up­dates from pub­lic ra­dio, “Qadaffi passed out guns to civil­ian sup­port­ers to roam streets ... Snipers out. R u get­tin txt?”

Near the book’s end, there’s a photo of street graf­fiti, with the English words “Libyan sugar” scrawled in blue spray paint. Brown took it as his book’s ti­tle, an evoca­tive in­sider ref­er­ence. “There is no sugar pro­duced in Libya, but Libyans con­sume a lot of sugar,”

con­tin­ued from Page 25

Michael Christo­pher Brown: Learn­ing anti-air­craft weaponry at a cap­tured gov­ern­ment army base, Beng­hazi, March 1, 2011; op­po­site page, Rally, Beng­hazi, April 8, 2011, all pho­tos cour­tesy Twin Palms Pub­lish­ers

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