Photographing the Libyan uprising
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,”
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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