The survivor of a deadly bombing in Libya, global photographer Michael Christopher Brown (‘00) pursues much more than the next great shot
Story by Claire Sykes ('81)
He remembers them well: The slide shows of his family at home and on vacation. The photos his physician father took of his patients in orphanages in Romania, Mexico and Haiti. The Polaroids scattered around their home of the operations his father performed, full of bloody flesh and surgical tools. Years passed before Michael Christopher Brown realized just how much they would influence him.
“After seeing my father’s surgical photos so many times, perhaps that’s why I’m able to look at flesh and gore without it really bothering me,” says Brown (‘00, Psychology), a photographer based in New York City, who has captured images around the world of social unrest and war.
On April 20, 2011, shortly after he arrived in Libya to photograph the revolution in Misrata, he was with photojournalists Tim Hetherington, Chris Hondros and Guy Martin traveling with rebel fighters, when an explosive round blasted in front of them. Hetherington, an Academy Award-nominated filmmaker, and Hondros, a celebrated photojournalist, were killed. Martin and Brown were severely injured. Wounded in the chest, shoulder and arm, Brown was rushed to the hospital. But surgeons weren’t able to remove all of the shrapnel, which just missed one of his lungs and a major artery in his arm (four pieces remain inside him). He received two transfusions for losing almost half the blood in his body.
Capturing a ‘visceral experience’
The 2012 HBO documentary, “Witness: Libya” follows Brown’s work as a “war photographer,” but he doesn’t consider himself one. Since 2003, he has also taken his camera to the streets of Mexico and Mumbai, around a remote Russian island and among the California redwoods, across China and down into the mines in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His award-winning, internationally exhibited photos appear in National Geographic, TIME and Newsweek, among others. Straddling fine art and photojournalism, Brown’s photos express his personal perspective and poetic vision through hauntingly beautiful and sometimes horrifyingly graphic views of the world.
A professional photographer was the last thing Brown thought he’d be. Born and raised in Mount Vernon, as a kid he took pictures of flowers, wildlife and landscapes with his father, “mainly because it was something he wanted to do with me,” says Brown. Then, at 15, he injured his knee playing soccer. There went snowboarding and wakeboarding, too.
Brown kept taking pictures over the years, while he racked up sprains and broken bones, and several more knee surgeries. “I began taking photography more seriously, trying to compensate for the physical things I no longer could do. On the streets, I was looking for imagery that would capture that visceral experience I previously had in the outdoors, the type of experience I’d find on an untracked mountain powder slope. I finally found it in Libya, when I wasn’t looking for it.”
As a way to make a living, photography was “the only thing I knew how to do that I was interested in,” he says. At Western, he interned with then-National Geographic photojournalist (for 25 years) and former WWU adjunct professor Phil Schofield.
“When I first saw Mike’s portfolio, I could see he had an eye – and a great deal of passion,” Schofield says.
Brown’s master's degree in Visual Communications from Ohio University (’03) “was about surrounding myself with those more experienced in and connected to the world of photojournalism,” he says. “It was about getting work.”
After completing his master’s degree, Brown took an internship at a newspaper in Springfield, Ill. A year later, he got one with National Geographic. “It was a dream come true, and my chance to become the type of photographer I wanted to be. Or so I felt.”
Over the next several years, he began taking more and more prestigious assignments. But an unease brewed inside him. “Photography had become just a job,” he says. “I always felt this need of finding something to photograph; it was more of an obsession. It was also a commercially oriented mentality, that the more visually sophisticated the work became, the more I might stay competitive and continue to make a living.”
After two months covering the Afghanistan elections in 2009, he went to China for the second time. He spent long days alone driving in a van with tinted windows, photographing mostly solitary figures on busy streets or in industrial and agricultural areas.
“I began to feel locked inside a capsule moving through a strange land full of cities with millions of people, many cities with names nobody outside China, or even inside, would recognize,” says Brown. “Everything began to look the same after a while, and I felt like I was driving through a wasteland of sorts. The more I looked at people, the more I realized I was looking at myself. I was searching for something more than the issues I was interested in photographing, and the trip became existential. I began asking myself what I was really doing in China with photography – and with my life.”
A camera that ‘liberates’
He found his answer during the last several months of his most recent, 2010 trip to China, when he started taking pictures with his cell phone. “I didn’t feel like a photographer, just a person,” says Brown, who still uses his mobile phone camera, mainly for his own work; he also uses a 35mm digital camera when on assignment.
Says Schofield, “Mike has always been able to make people feel at ease, and get close to them. Using his iPhone makes them even more accessible to him, because it allows him to blend in with everyone else taking pictures with their phones. Also, in a lot of countries, if you’re the only white guy in a bar and you’ve got this $5,000 camera hanging around your neck, you could either get ripped off or beat up, or both.”
Brown continues, “People don’t see a mobile phone as a camera. It’s liberating for me. It is less obtrusive, so it makes certain types of images possible or more easily captured than with a traditional camera.”
The cell phone also relieves Brown of “the traditional pressures of photography. Taking pictures with it is an exploration, a personal expression, as it was in the beginning when I first became interested in photography, without the responsibility associated with journalism.”
Amidst the politics, a country’s people
In February 2011, Brown followed the Tahrir Square protests on TV from his Beijing apartment, and he felt drawn to cover the unfolding events of the Arab Spring. “There were values I identified with as an American, like freedom and democracy (or at least that’s what the media was projecting). And there was a mysteriousness about Libya that attracted me, in part because the country was largely closed to the world under the 42-year dictatorship of Qaddafi,” he says. “Also, I had never experienced a revolution, and I felt this palpable excitement.”
Before Qaddafi fled his residence in Triopli, “people were not only not allowed inside the residence, but could be killed if they stopped their car or stood outside the walls. Afterwards, thousands of Libyans came to visit, and many to loot and make graffiti. There was a feeling of accomplishment in the air, freedom, something the people had never known for decades. As a foreigner, I found it hard to identify with that feeling, but there was also something universal about it.” What Brown most remembers about his time there, though, “are the Libyans I got to know well—the fixers, translators, drivers and others who I spent weeks with, made friends with, and who taught me about their country.”
With Brown and his photography, there’s before Libya and after Libya. For years leading up to that fateful April day, “the obsession with photography always dictated life decisions. Afterwards, I realized I had not done enough in my life, not given enough, that I needed to grow more and that I did not want to die in that way. Photography is important, but I am now conscious of the need to use photography, not to be used by it.”
In Libya, along with the revolution and the war, Brown photographed landscapes, animals and still lifes, like he did growing up. A forthcoming book of several hundred of these images features his journal entries and other writings about going into a war zone for the first time. He used his cell phone to take many of those pictures. “The revolution in Libya was enabled in certain ways by mobile technology,” he says. And in Congo, where in August 2012 TIME sent him to document the effects of the conflict-minerals trade, the mines’ tourmaline, cassiterite and coltan end up in the world’s handheld computers and phones. Brown returned to Congo that November for several months, to cover the resource wars, and again from March to May 2013, to work on several assignments and personal projects.
“I no longer take pictures for the sake of taking pictures, going somewhere to challenge myself as a photographer. I’ll still take some commissions in order to make a living, but it’s more about me continuing to evolve as an individual,” says Brown. “And though I believe pictures can help change the world, I also don’t take pictures for that belief. Nor do I believe any of my pictures have, or will, change anything.”
Even though they do.
“Not many photographers would go into situations with so much ambient danger – live ammunition and the ‘ugly American’ as the catch phrase of the day,” says Schofield. “But Mike inserts himself right in the middle, and brings back pictures that really capture the daily lives of people.”
With his camera, Brown opens a window wide onto the world, showing what life is like from wherever he may go. And those who look through it see that world anew.
Claire Sykes (’81, Community Service and the Arts) is a freelance writer in Portland, Ore. She covers the visual arts and music, health and wellness, the environment, business, travel and general interest for magazines in the U.S., Canada and abroad.