A Personal Record of the Libyan War
Five years after his coverage of the Libyan uprising, Michael Christopher Brown published a very personal, almost cathartic, book about his experience there.
© Michael Christopher Brown. Libya. Bin Jawad. 6 March, 2011. 16:05:59. Revolutionaries head towards the front line, to the east of Bin Jawad.
As photographer Michael Christopher Brown states in the introduction of his latest book, published by Twin Palms, “this book is a way to retrace my steps, and find myself along the way back home.” And this, after he covered the Libyan revolution, that soon became a war. Over the course of nine months, on and off, exhilaration gave space to anxiety and confusion - he got injured twice, once severely; lost colleagues and friends; and Gaddafi was killed along with thousands of revolutionaries whose hopes darkened but energy nonetheless remained. His initial almost romantic drive evolved until he realised that this will never be his war, no matter how deeply he dives into it.
© Michael Christopher Brown. Libya. Misrata. 18 April, 2011. 12:03:04. Unidentified, at Hikma hospital.
While the carnage unfolds and increases, photo after photo, two parallel stories unravel: that of the media coverage, through the many emails and text messages from his family, updating him constantly as they read reports from Libya. “Firing on protesters in Tripoli”, his dad writes. And five minutes later: “Zawiyah has determined stands of resistance. By nytimes.” Their assiduity to Libyan news, while the country has always been, as Brown confirms in the intro, foreign to America, stands as proof of their anxiety, though they mostly seem to try keeping it for themselves. “Wondering if u could update us every 2-3 days”, his mom writes. Quickly adding, “Realise may not always b poss. but an attempt.”
Their words contrast with those of Brown, whose feelings we discover through excerpts of his diary. The disconnection between the three layers of narrative is immense, almost disturbing in that it gives a full sense of the experience of war – for those who fight it, those who cover it, and those left at home.
© Michael Christopher Brown. Libya. Outskirts of Benghazi. 23 October, 2011. 13:11:32. Taken from a commercial airplane.
At some point, the level of the disaster is so high that it reaches nonsense. Text disappears, replaced only by photos - bloody, suffocating, nearly smelling of death. “Sometimes I felt I was living in a movie, when gestures and dress would have made more sense on a set than on a battlefield”, he writes. The extent of the horror he witnessed is staggering, and their violence is made even harsher by the fact that they were captured with an iPhone and that the intensity of the photographs fluctuates with that of the war and of his feelings.
On his last trip, he retires from the front-line, this undefined line typical of modern conflicts, to cover what’s around – the psychiatric hospital, the zoo, somehow looking for answers before leaving this deadly coastline that he shoots from the plane, further and further away - slowly leaving this reality, half-his half-foreign, that would, as himself, his dad and his sister guess along the book, change his life.
Libyan Sugar by Michael Christopher Brown
Second edition // May 2017 // 7 x 10 inches // 280 four-colour plates // 412 pages
Michael Christopher Brown is an American photographer and filmmaker. His book Libyan Sugar won the 2016 Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photo-Book Award and the 2017 International Center of Photography Infinity Artist Book Award. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.
Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.