Surviving one of photojournalism's darkest moments

Story highlights

  • Photographer Michael Christopher Brown documented the Libyan conflict in 2011
  • He was wounded in the attack that killed colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros

(CNN)Photographer Michael Christopher Brown traveled by car into Libya with a digital camera in his hand and adventure in his heart. He intended to document an uprising, but as it escalated, he wanted -- no, needed -- to experience armed conflict.

At 13, he'd learned photography from his father, who kept a darkroom in the family home in Washington's Skagit Valley. As a young photographer, he had shot the remote Russian island of Sakhalin and the financial crisis in New York. He was documenting change in China when 2011 arrived with promises of the Arab Spring.
Brown's imagination soared. The people seemed so alive in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.
    He encountered photographers, some famous, who were going to the front lines because they felt a responsibility to record what was happening for the sake of history. That, he says now, is "is arguably the stupidest reason to go ... unless the individual is genuinely, personally invested." The risks are too high.
    What he came to understand in the rebels' fight against Moammar Gadhafi in Libya -- where he survived one of photojournalism's darkest moments -- is that going to a war zone meant being ready to die.
    Photographer Michael Christopher Brown
    As the situation on the ground escalated, Brown made his way to Misrata. Gadhafi's forces had laid siege to Libya's third-largest city; people were dying every day in a barrage of artillery, tank and sniper fire. Some of the heaviest fighting took place on Tripoli Street.
    Brown was with veteran conflict photographers Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, as well as Guy Martin, who, like Brown, was an emerging photographer and fairly new to war.
    Brown had especially been drawn to Hetherington, a 40-year-old known for his work in Afghanistan and the harrowing Oscar-nominated film, "Restrepo." He saw Hetherington as a brother he "barely knew though had always known."
    "We looked at photography in similar ways, but what struck me was the youth he exhibited; that despite his accomplishments, he was open," Brown said. "Tim wanted to learn from everyone."
    That meant a lot to Brown, who, within days of arriving in Libya, dropped and broke his camera and was forced to use an app on his phone. The processor was slow and able to capture only one image every 15 to 30 seconds, depending on the exposure. That meant Brown often missed frames. He also lost some pictures he had taken because the app had a tendency to crash.

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    This would be challenging in any situation, but especially so in a place of chaos and danger. It forced Brown to see war in a different way, to stop and think more about what he was seeing unfold.
    Still, he says, he is ridiculed to this day for using a phone camera to document war. He hopes people will better understand his work with the publication of his new book, "Libyan Sugar," which will be out in November. The title comes from graffiti Brown saw scrawled on a wall in Tripoli's Algeria Square.
    The book contains Brown's iPhone shots of the Libyan revolution that toppled Gadhafi. It also includes Brown's journal entries, text messages and Skype and Facebook conversations with friends and family.
    Readers, Brown says, are "taken through the experience of war from the perspective of a young man going to armed conflict for the first time. I was 33, but one doesn't become a man on age alone. There are points in life when we are given opportunities to test ourselves in ways, and for me it was going to war."
    The ultimate test for Brown came in Misrata. On April 20, he was with Hetherington, Hondros and Martin, advancing with Libyan rebels on the front lines of the battle. The fighting they witnessed was catastrophic: mortar fire, grenades, hand-to-hand street fighting. They had a bad feeling about being wide-open on Tripoli Street. Minutes later they were hit by a high-explosive round.
    Hetherington and Hondros died; Martin was gravely wounded. Brown had shrapnel wounds and needed two transfusions after nearly bleeding to death.
    Later, Brown saw the bodies of Hetherington and Hondros on YouTube. He had photographed the dead before and not felt a connection. But now he did. He gazed at the image of Hetherington, white and frail, his head and feet wrapped in cloth as is custom in that part of the world. Brown felt as though he were seeing death again for the first time.
    "I'm still coming to terms with that year," Brown said.
    The book, he says, was cathartic. It was "a way to put it somewhere outside myself, for posterity if anything. But the effects remain."
    It is also a smashing, he says, of the modus operandi of conflict photography; of the romantic image of going to war. He quotes this passage from Kurt Vonnegut's "Slaughterhouse-Five" in the beginning of his book:
    "You'll pretend you were men instead of babies, and you'll be played in the movies by Frank Sinatra and John Wayne or some of those other glamorous, war-loving, dirty old men. And war will look just wonderful, so we'll have a lot more of them. And they'll be fought by babies like the babies upstairs."
    Brown questions what photographers can give people by taking pictures in a war zone and returning home as heroes. He wants people who look at his images to identify with him and his experience in some way.
    "By making myself, for better or worse, a part of the story -- folks identify with the experience, which might enable them to better understand war," he said.
    Libya, Brown says, was a coming of age for him. He needed to test his limits to feel confident in his work. And in Libya, he finally did.
    "I've been to that place I needed to go," he told a friend in a Skype conversation published in the book.
    He'd gone to Libya as a novice and returned a veteran.