Conflict photographer for Magnum and National Geographic, Michael Christopher Brown discusses his recent book Libyan Sugar, and touches on the motivations behind the country's 2011 uprising. Detailing the importance of next year's election in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, he also explains the complexities of the mineral trade in Africa and what would have to happen for the Congolese to see change.
Tracy: You were just showing me a recording device you use in the field. I'm here to chat with you about your book Libyan Sugar, but I'm curious if you make films as well?
Michael: I don't know how to edit at all, but I've been shooting a lot of video. The book that has just come out is primarily a book of photos from the uprising in Libya, but yeah we're working on a film for it, so it's a process I'm interested in discovering more about.
[Stands up to open case full of books] I'm working on a Cuba book as well. This here is an older, rougher version of it. I'm working on four books about the Congo that I hope to make into a box set. Essentially, one of the books features my own work, and then another features the work of a Congolese female commando who I interviewed a few times a couple of years ago which actually ran in the New York Times Magazine last year. I want to make a book that serves as a replica of her photo album alongside the interviews. The third book I'm working on here [hands over heavy stack of papers] will feature images I collected last month, which is the work of local Congolese photographers.
It's a great idea, very humbling.
Yes, for myself as well. I want to try and raise enough money so I can cover all of Congo and collect the work of Congolese photographers, most of whom are hired to shoot weddings and other standard events. But in a time like today, they serve to show how it was in the old days. I've been trying to find older photographers because to me, their photographs really are the visual history of the Congo. So it would be wonderful if I could do that. The book I'm working on about Congo will definitely include images of my own from a specific conflict in the North of Congo; there have been some very brutal killings by a militant Islamic group, so I was there [in May] photographing the victims and collecting images from people as well. I'll be working on this over the next year at least because we have elections coming up in Congo next year.
So in terms of video, I haven't shot much in Congo, other than PR stuff, but most of the recent video I've shot is in Cuba. I'm having a show in Cuba next year where I'll have the final Cuba book alongside my video installations, so it'll be a four channel video installation.
Looking through your book here, Libyan Sugar, is there a specific reason you chose blue font?
I chose blue font because the material is quite brutal, as war is. It's primarily a war journal and there's something about blue that is more inviting and easy on the eyes: blue in contrast to red because there's a lot of red with the amount of blood in the photographs.
Much of the book is about the relationship between home and war, so it's a lot about the extremes of life. The one you're holding is an early version of Libyan Sugar. I have about 11 or 12, maybe 13 versions that I played around with a lot, so it's been through many edits. One of the first versions that I sent to the publisher was a process of nearly three years of making edits. So when it first arrived, it was like, "Holy Shit, it's out." I just looked at it on the table with this extreme happiness flooding over me, and in that moment I told myself I wasn't going to edit it. But of course a few weeks ago I started looking at it, and I'm already making more notes. So there will be another one.
You brought up extremes: the stark contrast between life back home and life in war. Doing what you do, I'm sure those grounding relationships become evidently important. Libyan Sugar includes personal text messages with your family and other loved ones. Why did you choose to include these?
It's true, you really do realize how important they are. This book was written in a year that I had many extreme experiences. I was injured two times in Libya; I lost two colleagues there. Other friends of mine had kids that year. My grandmother also passed away, and she's in the book. Then just having that experience of going to a war where you could access everything, where you could record everything on the side of the revolutionaries, it was so starkly different. It's not often that this happens. We were given complete access to a war. With the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, according to colleagues you just did not have that access. So the Libyan uprising was a real contrast in terms of access.
I had this mysterious attraction to North Africa and the Middle East. I had read extensively about the region, including novels like “In the Country of Men,” I have a Libyan friend and I knew some of the history surrounding Gaddafi, so I had an urge to go in that direction. But the country was quite closed off to reporters and photographers for almost 42 years. You could visit, but you needed special visas, and then once you were there, you were followed. There were only certain things you could photograph, so in a way it was like a new country for photography. Libya didn't really have a modern photographic history in that way. With the Arab Spring, the energy of the people, and the ideas of justice and dignity drew me right in.
As an American growing up with some of the same ideas of what our natural rights are as human beings and as citizens, I was drawn to see the fight for them unfold for others. While I was there, I saw a lot of bodies, I saw a lot of fighting, I saw a lot of things happen that were very jarring as a human. This fight for justice grew into something I couldn't have seen coming. With war, a lot of times you don't really see the full picture: looking at The New York Times or other publications we have here in New York, we might see an article about Afghanistan, and it'll be alongside some guys on patrol or a hillside being hit by a bomb, but you'll rarely see that brutal imagery that we often saw. That's why I included a fair amount of those photos, because those scenes were a big part of that war.
Going back to your question, while I was there I was also corresponding with my family and friends who were living in this other world that was so removed, but they were reading what they saw online and what the media was saying. And there was a big disconnect. There, I would see things on the news, or family would ask me about something, and I would know if the information they were given was true or not true, but mostly it was just very incomplete.
You've seen a lot of harrowing things, as we can tell from your photos. In war and conflict there are unimaginable atrocities we don't experience here. But with the extremes of pain and sorrow, is there also an extreme on the other side? Do you see a different level of appreciation, connection, and concern for others that comes with the very real risk of losing loved ones?
Oh yeah. Yes absolutely. There's one scenario in the book where I'm having a Skype conversation with my cousin, which I've included a screen shot of. The context of it collides the two worlds: I'm describing to him how we lost one of the Libyans who stayed in the house with us. He was a fixer and a fighter as well. Some of us were supposed to go with him and for various reasons didn't. Later that day, we heard he was in the hospital, and when we arrived there, half of his head was gone. It was all wrapped up, but there were cell phone images of his head: his eyes were over here [motions away] and half of his head was just gone. His dad was there and there was this moment of deep sorrow and despair.
It’s not your country or your war, but you may relate to that very human experience. And when your loved one is hurt, or may die, or is dead-- immediately these things become very real. You're not just reading about them anymore, you're seeing them, you're experiencing them. The Libyan situation struck me very deeply, and at some point struck my family deeply as well.
I couldn't even begin to imagine. You had a close call when the great reporter, Tim Heatherington, was killed. And you left after this?
Yes, he was killed during my first trip that year. I stayed for two months, and I left after Misrata. Tim and Chris Hondros were killed in that attack. Guy Martin was also injured and I lost almost half the blood in my body. I still have four pieces of shrapnel in me. It was scary but a realization came over me that I could stay: that I didn't have to go. I knew that I would recover and I saw other people in the hospital who were heading back out to start fighting again in a couple of days. But then how could I stay when my family and friends were telling me, "Please get out of there. You have people who love you."
So there is the reckoning with this that I had to deal with as well. On the one hand I wanted to stay, as crazy as it was. I wanted to stay because I felt strong connection to this place for numerous reasons. I did leave in the end, but I was back after a few months. I went back that August when the revolutionaries came into Tripoli and Gaddafi fled. I was there until the end, staying pretty much through the Fall, only leaving intermittently on a few short trips.
The question is often asked whether it's hard knowing that as an American you could leave and head back to safety if needed, while most citizens of the country can't. Was this the case here?
In this case, there were Libyans who were leaving as well. No one had to stay; especially at that time, the borders were very porous. A lot of people could have left if they wanted, but it was their home and their land they'd be leaving. They were fighting for it. I knew there wasn't anything I could do to help their situation - it was going to be what it was. Certainly, part of the reason I went back was because I wanted to see what was happening with friends, but also what was happening with the direction of the country and what was happening with the war; what it looked like. I was very curious about what was going to happen there. There was also this commitment to my work, and wanting to see that through.
You've said that you didn't necessarily go to cover war, you went to cover an uprising. Did you know it was going to turn into war?
I personally didn't know, but I think other people knew. Very quickly, within the first few weeks of arriving, it became a war. There was no other real option for them, aside from not going to war where eventually the government forces would have just come back into Benghazi in the East. But then, most likely, the situation would have been even worse; Gaddafi would have really clamped down. I think after 42 years it was just time. The first few years of his rule we're said to have actually been okay - people really liked him, he was popular. He ruled for a long period of time - a lot of people had grown up under Gaddafi and just never really considered otherwise. Interestingly, I can draw a line here to working in central Africa and other African countries: a lot of Africans love Gaddafi because he gave many countries a lot of money. He built roads, museums, schools, hospitals. He gave away a lot, and he was a pan-African. He believed in the idea of unity. But inside of Libya, unless you were part of the government or somehow well-connected, he didn't give much. It's a pretty small population, say, seven million or so, but there's a lot of oil. So there's more than enough wealth he could have spread around.
What do you know about the relationship between Gadaffi and the West? I know that there was a point where he was lauded by Western governments before they decided otherwise.
In a way there was. Looking at the news, much of the Libyan reporting is either about the Islamic State or about refugees who are trying to get into Europe. Most of them are escaping either poverty or horrible political regimes like we're seeing in Eritrea. At the time of Gaddafi, yes there were people who were there trying to leave, but now it's even more so because he was actually given a solid flow of money by the Europeans to prevent that migration. He'd said at least once, "If I wasn't here, you would have mass flows of people arriving on your shores." And look, it happened.
In terms of the Islamic State and terrorism, when Gaddafi fled, all of a sudden we saw government offices pop up in Tripoli: security offices that you could just walk into and see records. We saw a lot of correspondence between the British and the Germans with the Libyans about people being extradited. There are the notorious black prisons, and apparently at least one of the locations was in Libya. There was this sentiment that Gaddafi was somewhat helpful, from what I saw in those records, in terms of keeping things under control. But now we have the Islamic State in his hometown - they're headquartered in his hometown.
Independent media outlets like Democracy Now! often show the other side of the news that we don't get from big media. They place a lot of focus on why terrorism is happening, and a lot of it comes down to what the West's interests are in other countries. On that note, I'm sure you're very aware of the coltan trade. I myself use an iPhone - clearly. How do you reconcile using an iPhone or other products containing coltan, given what goes on in the Congo?
My initial idea was to go to the Congo and go to the source of these minerals, and what I discovered was that ultimately it's not about the minerals. The minerals are just a symptom of a problem that is not going to be solved by people not using an iPhone or by people not buying an iPhone. The problems are structural problems in the Congo's government, and they have to be solved by the Congolese.
The more war we have in the Congo, the cheaper the minerals. When there's a war happening, things are cheaper because there's less regulation. There is certainly an interest in keeping Congo in conflict. There's a great book called The Dance and the Glory of the Monster, which is titled after a famous quote from the father of Joseph Kabila, Laurent Kabila, who was murdered before Joseph came into power. What it refers to is how the Congolese have become like Mobutu [Sese Seko] who at some point told the national army that they, "didn't need food or money because they had a gun". They had the power to get these things for themselves because they had a weapon.
Mobotu essentially let the Congolese fend for themselves while he made a ton of money for himself. This is still happening in the Congo, it's one of the reasons why you have a lot of these rebel groups. In Eastern Congo we now have 69 rebel groups, and that's just in East Congo which is a relatively small part of the country. Much of the conflict is in the Kivu provinces, North Kivu and South Kivu.
This conflict is also very connected with the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide. When the former government and the assassins involved with killing hundreds of thousands of people escaped into Congo, they used it as their new headquarters. In a series of conflicts, the Rwandans then entered Congo, which then created more conflict. Because of the upheaval these past twenty years, millions of Congolese died, more than in any other recent war.
Of course, it's hard to sum up like this because Congo is very, very complicated. But as far as minerals, it is the richest country in Africa. There's something like 29 trillion dollars of minerals in the ground (not all of it is currently being mined). Much of it is artisanal, mined by locals. After the Rwandans entered, they were among the first to begin extracting these minerals and using them to help fund war efforts. Later, other armed groups began doing it as well. It's not only armed groups, it's politicians, it's local businessmen, it's national and regional. There are a lot of people protecting their interests. The Congo is a huge area, most of which is remote. It's hard for anyone to control, and as I said, much of it is ruled by the gun. As we saw in the film Virunga, oil is another example of how outside actors will pay off local officials, including the army and whoever happens to be in the area, to achieve their aims.
So to your question, as far as using my iPhone, I look at it knowing that this is going to happen whether I use a cell phone or not, but it's an issue that must be addressed from a different angle for sure.
In terms of the mass anti-war sentiment around the world, many supporters of intervention will point to the "responsibility to protect". Yet when looking at the history of imperialism, we've used 'humanitarian intervention' and 'protecting the peace' to put boots on the ground in places that just don't want us, so a lot of harm unfolds on civilians, intended or not. As someone who documents conflict, what is your opinion on intervention?
I spend quite a bit of time in these areas, but I'm no expert in policy. But from what I've seen and read, the only way things are going to be solved, besides all out revolutions, is at the top. There is a history of not only Belgian but American and French involvement in Congo, and sometimes these power plays influence big events like the Genocide. The Berlin Conference split up Africa years ago. These are countries that weren't countries before the West decided they were. The same goes for sites in say Syria and Iraq; those weren't actual countries before the west created them. With the Rwandan Genocide there was apparently hesitancy to intervene on the part of the United States because of France. The French were involved with the former Rwandan government and following peacekeeping operations. And we know they weren't just peacekeeping, they were also supplying weapons to the former Rwandan government that had escaped from the Congo.
In the Middle East, why didn't the US get involved in Syria? Is it because Barack Obama didn't want to save lives and doesn't have a heart? I don’t think so. It has more to do with Russia and Iran and their history and involvement in Syria. So there is this larger war, happening between global powers vying over territory. The Russians have had a naval facility in Syria for years, and arms going to places like Lebanon, to Hezbollah, supposedly come from Iran. So when we say we want to remove [Bashar al-]Assad, well we are then messing with his bosses too. I think when Obama created a red line, as everyone looks at the US and what we do, it was a badly calculated tactic. As we saw over the last year, Russia become more involved by sending equipment and personnel, they have done what they wanted and now it's becoming more clear that Assad is not going anywhere. Of course, the possibility remains that he may be killed but it seems if anything his administration is not going anywhere.
Similar things happen in Central Africa: the Central African Republic [CAR] is another example of a country that barely exists. It's seems to be run by what is decided in the west, with some regional influences. It may be managed by Central Africans but it is not run by Central Africans, the country is controlled by outside powers. So they've got their work cut out for them. I see these places as young countries because many of them gained independence 50 years ago. They are easy to criticize, but it takes time. Often real change unfortunately has to happen during war. I talked about Noam Chomsky earlier, using the example of civil rights in America, of millions of people in the street during the 60’s demanding things change and they eventually did. But if we look at what happened eight years ago in New York with the movements like Occupy Wall Street, they were not nearly enough. Have you seen the film The Big Short?
I have, yes.
You quickly realize that the people who did these things are the same people who make our laws - they're the same people who work in American government. It's going to happen again in some other way, shape, or form. It's set up in a certain way so that people who run the world can continue running the world.
Do you think that if the Occupy movements were still going on today at the extent they were, that we would have seen change within the system?
Even Occupy was small scale - it wasn't nearly enough to change anything. Even if someone like Bernie Sanders was completely right, what he's talking about is a system that is not going to change through a politician. In Congo last month, I was covering a protest in Goma, an anti-Kabila protest. The night before, the Congolese government arrested some of the protest leaders and figureheads. The next day we saw, instead of a march with signs and something more organized, rioting - surely many of them were just trouble-makers, but people ended up throwing rocks and the point of the protest was lost. But even then, it was only certain figureheads who were to come out on the streets that day anyway. I was discussing this with the fixer I was working with, that nothing is ever going to change until everyone in Goma is on the street. The entire city, the upper classes and lower classes, the entire cross section. Surely the rock-throwers often ruin it for the rest, but in most societies in this world, most people are good people. Goma is a city of around one and a half million people, so if you have everyone on the street, you're going to have people throwing rocks but they'll be policed by their own. You just need that critical mass, which comes with the belief that you can actually change things.
I saw this in Libya. They changed their situation. Obviously NATO played a role, but without NATO's help, would they be where they are today? I personally think they eventually would have. A lot more people would have died without NATO, but most of the country was for changing the situation. When we talk about the Congo and the problems surrounding minerals, If millions and millions stepped onto the street to protest against the policies of governments and how multi-national corporations operate in Central Africa, there would be a big shift. I've been doing work in Congo for nearly four years, going back there a few times each year, having lived there at some point. I feel like I'm finally understanding how things work, and that I know just a little bit more about the reason things work the way they do. Now if I was going to come back here to the US as an activist, or if I were to come back and try to work in international law because I wanted to change things, well yes I have actual on-the-ground experience, but even then, you still need that critical mass.
There's a man by the name of Michael Fay who's a conservationist and explorer at National Geographic. He spent around 25 years in Africa, much of working in conservation, trying to get national parks created in places like Gabon. He was able to do this, but at some point the government rescinded and essentially said, "We don't actually need these parks, we need these logging companies." Fay saw much of his work thrown to the wayside. I spent time photographing him for a Nat Geo project eight years ago, and he was very much "I'm through with Africa." He tried for so long but, there was just no mass mobilization in society.
What keeps you going back? Do you feel there's something just a bit more real about life in other parts of the world?
I'd say so. Even just walking around Williamsburg you can see it. People are more alive in places like Congo because many of them are living from day-to-day. Much of their life is based around trying to make ends meet so they can eat, or clean their clothes, or they're walking to the lake so they can get water, and then coming back with it for their family. They're more connected with everyday survival. Here in Williamsburg, we have all these nice shops and restaurants; everything seems like it's working, it's organized and it's all relatively clean. People are showing a particularly good face in public and walking to the nail salon or whatever. But we're not connected with nature. When I'm in the wilderness, I have a certain amount of food, I have to camp near a water-source so I may drink. I feel more human in a way, more grounded due to that connection. You have to rely on instincts more, which wakes you up.
Connection to nature is hugely important for us. A Ph.D student friend of mine studies the relationship between indigenous peoples and indigenous plants, having done field work where you and I are both from on the West Coast. (Vancouver in particular is a city built on unceded Coast Salish Territories.) She's a huge indigenous rights activist, focusing on land determination by their own, not by us. The knowledge they have is far more valuable than anything we could ever know: they've survived on this land for centuries before colonizers came in and decided they were 'lazy' and 'uncivil'. Yet, a 4 year old will be able to name hundreds of plants and what their medicinal properties are. She often asks, "Why is that not a knowledge we're respecting?".
Yes, they're connected with the earth so it makes a lot of sense. We've done the same in America. I spent time in Alaska and Northern British Columbia, where I had a week with a few First Nation guys, way in the middle of nowhere. They were living off of hunting and utilizing their land. I had to sleep with a gun by my head every night because of the grizzly bears. When you're that connected and you know you have to survive, it brings out another side of you that is more alive. You're so much more aware, in the moment, and in tune with your own survival.
Just walking around New York City, I find myself imagining if something happened to one of the three US electrical grids. If someone hacked into one of them, millions of people could have no power for weeks or even months. What if that happened in New York City? The subways would shut down, computers would stop working, there would be a lot of people who would have no idea what to do. At the same time, you would see the city come alive in a different way. The energy would change. People wouldn't be as worried about a haircut or getting to the mall after work. They'd be like, "Shit, what am I going to do?" We would see it in everyone's face, we would begin to connect in a different way. That's how it feels sometimes in Congo, in places where they live day to day. These places are very alive, very poor but they're very alive.
Well thank you Michael, we've taken all your time, but it's been quite the pleasure.