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Humans Become More Honest When We're Pushed to Our Limits

By Oscar Rickett

Congo. An FARDC soldier poses for a portrait by Lake Kivu.

American photographer Michael Christopher Brown documents places and people in transition – occasionally eschewing a camera for a camera phone. From Libya, to Russia, to Broadway, to his current base in Goma, eastern Congo, Brown says he explores the “relationship between distance and honesty”. To paraphrase, Brown believes that as we are pushed to our limits, we become more honest.

His work in Libya in the aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi was the subject of the HBO documentary Witness: Libya and will appear in his forthcoming book Libyan Sugar, to be published in 2014 by Twin Palms Publishers. With the phone lines failing us, I caught up with Michael over email.

VICE: How do you think of the work that you do? Do you see yourself more as an artist or a journalist?
Michael Christopher Brown:
I always made a living from photojournalism but ultimately it was too rigid in structure to allow for much growth. I never identified with photojournalism and was always more inspired by street or documentary photographers. Then, a few years ago, I found that I could express things better while writing than taking pictures, and through the writing realised the photography lacked definition. I entered a transition that continues to this day, aiming to use photography more as an individual, a citizen, than just a photographer working to illustrate or report something. It was a big shift, from solely documenting the outward to documenting and analysing the outward and inward.

How did your career as a photographer begin?
The photojournalism career really took off after I was given an internship at National Geographic Magazine. Partially thanks to those jobs at NGM, I was able to begin getting consistent work soon after moving to New York City in the winter of 2006.

When you are working in conflict zones, do you worry that your photography will end up being dominated by pictures of guns and injuries? How do you find art in conflict?
Well, I live in east Congo, which is an active conflict zone, but I'm not covering the frontlines of armed conflict. I have the itch but avoid it because it is more related to addictions than beliefs. I need to identify with whatever is happening before planting myself on a frontline. I need to feel involved to a great extent – as if I were a participant. I felt this in Libya but not since then, except briefly at the beginning of the Syrian war. Not in Congo however, because although I am beginning to understand it, it is a conflict based on ethnicity and power and I cannot strongly identify with race or with the powerless or powerful. At the end of the day, I am just an average white boy from the Skagit Valley – an alien.

Rwindi, Congo. 2012

Okay.
Finding art in conflict, as you say, seems to be about finding a way to identify one’s situation with the situation on the ground, and to do it in a personal way that others can identify with. That is what makes work inspiring, because it is about more than just great pictures – it is about having a vision, which seems to be, beyond adding to history, all we really have to share with the world. We can enable viewers to leave this type of work feeling inspired, not shitty, about what they have just seen, even if the work contains brutality. Maybe this is far-fetched, but I think that it's tough for say, the average American to look at pictures of foreign conflict and identify with them. But that's what we are hoping to do with the Libya project.

How did you hope to accomplish that? It's a tough ask.
Libya was about having an experience and recording it using the same tool the Libyans used during their revolution – a mobile phone. But the complete work is more than that. There is a lot of writing and more than 400 pictures in the book, as well as a 20-minute installation of my videos from 2011, being put together by some friends at screenprojects.org. I hope to exhibit those items, along with dozens of artefacts, in New York later this year.

Kashgar, China. 2009.

How do you feel about the Arab Spring now?
After Libya, I was not interested in following the rest of the Arab Spring – though in early 2012, I did seriously plan a trip to Syria. I had just returned from Lebanon, was following the news every day and emailing folks to figure out a way in, until Remi Ochlik and others were killed. Then the questioning began again: Why am I doing this? I decided to wait and was glad I did. Though it appeared to be like Libya in the beginning, it quickly became nasty in all sorts of ways, into something that for me, as an outsider, is now unrecognisable.

Can you tell me about being kidnapped in Benghazi?
I was kidnapped briefly after the war was over. It was bizarre. We were filming drifters in Benghazi and then hopped in a pickup that drifted and flipped. A big crowd surrounded us as we crawled out and the mood shifted when some militia saw the driver pull out his AK-47 and fake a shot into the air to scatter the crowd. He drove off without us but they thought we were his crew, or at least that was their excuse to take us at gunpoint. According to another driver who was with us, they had plans to drive us out of town to their base and steal our equipment, perhaps more. There was a gun to that driver's head, several militia vehicles involved and they confiscated our phones.

It was months after the official end of the revolution, and the mood was sketchy and unpredictable as the frontlines were not as clear any more. Eventually, as our vehicle moved through traffic, I was able to break out of the door at an intersection, walk through standing traffic and yell for help until people got out of their vehicles and came to our aid. The militiamen sped off.

Kashgar, China. 2009. Street life in Kashgar's Old City.

Jesus, that sounds stressful. In some of your series, particularly the one based on the old city of Kashgar in China, I've been struck by recurring colours. With the Kashgar photos, it was blue and red. Is this something you are conscious of?
Not really, those were just the colours of the place, whether during the day or at night. With some of those images the colours were tweaked by the camera, due to noise, because they were made in minimal light.

What brought you to Congo?
I proposed a story on conflict minerals in Congo to TIME Magazine in 2012, for their wireless technology issue. I stayed on after the story and have made several trips since then, up to now where I have been living in Goma since November.

Rwindi, Congo. 2012.

Your Olympics photos seemed to show a different side of your work. Did you approach sports photography differently?
I went to Beijing for ESPN the Magazine and I was their only photographer, so there was a big responsibility to try to capture everything and often with longer lenses. I did not sleep or eat much and lugged around a big glass for the first week before the editor finally told me to just do what I wanted. Which was to wander and do what other photographers were not doing, though the access was tough. There is a reason why photographers from say, Getty or Sports Illustrated or AP get all the best pictures: They have the best access, called pool access. If you don’t have pool access you’re stuck on the sidelines. So I walked around the crowd and tried to focus behind the scenes.

Many of your series – particularly Kashgar and Alaska – deal with remote places. Is there a particular attraction to these places?
There is no longer an attraction, but at the time it was either just for assignments (Alaska for National Geographic Magazine or Kashgar for Smithsonian), or because I was looking to photograph some aspect of people in transition. Sometimes they blended together, which was the case with both Alaska and Kashgar.

The Alaska piece was about a young adventurer, Andrew Skurka, and his solo trip through the wilderness. But it was really about a young man facing nature while totally exposed to the elements. Humans are so disconnected with the natural world; we don’t live in nature any more. And nature becomes very scary when one realises they are no longer in control. With Kashgar, it was about a city initially of Uighur people that was being dominated – or one could say "occupied" – by the Chinese. It was about the transition of the Uighur existence, which was vanishing in certain ways and being modernised in others.

Andrew Skurka and Roman Dial on a four-day hike through Alaska in 2010

Do you think the rise of citizen journalism is endangering your profession? Are you worried at all that people can just record what's happening on their phones?
As Chuck Close said, “Photography is the only art in which there are accidental masterpieces.” Anybody, at the right place and time, is able to make a great picture and even mechanised photography like Google Street View is able to capture great street scenes. But consistency is important if it is to be a profession, so the random great images Joe Public takes will never add up to the legacy of good pictures left by a professional.

What is endangering photojournalism are hardline photojournalist attitudes. But I think the more imagery, the better. Sure, more editors and curators are needed to comb through this vast trove of information (thank God for hashtags?) but really, perhaps we are entering the golden age of photography because it is finally and instantly available to nearly everyone.

Okay. Thanks, Michael.

Click through for more of Michael Christopher Brown's photographs.

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