Michael Christopher Brown, Photographer
I’ve been interviewing people for over a decade, and have been fine tuning the process along the way. The interviews are never about a current project or product, they’re about the person behind the project or product. Hopefully, keeping the interview relevant and inspirational for years to come. My goal has always been to drill down to the core of the person in a concise way. I’m usually able to offer just enough of the conversations to paint a picture of who I’m featuring, but I’ve learned with Michael, it’s not that easy.
Michael Christopher Brown is an especially unique individual. I first learned about his work from an incredibly powerful HBO documentary series featuring contemporary war photographers. It gives the viewer a tiny glimpse into the lives of photojournalists and their experiences. When most people seek cover, these brave men and women run to the front line.
Michael Christopher Brown has been to Libya five times during the conflicts that brought down Gaddafi’s rule. Now, the revolution is over, but the chaos has only begun; the current situation in Libya is even more complicated. Internecine fighting continues, not unexpectedly. After 42 years of Gaddafi and no democratic tradition, Libya was not going to magically turn into Connecticut. On an earlier trip, in April 2011, Brown was in Misrata with veteran photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. He remembers having an uneasy feeling, saying, The city was like a shooting gallery that day. Then a mortar round struck nearby, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed, and Brown was wounded. – via HBO
While in Libya, Michael was hit on two separate occasions. I lost almost half the blood in my body, needed two transfusions with shrapnel nearly piercing a lung and a major artery in my arm. [From the interview with HBO] He was also kidnapped in Benghazi, saying of the ordeal, These experiences made me question if what I was doing was meaningful enough for myself to continue doing it. Eventually I discovered yes, it is, but only when listening to myself.
Following the HBO special I immediately reached out to Michael and we did this interview. Unlike any interview I have ever done, the context in this particular conversation, is so important.
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
A pro skier, then later a pro snowboarder. But I was injured too often, nor was I good enough.
I’m interested in how you became a photojournalist, I think you took a very unconventional approach. How did you get to where you are now?
I make a living as a photojournalist but consider myself a photographer, interested in a variety of genres. The interest began with slideshows my father held for our family, showing travel pictures, landscapes, images of his relationship with my mother and of my sister and I, etc. He taught me to use a camera around age 14 but I was not interested unless on vacation. At 16 I sustained a major knee injury playing soccer and could no longer continue the activities I loved to do, mainly snow sports. I began taking more pictures and photography became an outlet for the incredible energy one has at that stage of youth. I tried to make it more of a visceral experience, to insert that energy into the frame as it was a sort of compensation for the activities I could no longer do.
Initially, photojournalism seemed boring as the imagery was not new or fresh, it was the same imagery in newspapers or magazines I saw growing up. But I knew I was able take those types of images, to generate income. So, out of college, photojournalism became a way to make money, besides construction and restaurant work. I worked at a weekly newspaper, shooting high school sports, then interned at a daily newspaper before working freelance. I went to graduate school, though of course photography is mostly learned by just taking pictures and going through the process. Graduate school gave me time to do this more often and to be around those with more experience without having to worry about money, as it was a tuition-free program.
But several years ago I found myself unfulfilled and needed to go back to the initial inspiration for taking pictures, which had more to do with the potential of the photographic process than with being a photographer. It was partially about trying to find that visceral experience, which occasionally surfaced in places like Russia, China, Afghanistan or even on Broadway in New York. But in Libya, during the revolution, is where it fully emerged. There was this urgency to have that experience, and to discover something vital. This is what I am attempting to show with Libyan Sugar, an in-progress book and exhibition which includes images, journal entries and artifacts as well as videos made in and outside Libya. The book provides a brief visual history of the revolution and is peppered with journal entries detailing the experience throughout 2011.
What is something you had to learn the hard way?
To always have a written contract.
Best advice you could give to someone who wants to do what you do?
Do what you want to do. Make that the first action, then figure out how to make a living later.
If you could go back in time, let’s say ten years and give yourself some advice, what would you say?
I spent years figuring out how to support myself via photography. I had to make a living to survive, like anyone, but I did not have to be a photographer in order to make money. This is something Chris Anderson (the photographer) told me several years back, that it can be difficult to both work as a photographer and photograph what one is passionate about. But the latter should come first, as the passion is what is most exciting not only for the photographer but for the world viewing the imagery.
What do you LOVE?
Morning. The mind is clear, there is silence and coffee. All these help create a sparkle of inspiration, good for a number of activities – for now it is writing.
What is one thing most people would be surprised to learn about you?
I may at times appear to be a relatively cultured New Yorker but am really just a redneck at heart.
Who are some of your influences?
I do not get much inspiration from photography. I spend so much time working or thinking within the field of photography that I like to look elsewhere. Friends, especially those who are not photographers, help generate perspective and this seems most useful.
How do you define success?
What is your favorite thing to photograph?
Immediate family, in Washington State.
How do you think we can make the world a better place?
We need to take care of each-other, to help each other in whatever way we can. There is too much greed, people are too focused on money, and that is probably what will, if not nature, eventually destroy us.
Michael’s bio states that he was raised in the Skagit Valley, a farming community in Washington State. He often uses a camera phone as a primary recording device, his current work explores resource conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2011, Michael spent six months documenting the Libyan revolution using a camera phone, exploring ethical distance and the iconography of warfare. His upcoming book, Libyan Sugar, profiles that experience. Part of this work was shown at MIT, Instituto Cervantes (New York), The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the Annenberg Space for Photography and will be at the Brooklyn Museum of Art during the fall of 2013.
The subject of the 2012 HBO documentary, Witness: Libya, Brown was a finalist for the Oskar Barnack Award (2012), twice a finalist for the W. Eugene Smith Grant (2011/2012) and thrice a finalist for Burn Magazine’s (Magnum Foundation) Emerging Photographer Award (2009-2011). He is represented by Magnum Photos.
Michael Christopher Brown:
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