Michael Christopher Brown, the self-proclaimed “underdog photojournalist”
I first encountered Michael Christopher Brown’s work on the HBO documentary series “Witness”, where he was depicted as a young thirty-something photojournalist boldly strolling around the conflict-ridden streets in Libya amid flying bullets and anguished cries, with nothing but a camera and his determination. In it he spoke of his near-death experience in Misrata, after being hit by a high-explosive round, where he resulted gravely injured and two of his colleagues, Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington, lost their lives. He seemed hardened by the weight of the experiences he had had to endure, and yet, if you looked closely at the documentary you could catch a glimpse of a lightened version of him.
Brown was born and raised in Skagit Valley, a small farming community in Washington State known for its annual Tulip Festival. He was first introduced to photography through his father when he was just 13 years old, but it wasn’t until he turned 22 that he started looking at it as something other than a hobby, and by the time he turned 27 he was already working as a professional freelance photographer.
Armed with a smartphone and a digital camera, his approach to his work is straightforward. “For me there is only a responsibility to be honest, this creates a stronger vision and as a result, stronger work,” Brown told me in an email. “I’m looking for pictures nobody has taken, for ways of seeing that only I can experience, and more importantly, to create bodies of work that have vision and meaning beyond the sum of their parts.”
His experiences have shaped him, as all experiences influence our identity as human beings. He narrowly escaped a kidnapping in Benghazi. He had been taken by armed men and was only able to escape by jumping out of the vehicle he was in when it got stalled in traffic, eventually finding his way to a police station. Such experiences have developed an understanding about the fleetingness of life. “I’ve had folks I knew killed in front of me and folks I knew injured in life-altering ways, not just in war. If we analyze this, one might see the path to death becoming shorter and shorter. So, I am more careful but simultaneously more thoughtful about what I am doing, taking more targeted and one could argue meaningful approaches,” said Brown.
His work tends to sympathize either with injustice or with the underdogs, because as he acknowledges, he also considers himself to be one. Those seems to be the main themes in Libyan Sugar, a book about his experiences as a war photographer in Libya during the Arab Spring back in 2011 that started out as a personal record as to, in his own words, “not forget the way things felt and the specifics of what happened.”
The photographs depicted in Libyan Sugar represent the first body of work that documents a war, from start to finish, using nothing but a camera phone. The combination of journal entries and photographs convey a message of “inner revolution in the context of the outer revolution,” as Brown described. He continued, “The anchor in this collection of photographs is the relationship between Libya, other foreign locations and home; which is also the anchor in the text, the relationship between myself and my family, friends and colleagues, and both of our coming to terms with the experiences and resultant feelings during that intense year.”
Despite his chilling experiences, he still advocates for the furthering of photojournalism, and actually, he is a harsh critic of what he calls the hardliner photojournalist attitude — journalists that bring nothing new but rather repeat what has been done since the beginning of photojournalism, producing stagnation in genre development. Despite everything he’s lived through, Michael Christopher Brown is an idealist and every new picture he takes breathes new life into this craft.