Michael Christopher Brown became known in photography circles by racking up nods and award nominations. He became more of a public name by accident. Shortly after arriving in Libya to cover the insurrection which would eventually topple Muammar Gaddafi, Brown dropped his camera. He made do as best he could and reported with his iPhone. Soon thereafter, assignments began to arrive requesting, specifically, that he use his phone for the story.
Brown spoke to Vantage from Cuba, where he is mid-project and, ironically, with only patchy internet. He never uses filters, he thinks making a book is like having a baby and he’s willing to reveal how massive Insta followings actually come about.
Where are you originally from and where are you based today?
I’m from the Skagit Valley, a farming community in Washington State, though I’ve been based in New York City for ten years.
How did you start out in photography and develop your career?
My father taught me to use a camera when I was around 13 or 14. He had a B&W darkroom in our house and we’d photograph around the valley when I was growing up. Before seriously injuring my knee at 15, I was pretty heavy into the outdoors (skiing, etc.) and, after the injury, I felt alienated from those friends so I began using photography as a sort of therapy.
As a senior in university I took classes in art history and mythology, the latter of which made a big impact in terms of the role of imagery throughout history. I wanted to create and took art classes. I poured through photography books, worked for college newspapers, then part-time at a weekly newspaper in the Skagit Valley.
I could not get an internship after applying at many newspapers around the country, so I went to grad school at Ohio University. And still I could not get an internship. The idea was to make a living doing photography, as I needed to do something to make money. Eventually Rich Saal at The State Journal-Register in Illinois gave me a shot. Then I received an internship at National Geographic magazine, which was a big break. After that I moved to NYC and was given an award at the Eddie Adams workshop to do an assignment for Getty Images. That assignment led to others, and eventually work with the New York Times; the more people I met in NY the more jobs I began to receive.
Why did you begin to focus on using an iPhone over traditional cameras?
I select cameras — including phone cameras — based on the type of imagery I want to create, if I enjoy using them, and the ease at which they allow me to forget about them. The initial interest in the phone was mostly due to the novelty. I began using it primarily in NYC in 2010 then in China, then Libya and Congo and Cuba. It makes sense for certain types of projects but I do not rely on it exclusively, especially at night.
Do you find the variety of filter options and the constantly evolving technology distracting or freeing?
I don’t use filters. I do basic shadow/highlight, contrast and color temperature correction in phone and that is it. I used other phone camera applications initially as there was no shutter lag compared with the regular phone camera, which had shutter lag at the time (2010/2011).
Have people ever taken you less seriously when you’re shooting with your phone?
Many times, but I prefer this. In general being identified as a photographer doesn’t interest me unless it increases access or is somehow significantly beneficial. I feel more like a collector, anyway, than a photographer.
What advantages are unique to using a phone, and what’s challenging about leaving your SLR behind?
Ease of use, simplicity of operation, the equipment does not get in the way…the list goes on. And everybody has a phone camera so, again, I like that the majority of people do not take phone photographers seriously. I don’t enjoy using a phone at night as the quality worsens significantly.
Do you feel hamstrung by being known as the guy who uses his iPhone in conflict zones? What makes you reach for a different camera these days?
Well, I frequently use other cameras. If I’m on assignment it is generally with 35mm digital cameras, and occasionally I use medium format film cameras. At the moment I am working on a Cuba project at night, so I’m not using the phone at all — mainly due to quality concerns but also because this new camera is fun to use. And I am using Leica lenses.
What I am known for is not, in my mind, worth consideration. Some folks have a need to label others to make it easier, perhaps, which is fine. In general I try to isolate myself from the world of photography. I want to do new things and am developing a voice so, besides engaging with certain colleagues and friends, I try and distance myself. I am easily influenced, so to stay more focused; I do not look at other photographers’ work unless it’s in front of me or is somehow inspirational to something I’m working on or want to do. I have not entered contests or grants (besides those I’m nominated for) for several years and I also try to avoid certain gatherings and events.
How have you amassed such a following on Instagram?
I was featured a couple of times on Instagram’s feed and frequently posted to Instagram in 2012. Now I just post occasionally — the last time I posted was more than two weeks ago. But to gain more followers is fairly straightforward. Photographers who post a lot, especially if they are able to post on feeds like National Geographic which has 14 million followers, gain more likes. For example, all the contributing photographers at NG are allowed to post to the NG Instagram feed at anytime. Certain NG photographers are amassing large groups of followers because they post often, or every day, and even more followers if they post the types of images that gain more likes (beautiful landscapes, bears, sea life, etc). The idea is to get your pictures on feeds with millions of followers and to be sure your handle is at the top of the caption, so people can go directly to your personal feed and follow you.
How active are you with Instagram and other social media?
In the beginning I interacted a lot but now very rarely, if ever. I don’t reach out or try to foster relationships anymore. I think people follow the feed now because they just like some of the pictures.
Does having a popular Instagram account help you with your work in any way? Do you ever get tired of trying to keep up with online communities?
I gave up trying to keep up, I’m not worried about being active anymore. Especially now in Cuba, where internet is a major inconvenience, where perhaps 99% of the population don’t even know what Instagram is and where basically nobody is on their phones because there is no mobile internet available. I’ve almost forgotten about Instagram and Facebook.
How easy is it to upload new images from the field?
I don’t have internet on my phone here in Cuba and internet access is difficult, so I am online 30–60 minutes a day at most. After first arriving in Cuba it takes some time to enjoy being offline, but ultimately it is better work-wise and I create more.
What was the experience of putting together Libyan Sugar like, and how have you been weathering the pressures of promoting a book?
Someone told me awhile ago that making a book is like having a baby. Of course, I have never had a baby but, as the first version of this book was completed in 2012, for me the experience has been less dramatic. It has been more like raising a child. To date I’ve created more than 10 versions of this book.
I am not actively promoting the book. Perhaps I should get a publicist or something, but I would rather it promotes itself. If the book is good enough it will be recognized as such by those I respect and admire, which is the biggest honor. A older, highly accomplished war photographer told me last evening that the book is “a stone.” That is a real medal.
All images courtesy Michael Christopher Brown, from his Instagram feed.