I have been working in Afghanistan for over four years, documenting the American experience there through photography and writing. Rather than taking a strictly news-oriented approach, I have sought to read between the war's lines—and found relentless absurdity and alienation.
This war is personal for me, both as an American citizen and as a former soldier who fought in Iraq for more than two years. I believe this gives me a unique perspective and authority on my subject.
The Arab Spring drew almost every western photographer away from Afghanistan, and I am one of very few who has stayed with this story. Working for the nonprofit GroundTruth Project, I have not worked in service to an advertising-driven news cycle, and have never tailored my coverage to please the military's strategic messaging experts or guarantee my own future access.
I find the quiet moments of this war are more often revealing than the loud. The existential folly is laid bare, the catch-22s more apparent, the tragic comedy marking everyone.
Assistant editor Alexander Strecker was so strongly affected by these photos that he felt moved to write to Brody to find out more behind the story. Here is an edited transcript of their e-mail interview.
AS: Why did you first decide to go to Afghanistan? You mentioned serving as a soldier in Iraq. So why Afghanistan, not Iraq?
BB: I was an Army photographer with the 3rd Infantry Division. I worked in East Baghdad in 2005, and in the so-called "Triangle of Death" south of Baghdad during the surge in 2007-08. After my second tour, I left the military. By 2010, I was looking to photograph my generation at war again, and at that time the fighting in Iraq was basically finished for the Americans. At the same time, Afghanistan was getting a huge influx of soldiers, money and reporters. I pitched the idea to Charlie Sennott at GlobalPost: covering the war as a former soldier, blogging about the experience and filing photo essays. He was hugely supportive of the idea. He and Gary Knight (of VII) offered to mentor me over email and suddenly I was off to Kandahar for five months.
AS: In your work, war photographs sit right next to "non-war" photographs: a Chinook helicopter in landing mode next to soldiers playing football. Did one follow the other seamlessly or were you in different mindsets when photographing different contexts?
I think all the photos have an underlying continuity—the helicopter blasting debris all over the mountainside is a loud picture of a loud event, but it's also about how the Taliban control all the roads, so even getting something mundane, like a container full of mattresses and toilet paper, takes this incredible effort and expense.
The football photo is more ambiguous. It's the center of a huge base, ringed by blast wall after blast wall, in a compound where the army contained visiting reporters to keep them safe from Taliban rockets—and the base safe from wandering reporters. It is a sterile, sanitized moment, and yet the shadow of the football is ominously suggestive of an incoming rocket.
AS: Many pictures are of Afghans and many are of American soldiers. Did you feel loyalties towards either side or only a duty to capture what you saw? How do personal feelings and professional/artistic obligations relate?
When you're given permission to "embed" closely with any group of political or military actors, it's because they want you to see things from their perspective, and show that perspective to your audience. At war, it can be an insidious force for journalists. Of course, they want to sympathize with the people they're sharing risks with, as well as food, shelter and protection. But I've been around the Iraq and Afghanistan wars for more than ten years now, and it's not difficult for me to remember why I'm there and what my professional and ethical responsibilities are as a journalist. I'm there to gather firsthand information and analyze it, based on my own experience and expertise with the subject matter. Every photographer makes decisions about where to point their camera and when to capture a frame. I base these decisions on my analysis of the situation at hand, and how the frame might illuminate the conflict's larger truths which I think are important.
For example, I didn't photograph the artillery because it looks cool (though it surely does). I was drawn towards these guns because it was a weird time during the drawdown—soldiers were turning their base over to the Afghan military and had to figure out what to do with their hundreds of leftover 155mm shells. They couldn't leave them behind as the Taliban might capture them and use them to make IEDs, and yet the shells are too cheap, heavy and dangerous to fly out on a helicopter. So the soldiers, who have been cooped up on this tiny base for nearly a year, just blasted them into the mountains as kind of a morale-building exercise. At the same time, Afghan soldiers were fighting for their lives in the valley below, but the Americans had stopped getting involved in those battles months ago. That's the kind of content I go looking for, and it doesn't necessarily reflect well on anyone involved. The war stories I know don't usually have a hero, or even a good guy.
AS: I have heard many photojournalists describe their work not as a profession, but a way of life. Do you agree? Have you ever doubted the work that you do as a photojournalist? What keeps you going?
I never want to be constrained by the label "photojournalist" — I do a lot of things. I write news, I restore old motorcycles and chainsaws, I cut my own firewood every year and forage for wild mushrooms. I climb mountains with friends and cook experimentally. Photojournalism is one way I interact with the world but I think it's important to maintain some semblance of a life outside the profession.
For me, photojournalism's power comes from its professional standards. Beyond any artistic aspirations I have, I'm a photojournalist first, and all my pictures are honest representations of historical events. Unless I'm making a portrait, I don't set anything up or pose people, and I don't move pixels around in the digital darkroom.
That being said, I don't feel constrained by the "photojournalistic visual style" to tell true stories. To relate the story of absurdity and alienation on military bases in Afghanistan, I often take a more formalist approach. In other words, I make straightforward, simple compositions and allow the situation's intrinsic weirdness explain itself in the frame.
Although I don't love the danger and deprivation and being away from home, I'm motivated to tell in-depth stories that feel authentic to the people who are living them. I want my subjects to see my work and say, "Yes, that's how it really was; that's what it felt like."
AS: How do you come back from a war-zone and start photographing "normal" life again?
I think war is normal, and I can't help but see connections between our day to day activities in America and our fighting abroad, even in the forests of western Massachusetts where I live. I see war at the gas pump, war in the political choices that otherwise peaceful people make, war in their drug use, war in our injured veterans, in our refugee and immigrant populations, war in the polluted air we breathe. America has been in a shooting war overseas for 13 years, but it doesn't end there. War is integrated with our normal, daily life.
—Ben Brody, interviewed by Alexander Strecker