In the short essay that opens his book Libyan Sugar, Michael Christopher Brown offers a succinct but poignant written description of what it felt like to be in Libya during the revolution:
In the desert there would sometimes only be a smell of metal, of smoking scraps of tanks or rockets, and there would sometimes be a feeling that at any moment the place where one stood might vanish.
That sensorial evocation lays the first bricks for the remarkable sense of place that Brown builds throughout his entire body of work. The world of Libyan Sugar is vividly real and tense, a masterful vision of war that is also close and personal. The intimate details Brown sprinkles throughout the text immerse us in his experience: as readers, we feel that we are growing alongside the photographer as he explores his new milieu. Meanwhile, the penetrating simplicity of Brown’s camera-work—the entire book, save one image, was shot on a smartphone—place us firmly on the front lines. Page after page, we slip into that rarified view behind the lens.
This world, Libya in 2011, is colored by Brown’s experience: we are with him as he discovers an unfamiliar land and witnesses a seething revolution boil over. Both the photographs and the text (primarily email correspondences between Brown and his family) in Libyan Sugar contribute to this development. The landscapes and portraits that open the book suggest that Brown—like the viewer—is familiarizing himself with his new surroundings: expansive skies, rich ochre sands, and attentive portraits fill the pages.
As we move deeper into the book, the tension builds: the images are packed with surging groups of protesters, and the narration is increasingly frantic. Sets of emails ground the imagery and contribute to this urgency. Updates fly from all angles: ”Dad: Firing on protesters in Tripoli.” ”Dad: Obama tells Q[addafi] to leave.” ”Dad: Q says fight to death.”
In one of the most powerful pairings of text and image, ”Dad: Situation seems dire” follows a photograph of a dead man at a hospital in Benghazi, his torso glossy and seemingly uninjured but unequivocally lifeless. Portraits become harrowing images of brutally injured soldiers, and the formerly expansive landscapes start to close in. The situation escalates: Brown’s photographs quickly become populated by agitated bodies and—in one staggering spread—a triptych of what appears to be unfamiliar refuse resolves into something else entirely. As the last shot zeroes in, we find ourselves confronted by a single, twisted, deformed human ear.
From the reader’s perspective, it’s hard to tell whether the attention of Libyan Sugar lands more squarely on the photographs or the text: they are equally affecting, and it’s clear that Brown deliberately partnered certain exchanges and images in order to advance the narrative.
Never is this sentiment clearer than in a two-page spread in the middle of the book. On one side, a tall vase with flowers sits in the middle of a decimated Libyan home. One half of the image is in shadow, the other is lit. If this symbolism weren’t potent enough, the opposite page features an email with a photograph from Brown’s father: “How are things going? Flowers busting out all over here!” In the accompanying image, Brown’s mother points a shower of water onto luminous, unruly flowers in the family’s garden. The contrast seems to ask: “Is it possible that these two worlds can exist concurrently?” Brown’s book expertly couples his photojournalistic experiences of war—the terrors and brutality of Middle Eastern battlefields—with jarring interjections of Northwestern reveries.
Brown tells us right from the start that he made this book as a way of examining the import of his experience in Libya. His introduction notes, “There is an awareness in war that can never be touched, heard, smelled, seen, or understood by any but those who go looking for it.” How is it, then, that the reader is so fully absorbed in the world he creates? The interplay between text and image are partly responsible: the personal elements that Brown includes allow us to edge towards empathizing with his experience. And many of the images, by themselves, are knock-outs. Thus, Brown’s book is a rarity—emotional, yet also cogent and compelling.
This work is important: if you buy one photobook this year, make it Libyan Sugar.
7 x 10 in.
284 4-color plates
Limited edition of 1,000