In 2011, Michael Christopher Brown was driving around China in a custom outfitted van (bed in the back, blocked out windows, safe under the bed) taking pictures when the war in Libya broke out. For some reason, he felt a calling, a need, to leave China and head over to Libya to witness what was happening there for himself. He had no real experience working in a conflict zone—previously he had mostly done work centered on nature and travel, for National Geographic and other magazines. His experience in Libya would change him.
Brown’s forthcoming book, “Libyan Sugar,’ (Twin Palms, 2016) is a chronicle of his experience heading to war for the first time. It is an extraordinary amalgamation of photo book and soul-searching. Unusually, he chronicled his experiences with a mobile phone, due in part to the fact that he broke his DSLR soon after he arrived in Libya.
The resulting book is a powerful document about a young man in search of answers about the conflict in Libya and, ultimately, about himself, his place in this world and the existential question, “What does it all mean?” Woven adroitly throughout the book is his correspondence with friends, colleagues, and most notably, his family and loved ones, even on a fateful day when he was hit by shrapnel on Tripoli Street in Misrata (he had already been injured once by a bullet to the leg in March). Brown lived to tell his story, this book, although his colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were not as lucky and lost their lives that day.
Why did Michael Christopher Brown feel an impetus to head to war? In the prologue, he explains that there was a rich history of the men in his family serving in the military. His father, Gary Lee, was a physician in the Army Reserves who treated injured soldiers during Vietnam; his grandfather served in World War II; his great-great-grandfather served in the Civil War and his seventh great-grandfather served in the Revolutionary War. Brown had no desire to join the military but had always been interested in war photography. But until the war in Libya, he had felt no strong need to go to war. He explains why he ended up in Libya:
“When the Libyan uprising became a war, my old curiosity about war unfolded in front of me and I followed it. There was a mysterious attraction to Libya, a country largely closed to the world, and identification with the Arab Spring values, what the media was calling freedom and democracy. It was an identification with those values that carried me as an American, perhaps as it had inspired the freedom fighters of the Revolutionary War, those in the fight against slavery during the Civil War, or against fascism and the plight of the Jewish people during the Second World War. Libya is not my country, nor was it my revolution. I did not go to change anything, but there was a sense that I could do something if I went, and I went for myself. “
And so he went.