Talking visual confrontations of power and bringing art to journalism with war photographer Ben Brody
By Brian Zayatz
Gravity doesn’t just pull me to earth anymore. It sweeps me through doorways quickly, it pulls me to defensible terrain. It pivots my body around so I can see all the exits and opportunities for cover. An extra tidal force caused by a second, invisible moon. Icicles form in all directions around my house, and trees grow shapeless and tangled, unable to locate the sky. The second moon pulls me up and out of bed at night, and into the forest.
So begins the text of Ben Brody’s photobook Attention Servicemember, which just saw its second edition published this year. By the time you get to this text, you’ve already seen a glossy preface of black and white images taken in Southampton, where Brody lives, and matte color images of his first experiences in the military in Iraq, where he was sent at the age of 22 as an army photographer. By the time you’ve finished the first block of text in the book and the subsequent magazine-style pages showing how Brody’s public domain work has been appropriated to sell vapes, you realize (or, you don’t, as I didn’t on my first reading) that this section has bifurcated an image of a soldier holding a handheld metal detector to a little girl on a street in Iraq.
Attention Servicemember throws you in head first to the absurdity, complexity, and violence of America’s wars on terror, shot over the course of 15 years in Iraq and Afghanistan by Brody, who transitioned from army photographer to civilian journalist along the way. The book’s sparse 8,000 words of prose alternate between deeply personal and stoically factual, referring to images you’ve already seen and haven’t seen yet, creating an experience akin to the “coming unstuck in time” experienced by Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim (to whom the book is dedicated).
Last week, Brody showed me around the woods near his home, where some of the book’s images were made. Between pointing out long-forgotten barn foundations, valuable mushrooms, and tree species planted by colonists for lumber now dying due to climate change, we discussed the book, his new imprint, and photojournalism broadly. (The following has been edited for length and clarity).
Brian Zayatz: One of the things that struck me about the way the book is constructed is that this area lives very far away from war in most people’s psyches, so I’m wondering if you would say a bit about what these different places say in conversation to each other to you and how you decided to structure the book that way.
Ben Brody: I really wanted the book to function as an object that would transport people who had never been to war into that experience, and I didn’t feel like just explaining what happened in a very straightforward way was likely to be effective, because it’s such an exotic, singular experience. But I felt like connecting the trauma of war and the consequences of the violence and lies, and linking that to something that people would be broadly familiar with like the history of the land that they live on, and how the things that should be beautiful to them, like their loved ones, like the outdoors—the experience of war poisons that. I felt like a photobook was a good place to explore that visually, but to have made it purely a photobook, like if it was just photography, I really would’ve been able to convey that argument to like the tiniest subsection of people who geek out about Dutch photobooks, so the text was really important for me to not only make the book function to a broader audience, but also to introduce the concept of a Dutch photobook to a broader audience.
These woods in particular I felt like, given the colonial history, given the old mine where that kid died [in the 1800s], the fact that the scars of our history are still visible in the landscape, even if they’re just out there buried in the woods, that would be like a good narrative structure to create around the book. So it goes between me talking about the war specifically and talking about these forests.
BZ: I’ve heard you explain how the construction of the book and certain aspects of it are meant to speak to people with a combat background in ways that they don’t necessarily speak to people without that background, so I’m also wondering about these local photos in the book: does that stand true of them as well, or are those images more personal to you?
BB: I don’t feel like anything in the book is personal to me for the reason that my personal experience is important. I don’t think it is, and I tried not to be sentimental in any way about my decisions about what to put in the book. I put in these personal or intimate photos of my private life and wrote about it not because I think my private life is something that is broadly of interest to people, but because I wanted to draw the reader in, really close, and make them understand the effect this has on a person. It may be hard to explain the war to somebody, or what that’s like, but I can explain myself to somebody, and that’ll be an experience that they understand, and through that lens I can explain the war.
BZ: Let’s talk about your new imprint, Mass Books. Do you want to say a bit about that and what your hopes are for it?
BB: Mass Books is the imprint I published my second edition on, Red Hook Editions [which published the first edition] doesn’t really exist anymore, so I feel like it made more sense to create my own imprint for the second edition, and I did that in partnership with one of the original RHE partners, Peter Van Agtmael, he’s made some of the best photobooks on the global war on terror. We’re releasing my second edition and his new book, Sorry for the War.
So for us it filled a need, but it also gives us an opportunity to make more photobooks that we’re interested in making, like photobooks that challenge systems of power, that speak to people in a very intimate and narrative and personal way, books that are not very expensive. Mass Books is never gonna make a $75 or $100 photobook. We’ll make special editions for people who like that kind of thing, but the barriers to entry to get a copy of our books should be as low as possible. And I think that’s a good sales strategy as well, there are plenty of brilliant books that failed because they’re $55 or $65, and that was an appropriate price based on how much it cost to make the book. That would’ve been an appropriate price for my book but I made the price artificially low just because it’s not the customer’s fault that I spent too much money making the book, it should be priced what it’s worth, that’s a $40 book. It’s softcover, you put a cup of coffee down on it, you’re gonna leave a ring. It’s not meant to be some precious collectors item.
BZ: So why this push to make visual confrontations of power accessible in a new way? Do you feel like they’ve been neglected or made inaccessible?
BB: I think the photo industry, particularly the photojournalism industry, is so far behind the times in terms of understanding the visual language that their audience is going to respond to. For me the real wakeup call was being in Iraq and all these brilliant war photographers are there and I’m out with my rifle and my Nikon taking pictures of things that nobody else had access to, and the only pictures that had any effect on the public perceptions of the war were the Abu Ghraib pictures, which were taken with a shitty camera. So it just made me feel like the visual language of photojournalism is not an effective communicator in the way that it once was.
This year is a great example, what would you say is the visual information that had the biggest effect on our culture and our actions this year? George Floyd being murdered, there’s no question. None of that video was shot by a professional photojournalist, the video of Floyd was shot by a 17-year-old, vertically. I really think the power in visual information comes not from how it looks but from what the intent of the author is, so that kind of authorial intent is really what I want to double down on, people who have a specific thing to say, with whatever tools they have to say it, whether those tools are with text, imagery, the intersection between the two, compiling different ephemeral materials together. The intent is not to create the coolest looking thing, or the thing that’ll blow all the critics’ minds, it’s really a good faith attempt to do better as storytellers. There’s only one medium in journalism, and that’s your audience’s mind. So how do you engage with that, how do you use the tools you have to create the effect you want?
BZ: You say in the book that you start to see war at the gas station, all these different places where most people don’t think of war as being. It gets to this subjectivity of photography: do you think that showing war at the gas station is something that local photojournalists can do, or should do, or is that such a personal experience that it becomes more of a narrative that has to be created and situated in this larger context that you do in the book?
BB: I don’t think it requires somebody with experience in the physical act of war to connect those threads. The threads I’m talking about, it’s not like a sensory thread, it’s not like I smell something at a gas station that reminds me of a wreck, it’s because the economic activity of the petroleum industry is really tightly bound up with the military industrial complex. That doesn’t require stomping around minefields to point that out. It’s just a question of how do you want to show this, what strategy are you going to use to make somebody filling up their car at the gas station understand that they can’t pretend to be this peaceful person who never hurts anyone and also make the decision to use fossil fuels. Like, I use fossil fuels and I own that shit! I’m a somewhat violent person, I guess, that’s how it is.
BZ: I brought up that last point because I agree with you, and also as a journalist who spends most of my time in Western Mass, what I’m getting at is that a lot of smaller local publications don’t cover war.
BB: Yes, because they think it’s so far outside of their realm, but it’s really not.
BZ: Yeah, so, what do you think is out there for a small publication covering local issues to say about war when it is right here?
BB: I think the core purpose of local news is to report on the community, and for the community to see itself reflected in the news, and have a better understanding of how broader issues affect that community. You have to tie it in to something that is easily in your wheelhouse, like injured veterans, or healthcare. Something that would localize such a broad topic. There’s no need to create one of those New York Times immersive multimedia things, which is great at data visualization, but it doesn’t really hit that core functionality of local news where it’s essentially about people in the community.
BZ: I want to talk about a soldier in Afghanistan you mention in the book who doesn’t really feel comfortable with you as a photographer—
BB: Yeah, that was a major pivot point in my career.
BZ: Yeah so, the first part of the question is how did that change the way that you were photographing, but also, that point in the book identifies these visual schisms where people get divided into heroes, and villains, and audience, and I think the book does a lot to challenge that schism, and I’m wondering what mechanisms do you think uphold that schism? Is it the photographers who are taking the pictures, the media outlets that are publishing them?
BB: It’s a feedback loop. It’s like a self-perpetuating ecosystem. I think I’m not so arrogant as to feel like I’m gonna be able to break the wheel in terms of getting every photographer to really examine critically why their pictures look the way they do. Those kinds of questions are only asked by a small subset of photographers, and a really small subset of photojournalists. Most photojournalists see themselves as impartial arbiters of truth, which for me, being confronted by that sergeant and being challenged so directly by somebody I was engaging with forced me to really reexamine in a critical way what the fuck I was doing out there, and how I was gonna use photography, and how important for me it was to mess with people’s expectations of what a war picture is supposed to look like, or what photojournalists are supposed to look like, who a soldier is supposed to be, because so much of that narrative is either really simplistic or just dead wrong. I don’t know if you saw that documentary Restrepo, Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington made it, and then Seb wrote a literary companion to it called War, and Sebastian Junger’s a brilliant writer, but the thesis of the book is that war creates these unshakeable bonds of brotherhood and all that, and like, that’s such horseshit from my experience.
BZ: Do you think that a similar schism exists in the way that people photograph police? How do you feel that photography and journalism and photojournalism about police compares to the same about the military?
BB: I think when most people photograph the police, certainly in a protest scenario, they’re not really photographing the police as individuals making individual decisions. They’re just sort of represented as this monolith, and most protest photography is about theater and spectacle. Young photographers fall into this trap all the time, they don’t realize they’re photographing people who are performing for the cameras. I understand that a demonstration is a performance of power, but as a photographer it’s your job to use critical analysis to inform your readership. So just the police’s theater of this impenetrable wall, by photographing them that way you’re playing into the image that they’re trying to put forward. Taking a more creative or subtle approach is a good way of using the tools of photography to their fullest capability.
I think for a lot of people, the protests were visible for them. It wasn’t just something that was on the news, it was something that was happening in their town. On a much smaller scale, for sure. But I don’t think photography of the police and photography of protesters is as problematic as photography of war, something that’s not on people’s doorsteps where they rely solely on journalists to bring them that.
BZ: You’ve said that there’s one picture from a protest in DC that made it into the second edition. How does that picture fit into the project for you?
BB: The first edition came out like a year ago, and we were living in a different world then, and I was trying to connect these threads between violence and absurdity and lies overseas as being the dominant features of our wars, and connecting that with the consequences of our own culture. So the bungled national response to Covid, and the epidemic of police violence against black people, it was an opportunity to connect those threads in a stronger way. I didn’t want it to redo the book, but by just sort of delicately connecting those threads for people, I thought it might make the second edition a more relatable experience for people.
But that said, because I am not just an assignment photographer, I have the luxury of photographing what I want to photograph. I didn’t have to be in this position where I’m this Jew from the suburbs of Boston who’s like going down to DC to photograph the grief and anger of the black community. That’s not my place to make those pictures. I know a lot of white photographers, this is their job, this is what they had to do. It doesn’t make the optics any better, but for their career they didn’t have any choice, they’re just a part of this system.
But anyway, I didn’t go to photograph the protests, I wanted to photograph the military buildup around the White House. So that’s the picture that made it into the second edition, it’s of this soldier just pouring sweat in the heat, fucking miserable, being stuck between the line of protesters and the line of these, like, jackbooted police thugs Bureau-of-Prisons dudes dressed up like Navy SEALS, the police down there were cosplaying in the grossest way. And then there’s just this line of poor bastards from the DC National Guard who are just like the neutral party in the middle.
BZ: One last question: what do you think journalism gains by being represented creatively, and what role would you say creativity and art play in the journalistic landscape you would like to see?
BB: Oh man, now you’re really speaking to my deepest priorities in journalism and why I am very much still in the industry. I think there are so many lessons that we can learn from the practice of making art and the practice of creativity to communicate better with our audiences. Just because a picture doesn’t look like traditional photojournalism doesn’t mean it doesn’t effectively and honestly communicate. In making conceptually driven creative photography, I also reject the idea that it only communicates to this narrow subset of really educated people. It’s not true, and I proved it with my book. I’ve gotten lots of feedback from people who are like, an HVAC repair man, just to give you an example, who never went to war, but who still totally understand the design decisions and are talking to me about how cool it is with the different paper choices, and how that created this kaleidoscopic thing that totally fucked them up, and realized, “oh shit, this is what the fuckin’ war is! A kaleidoscope of madness!”
When an artist makes a picture, they’re responsible for every pixel, every tiny little thing that’s in that picture, that’s there because they want it there. Photojournalists need to think that way too. Like, we have Google Street View. We don’t need you to be the human Google Street View, that doesn’t add anything to the career field and doesn’t add shit for your audience.
This is a conversation that’s been going on in photojournalism for a long time, but I think there’s a great opportunity now, because local news has been gutted, but photography has been gutted an order of magnitude worse. There’s nothing left. There’s no one to stop us from being really creative and redefining what photojournalism is. It’s a brutal time to try to make a living, but it’s a brilliant time to really reexamine what creative storytelling and creative photojournalism can be.
Ben Brody is the Director of Photography for the Groundtruth Project and Report for America. His book Attention Servicemember was shortlisted for the Aperture – Paris First Photobook Award. Photos by Ben Brody, used with permission.
Brian Zayatz is The Shoestring’s Northampton City Council columnist. He has also worked as a researcher on Khary Oronde Polk’s 2020 book, Contagions of Empire: Scientific Racism, Sexuality, and Black Military Workers Abroad, 1898-1948.
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