Sunday, January 29, 2012

She Came of Age Recording the Human Toll of War

Pakistani militants are held in a makeshift prison after being  
captured for illegally entering Afghanistan. They came intending to  
attack American soldiers, but couldn't find any and tried to turn back.  
Afghan authorities later released them on a Ramadan amnesty.
(Photo Copyright Kate Brooks)

As long as they can hide behind their slogans and flag decals and not have to think about it, war is just fine with Americans.  Endless war? Hey, it creates jobs.  Support our troops!

A new book by an American photojournalist makes you think -- think hard -- about the realities of war, which perhaps is why it's selling better abroad than here in the United States of Indifference. Kate Brooks has spent virtually her entire working life recording the collective face of war in images so powerful they will make you weep. Or cry out in anger.  Maybe even take to the streets demanding change, for mankind's sake.

In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer's Journey After 9/11 ( is not orthodox "war photography," although it contains  images of combat and chilling accounts of Brooks's experiences getting to where the fighting was. But actual combat, Brooks herself acknowledges, is not her forte as a photojournalist.

She's at her best recording the brutalized bodies of what our military calls "collateral damage," the sick and starving orphans, the widows, the victims of mass rape, the homeless -- the reality of war.  Walker Evans's images said more about the reality of the Great Depression than a thousand pages of tables and statistics; Brooks's pictures of the victims of modern war speak comparable volumes.

Interspersed with the photographs is her personal narrative of coming of age while recording great and painful truth.  She was 23 when she set out right after 9/11 for Afghanistan with a backpack, a camera and $800 on what was to be a four-day assignment.  It was the beginning, she writes, of "a ten-year journey through a region colored by war."  She rode "a current of news" from Tora Bora to Benghazi, through Iraq, Iran, Gaza, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Egypt and Libya.  In each of these places, she writes, "I left a part of myself behind, like a ghost in one of those buildings in Beirut."

In Afghanistan she drank sugary tea with Afghan men known as "grey forces," that is, double agents.  One of her hosts offered her candy while another threatened her with a grenade.  Near Kandahar, she requested assignment to the lead car of a convoy to a combat zone, but then was seized by a powerful wave of intuition.  She rode in the second car instead -- and saw the vehicle ahead blown to smithereens by an IED.  She played tape recordings of Indian pop music on a harrowing ten-hour drive across icy mountain passes. Adroit skirters of regulations and procurers of essentials called "fixers" populate her narrative; one of them saved her life, then groped her when she was nearly comatose with fever; another made it possible for her to continue working even while she was blacklisted by the forces in control of the region where she was on assignment.

Through all of this and more she documented the human toll of war:  a one-legged man playing the flute in an arboreal field strewn with the detritus of combat; the silhouette of an Afghan woman harvesting opium in a poppy field;  captives huddled in a makeshift prison, praying for repatriation; a teenaged boy lying in a pool of his own blood on an emergency room floor; body parts, bereavement, stunned children in the bombed-out shell of a dwelling where their parents died.

"Have my images made a difference?" Kate Brooks asks herself in this book.  "At times," she answers. "Every once in a while, someone I've never met sends me an e-mail thanking me for what I do.

"I don't believe a single photograph is worth dying for, but the total of what we produce in our lifetimes justifies that risk.  If we don't get close enough to see, there is no way to tell the story for those who can't see at all. If I didn't tell these stories, would they go untold? No.  But if we all stopped going, there would be no one left to bear witness.

"Given the chance, I would do this journey all over again. I can only say that, though, because I am still alive."

Every member of Congress should have to read this book the next time a war appropriations bill is about to be voted on.Then again, maybe it would be wasted on those who lack Kate Brooks's kind of courage, or the sagacity gained only from risking your life for a purpose.

We are all the richer because she lived to write about it, and share her images.

Haunting images, like the ghosts of Beirut.

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A gallery of images by Kate Brooks can be found at


  1. A really good writer can frame an image without offering a picture. That is a true skill lost in todays texting environment and the lack of educational challenges both at home and school.

  2. Do you think she might come here on a book tour?