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Interview with Michael Christopher Brown

Witness: Libya

HBO

What inspired you to go to Libya, of all places?

Michael Christopher Brown

I missed the events in Tahrir and the resignation of Muburak, but was following events in the region thoroughly. When that momentum spread to Libya there was no question I needed to go. I felt this indescribable urgency to see what was happening. There were values I identified with as an American, like freedom and democracy, and there was a sort of mysteriousness about Libya which attracted me, partly because the country was largely closed to the world under the 42-year dictatorship of Gaddafi.

HBO

Were you prepared for what you saw there? Have you ever encountered anything else like it?

Michael Christopher Brown

I never experienced a revolution and war such as Libya before, and it was the first time I felt ready to have that sort of experience. Throughout last year, I was lucky to tag along with and learn from highly experienced photographers and journalists.

HBO

Libya has been in the news a lot lately, following the attack on the consulate compound in Benghazi. Is the scene that was described to have taken place there similar to what you've witnessed in the area?

Michael Christopher Brown

In terms of fighters laying siege to a building, yes, this was a usual situation during fighting in, for instance, Misrata and Tripoli. These types of situations are generally what happens when a battle arrives in a city. In terms of foreigners being attacked, that was not the first time this year that an attack was made against a foreign presence and anyone spending time in Benghazi this year, post-revolution, and certainly the state department, would or should have known of those targeted attacks. This includes hostilities against journalists, as a journalist and I were kidnapped in April in Benghazi.

HBO

You were kidnapped in Benghazi? What happened? How were you able to leave and were you OK?

Michael Christopher Brown

A writer and I were covering a drifting event in Benghazi and at some point we were inside a drifting truck when it flipped. A crowd gathered around us and armed men approached who said they were revolutionaries. They accused our fixer and us of being armed, which was true for the driver but not for us, and said we needed to come with them to their base. When we resisted we were forced into our vehicle with a gun to our drivers head. They took my cameras and luckily I got a phone call off to a friend and he overheard the commotion in the vehicle before I needed to bury my phone. We were taken along with two other vehicles of armed men and they attempted to take us out of the city. Soon after we were stalled in heavy traffic and I was able to jump out of the vehicle and begin yelling at other vehicles, hoping to find someone who might help. People got out of their cars and began arguing with the men who had taken us, and eventually we were brought to a police station and freed, relatively unharmed. We do not know if the armed men were revolutionaries or not, but of course there are inevitably bad seeds in any group. According to our driver their plan was to take us out into the desert, rob us, and who knows what after.

HBO

Much of the film focuses on the work of the photographer Tim Hetherington, who was killed while reporting alongside you in Libya. Following Tim's death and your injury, did you have reservations about returning to the type of work you were doing?

Michael Christopher Brown

I had reservations about going back to the frontline and still do. Misrata was the second time I was hit during the war in Libya. The first time was near Bin Jawad in the east, but that time I was pushing the limits for myself, looking for that fully exposed frontline experience with a sort of abandonment that is native to that experience. So when I was hit, I rationalized it and said that I would not do a similar thing again. Though I did return to the frontline many times after, each time I was cautious of pushing it to the absolute limit. In Misrata, on April 20th, I wanted to be on the frontline that morning, when we were in the building. But in the afternoon, after lunch, I went back because I did not want to miss anything. Tim was highly interested in following a commander and I was inspired by his excitement and so I followed him. Of course, I went for the wrong reasons. Shortly after we arrived that afternoon, our group thought we were doing the right thing by walking away from the fighting and then we were hit. I lost almost half the blood in my body, needed two transfusions with shrapnel nearly piercing a lung and a major artery in my arm. All this happened while following some very experienced war photographers. So there was a realization of the chaos of war, and that no matter how much experience one has there is always that wild card. But that's when one's conscience becomes most important, as we only have ourselves to blame for what happens. It was why I was so angry after Misrata, and not, for instance, in Bin Jawad.

These experiences made me question if what I was doing was meaningful enough for myself to continue doing it. Eventually I discovered yes, it is.

HBO

Why did you decide to go back?

Michael Christopher Brown

These experiences made me question if what I was doing was meaningful enough for myself to continue doing it. Eventually I discovered yes, it is, but only when listening to myself. So when Tripoli began to fall in August, four months later, there was no question that I needed to go back. When I did, the first couple days I could barely leave the hotel and my body was shaking as there were still snipers in the streets. But looking back, in terms of healing it was perhaps the best thing I could have done.

HBO

What do you aim for your work from the frontlines to achieve?

Michael Christopher Brown

What is interesting is the context that pictures from the frontline may provide towards a larger message. I am making a book about the Libya experience, in pictures and journal entries, which is about going to war for the first time. There is commentary on that personal experience, of finding what war is and what it means to me. The frontline photographs play an important role. They are necessary to make the project complete, but what is behind those pictures and behind the actions of a battle, and the pictures surrounding that battle, becomes more interesting.

HBO

What's the next story you want to tell or scene you want to cover?

Michael Christopher Brown

Hard to say at this point, as I'm still busy getting this book done! Though earlier this year I spent time in the D.R. Congo and am planning on returning soon. Congo is incredibly complicated and fascinating and I foresee spending a significant amount of time there in the future.

Witness: Libya

From executive producers Michael Mann and David Frankham