Andrea Bruce – Going into Chaos

In cri­sis regions, nor­mal­i­ty is in short sup­ply. Nev­er­the­less, peo­ple learn to live with it, the US-Amer­i­can war pho­tog­ra­ph­er tells. The inter­view edit­ed by Alan Webber.

I’ve been a pho­tog­ra­ph­er for the past 20 years and for the last 15 years I’ve most­ly cov­ered con­flict, focus­ing on the Mid­dle East. Although I’ve cov­ered war, I con­sid­er myself a com­mu­ni­ty pho­tog­ra­ph­er. I focus on peo­ple and the shared traits that peo­ple have around the world. The more con­flicts you go to in dif­fer­ent coun­tries, the more those com­mon traits become apparent.

My job is to go into chaos and make sense of it. I go into a chaot­ic place and I turn it into one pho­to­graph in a square. That pho­to­graph becomes a mem­o­ry that’s cement­ed in people’s minds for a long time.

In Afghanistan I spent a lot of time with peo­ple who’d been dis­placed because of the vio­lence in their coun­try. They end­ed up in camps, tens of thou­sands of refugees liv­ing on the out­skirts of Kab­ul. They need­ed aid but the gov­ern­ment wouldn’t allow aid orga­ni­za­tions into the camps. Kab­ul can have very severe win­ters and one win­ter was so bad that chil­dren start­ed to die in large num­bers. The Afghan gov­ern­ment said it wasn’t true – it wasn’t hap­pen­ing. They still kept aid orga­ni­za­tions out. I got to know the camp lead­ers quite well. One morn­ing, one of them came to me and said, that anoth­er child had died. Would I please come? I found this odd­ly beau­ti­ful sit­u­a­tion with immense sad­ness. The women were all gath­ered inside a mud hut and the moth­er of the child who had died was stand­ing up. Her dead child was in front of her.

”Humans are very resilient. We think we’re not, but we are.”

I took the pho­to­graph and the next day it ran on the front page of the New York Times. It cre­at­ed a huge wave of reac­tion. The U.S. mil­i­tary, aid orga­ni­za­tions, even the Afghan gov­ern­ment brought food and coats and oil for heat. Why did this pho­to get such a reac­tion? It was pub­lished a few days after Christ­mas and the pho­to­graph echoed the nativ­i­ty scene, with the woman in a dark room with her bur­ka down behind her and her child lying in front of her.

It showed how pho­tog­ra­phy can cre­ate a con­nec­tion between cul­tures and reli­gions. A pho­to­graph can cre­ate a bond where peo­ple can relate to each oth­er and care about each other.

„I often feel like I have to trick peo­ple into pay­ing atten­tion to the world.“

I often feel like I have to trick peo­ple into pay­ing atten­tion to the world. It seems so sim­ple, but it’s hard to get peo­ple to pay atten­tion. That’s my goal. And that’s hard enough.

When you think about the idea of “out of con­trol” you have to start with the idea of “nor­mal.” What is “nor­mal” to some­one who lives in a war zone? The exam­ples I saw in Iraq at first seemed out of con­trol. But there is even a strange rou­tine to that. There is a bomb­ing, there is a hos­pi­tal, there is a morgue, there is a funer­al. There is a bomb­ing and there is shat­tered glass. The next morn­ing, they wake up, buy new glass and put their busi­ness togeth­er again. It becomes almost nor­mal. The chaos can almost be predictable.

”The goal is empa­thy. Empa­thy from chaos.“

I can imag­ine a pho­tog­ra­phy project for Upper Aus­tria to chron­i­cle the cul­ture and the lives of peo­ple here as a way to break through divi­sions and cre­ate more empa­thy. Pho­tog­ra­phy is a direct way to bridge the bar­ri­ers that exist between dif­fer­ent peo­ple, dif­fer­ent polit­i­cal views, dif­fer­ent reli­gions. Pho­tog­ra­phy is the clear­est way that I’ve found to cre­ate empa­thy out of mad­ness or chaos.


The award-win­ning doc­u­men­tary pho­tog­ra­ph­er Andrea Bruce focus­es on peo­ple liv­ing in the after­math of war. Begin­ning in 2003, she has chron­i­cled the world’s most trou­bled areas, focus­ing on Iraq and Afghanistan.

She was based in Iraq for sev­en years as a pho­tog­ra­ph­er for The Wash­ing­ton Post. Dur­ing this time, she wrote a week­ly col­umn called “Unseen Iraq” to show the unknown faces of war. Besides The Wash­ing­ton Post, Nation­al Geo­graph­ic and The New York Times are two of her most impor­tant employers.

Andrea Bruce has won numer­ous awards includ­ing the World Press Pho­to 2nd prize in 2014 for the image ‘Soldier’s Funer­al‘ and the inau­gur­al Chris Hon­dros Fund Award in 2012 for the “com­mit­ment, will­ing­ness and sac­ri­fice shown in her work”. In 2010, the White House News Pho­tog­ra­phers Asso­ci­a­tion (WHNPA) award­ed Andrea Bruce a grant for her work on the con­flict in Ingushetia (Rus­sia). She also won the pres­ti­gious John Faber Award from the Over­seas Press Club in New York and has been named Pho­tog­ra­ph­er of the Year four times by the WHNPA.

Cur­rent­ly, she is work­ing on a project that illus­trates how democ­ra­cy is exer­cised and under­stood in dif­fer­ent com­mu­ni­ties in the US.