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.