Sometimes you go to cover a revolution and you find yourself in the middle of an all-out war. The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were dangerous enough, but it wasn’t until Libya that the Arab Spring turned into a real war. Like the Libyans themselves, many journalists were caught off-guard. Michael Christopher Brown, 33, a China-based US photojournalist, was one of them.
MC Brown was wounded in the same incident in Misrata that cost the lives of his colleagues Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. It was the second time he was wounded in the war in Libya. Now he is raising funds through Emphas.is to go back to Libya to find out what lies behind the frontline conflict.
He spoke recently with fellow journalist Gert Van Langendonck about that day in Misrata and why he wants to go back.
MC Brown: When I arrived in Libya on February 26 we were all expecting to cover a revolution, but we quickly found ourselves in the middle of a war. I had only planned to come for a few weeks because we thought it would all be over fairly quickly. I don’t even consider myself a war photographer. Had I known what it would turn into, I probably would have left. But by then I had become more involved and I felt this need to go with it. So I stayed.
You were shot in the leg once in Libya but never even stopped working. Then came the terrible incident in Misrata in which Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros died. Tell us about Misrata.
MC Brown: We had spent the whole morning on Tripoli Street [the frontline at the time] inside a building where Gaddafi soldiers were holed up out, and there was fighting going on inside the building.
That’s the same building where Chris Hondros shot his last pictures. That was insane, covering a battle inside a house.
MC Brown: Yeah, it was pretty nuts. It was a three-story building on Tripoli Street where at one point maybe 30 to 40 rebel fighters went in. Gaddafi soldiers were shooting into the stairwell; they were throwing grenades; rebel soldiers were throwing grenades back at them. Outside they were using RPGs and anti-aircraft guns. It was really intense.
Didn’t you say to yourself, “This is too crazy, I didn’t sign up for this”?
MC Brown: At some point we had decided it was getting too sketchy. In the morning the rebels had the momentum, but by the afternoon things had changed. We were going back up the street, away from where the fighting was, when the mortar came in.
A Libyan friend of ours actually has video of the mortar coming in. You can see it hit; there’s a cloud of smoke and then you see the trucks driving by. It shows how disorganized it is.
What happened to Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros has reminded the world of the incredible risks journalists, and especially photojournalists, take to get the story. What went through your head after the mortar hit?
MC Brown: Yes, for sure. As soon as I was hit, the only thing that goes through your head is, “It’s not worth it.” I was hit in the shoulder by shrapnel and there was a lot of blood coming out. It was literally a river of blood. I thought I was hit much worse than it turned out. So the only thing going through my head was, I have to get out of here, it’s not worth it. I mean, just to get a few pictures of guys with guns shooting at each other?
In 1975, at the height of the cold war, six Latin American countries ruled by right wing military dictatorships created Operation Condor, a secret military plan to eliminate their political opponents. This plan, which was carried out over 3 years, resulted in “extrajudicial executions” of at least 60.000 people.
For his long-term project “The Shadow of Operation Condor” Joao Pina, a Portuguese photographer, who has lived and worked in Latin America for the last six years, wants to revisit the places where the atrocities have taken place and trace some of the survivors and relatives of those who were tortured and killed during the military dictatorships’ rule.
Joao Pina intends to create the first comprehensive “visual memory” of Operation Condor and its effects. No such document has been compiled to this date and Joao sees a pressing need to preserve the memory of this recent chapter of Latin American history. In addition, he wants to make the material available to be used as evidence by a number of human rights organizations, which are still trying to bring those responsible for Operation Condor’s repression to justice.
Joao’s interest in the subject of political repression and prisoners came out of his own family’s experience: two of his grandparents spent years in prison in Portugal. This is why Joao has previously worked on a series on Portuguese Political Prisoners. The series concentrates on a very small group of people who were arrested, tortured and sentenced to many years in jail because they opposed the regime. Joao’s grandmother Albertina Diogo and his grandfather Guilherme da Costa Carvalho were members of the Portuguese communist party and fought with their ideals against a fascist regime in Portugal that lasted for 48 years – making it the longest dictatorial regime of western Europe in the 20th century.
Having finished this body of work on Political Prisoners, Joao is currently teaming up with Amnesty International in Portugal to do a press and street billboard campaign with his work.
The posters show Albertina Diogo, Joao’s grandmother, who was in jail for more then 6 years for “subversive activities” signifying her activity in communist party, she was probably the first woman suffering physical torture in Portugal, including seven nights of sleep deprivation torture; and Carlos Coutinho who was the main operative of the ARA, the communist party’s armed wing. He was arrested and tortured until falling into a coma. He spent a little over a year in jail, and was released after the revolution of 1974.
The collaboration with Amnesty International came Joao’s way somewhat unexpectedly. Joao was contacted by a group of creatives from an advertising company in Lisbon that works every year for Amnesty International on a pro-bono basis to create one of their campaigns. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Amnesty InternationaI Foundation and the 30th anniversary of their office in Portugal. Amnesty International wanted to do a strong campaign in Portugal and when the became aware of Joao’s Political Prisoners’ work they went for it.
Joao agreed to do the campaign as he believed in its possible impact and for the very personal reason that Amnesty International UK had lobbied for the release of his grandfather when he was in jail. Pina’s family was very grateful for Amnesty’s help. His grandfather eventually got out of prison because he was very sick. He died shortly after his release in 1973.
Building on the success of his prisoner series, Pina is now hoping to have a strong impact with his ongoing project “The Shadow of Operation Condor”. His distribution plan involves the publication of a series of stories in the media in each respective country, the publication of a bi-lingual book, and a traveling exhibition touring the affected countries. But most importantly, he also plans to give a set of the photographs to local NGOs so that they can be used as evidence of their work, evidence of the crimes committed by their states, and eventually raise more awareness amongst the public and governments to pursue justice.
It is clear that with his work Pina wants to make a tangible difference and be able to collaborate with people and organizations internationally to keep the spotlight on human rights abuses and political repression in particular.
You can support his work here: