Michael Christopher Brown is a photographer and filmmaker raised in the Skagit Valley, a farming community in Washington State. His recent work-in-progress explores the electronic music and youth scene in Havana, Cuba, and the conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Between 2009-10 he put together a series of works from road and train trips around China, while his project; Libyan Sugar in 2011 explored ethical distance and the iconography of warfare while using a phone camera.
His photographs were exhibited at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Instituto Cervantes (New York), The Museum of Fine Arts (Houston), the Annenberg Space for Photography and the Brooklyn Museum.
Libyan Sugar was released in 2016 by Twin Palms Publishers, a film and a mixed media installation will complete the project.
Alex Green the opportunity to talk with Michael to discuss Libyan Sugar, his travel kit, what he does when he’s not working and what his next project will be about.
Q: What’s your story? When did you first get involved with Photography?
A: My father taught me to use a camera around age 13, it has always been a hobby and eventually a career.
The skill developed beyond learning the camera. About becoming a photographer, is really about finding who you are as a photographer – not the kind of pictures you take but the pictures that define you, which is perhaps a lifelong process.
Q: What inspired you to become a photographer?
A: Books, when I was in college I would go to book stores and libraries and just pour through photography monographs. In those I saw a way to express a viewpoint, to make a statement and the best books were poetry.
Q: What were some of the first images that you got published? Who were they for?
A: They were in the local weekly newspaper in my home state of Washington, The Skagit Argus. They were sports pictures, high school sports mostly.
Q: What’s your ethos behind your photography, what are you hoping to achieve when you capture a shot?
A: I take pictures of my reactions, my curiosities about the world and if I achieve that emotional response I had to a situation in the resulting photograph, that is it.
Q: What was they first assignment you worked on with National Geographic?
A: I worked on a zip code story, at that time they had little stories at the end of the magazine, on the community of Glen Echo, in Maryland.
Q: You’ve worked a lot with National Geographic, The NYT, The Atlantic, etc. Taking wonderful photographs, is there a selection that your most proud of in that area of work? If so, could you tell me a little about that?
A: Each story has it’s own difficulty, none of them were necessarily easy – they all had their challenges. I work hard on every assignment and if there is one picture from a job that I may feel good about, great. Some of the toughest jobs are taking photographs in mundane situations. What that is will vary from person to person.
Q: Could you tell me a bit about the book on the Libyan Revolution; Libyan Sugar? When did travel there? How did you prepare for a trip like that? What was it like? What were the aims of the trip? How long were you there?
A: Libyan Sugar is work taken from the year 2011, while spending 7 months in country documenting the Revolution. Much of the preparation for working on projects goes beyond equipment, it is more about having the experience of working on a variety of assignments in a variety of situations.
At a certain point, with enough experience you do not have to think about preparation, you just go there. With Libya, I did not have any front line experience but did have experience going to countries without contacts or preparation. Alot of things can be worked out upon arrival, especially in war zones.
The front line is a different scenario and it is important to listen and follow experienced folks, as it is a life and death situation.
Q: In an area with such violence going on, what are the people like when it comes to being photographed? How do they interact?
A: Depends on the situation. With Libya, especially in the beginning, the Revolutionaries wanted us, the media, there to photograph their struggle and show it to the world. They wanted support, so were willing to be photographed both on and off the battlefield.
Q: Has their been a trip that has been a favorite? In terms of the photo’s that you took? If so, why?
A: I am addicted to the beauty of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it never gets ‘old.’
Q: After working in so many places of war, has their been a place you’ve found to be particularly harrowing or distressing?
A: I have not worked in too many war zones, just a handful, but each certainly has their own.
Much of it depends on the amount of access we may have as photographers, which then will influence the experience and emotion that results.
Q: In your archives, there are XIASI and XIASI 2, the images in these are amazing, could you tell me about these trips?
A: These are from road and train trips around China, mostly in 2009 and 2010. I began with train trips, mostly in the east, southeast and northeast China while based in Beijing.
After awhile I wanted to drive, bought a van and got a drivers license and did mostly solo road trips. The images were made with film and iPhone.
Q: Do you prefer to take images as and when they’re happening? Or do you prefer to set up the subjects where you prefer them?
A: I do not set up subjects, unless occasionally for assignment portraiture. All my pictures are candid.
Q: What equipment do you use?
A: Sony A7R2 and A7S2, iPhone, Mamiya 6 film camera.
Q: Do you have a standard travel kit, or does your equipment change for every assignment?
A: Two Sony camera bodies, Leica M lenses, iPhone’s and sometimes a film camera.
Q: What have you got planned for the future? Have you got any places or projects that you would like to shoot?
A: Native American project in the USA.
Q: What do you do for downtime when your not away on assignments? What sort of photos do you take? Do you experiment a bit more with different forms?
A: I hang out at home with my girlfriend, go for a hike in the park up the street, sleep in, dance, sing, read. I take pictures for myself primarily, and if paid I do it for other people as well.
I am learning to take care of plants, to cook more, to fix things.
Q: Do you have any favorite images that someone else has taken?
A: I like images that other people send me, images that are gifted, whether professional images or just snapshot photographs.
Q: Who is your favorite photographer and why?
A: My favorite photographer is the photographer who is a human before they are a photographer, who takes pictures as a result of something they are trying to say, something they are feeling.
See some of his work on Instagram below: