Photographer's Forum Magazine

KATE BROOKS Gravity And Grace

Poppies. Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan 2002 © KATE BROOKS

Poppies. Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan 2002 © KATE BROOKS

If you follow world events at all, you can’t miss Kate Brooks’s photographs. You also might not want to look at them. When her book In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer’s Journey After 9/11 (Schilt Publishing, 2011) arrived at my doorstep, I braced myself. But what stands out most in these photographs — covering 10 years in nearly a dozen countries hit by the harsh realities of war and severe conflict — isn’t the rubble and blood, but rather Brooks’s compassion and keen artistic eye.

A 10-year retrospective of the 35-year-old American photographer’s internationally award-winning work was presented in September 2011 at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida. It’s among the many group and solo shows Brooks has had in the United States, Europe and the United Arab Emirates. Says the museum’s director, Kevin Miller:

Kate is unlike a lot of other photographers on the press trail who spend four or five days capturing the peak action and then go back to New York or London. She has lived in the midst of, or close to, these areas of conflict, so she has a grasp of the worldview and experiences of these regions. That makes her a more able chronicler of these people, places and situations. She’s obviously at the forefront of the story as it’s breaking. But she treats it more like a documentary photographer, going past the immediate story to get at the underlying structural conditions. As a result, her photographs tell the more subtle complexities of life behind the headlines.

In Brooks’s photos, we may find ourselves near troops and tanks, but gunfire and explosions are rarely the focus. Instead, she shows us the impact of conflict on the daily lives of civilians and soldiers, rebels and revolutionaries, prisoners and protestors. An Afghan man with his face in his hands sits at the bedside of his 10- year-old nephew, who is covered in bandages from an American bombing that took an arm, a hand and both eyes. Three Iraqi women sob over a family member killed in the U.N. headquarters bombing in Baghdad.

Says Louie Palu, a Canadian photojournalist who has photographed social and political issues worldwide for over two decades, “Kate’s work goes beyond ‘war photography’ . . . She always seems to have a personal, emotional attachment to her subjects. There always seem to be many more layers beneath what you see, making you want to know more about the issue she is covering.”

Pakistani Jihadis. Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan 2001 © KATE BROOKS

Pakistani Jihadis. Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan 2001 © KATE BROOKS

It’s difficult for me to imagine any of the lives (or deaths) in Brooks’s images, let alone be there to see them — especially when it comes to photos of collected human remains in Kabul, the dead body of a Lebanese child wrapped in foggy plastic or the Afghan woman whose nose and ears were cut off by her husband.

I ask Brooks why she is attracted to photographing such savagery and suffering, and she says:

I am actually quite repulsed by violence. Initially I was drawn to [the Middle East] because I am an American photographer and my country was waging war. I felt an obligation to be there. I continued on because I came to care about the people in the region, and there is still a lot of ignorance about what is going on. Photographs can distill injustices, capture the beauty of the human spirit and provide a record of history.

Photography is also her passport to travel. Brooks has lived in or stayed at length in Russia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Turkey and Lebanon. While in Beirut from 2005-2009 (where she lives again now), magazine assignments also sent her to Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, Gaza, Egypt, India, Nicaragua, Japan, Thailand, Germany and France.

Brooks has traveled the world from the time she was in the womb. A month before she was born, in 1977, her mother returned to the United States from Morocco, where her father had served in the Peace Corps and later did anthropological research. Raised in Niagara Falls and Buffalo, New York, largely by her extended family, Brooks fondly remembers the photographs her world-traveler father took of the mountains in Morocco and across the Sahara. “They made me feel that very distant places were accessible… My father instilled in me a deep curiosity about the world and a love for travel.” Her mother, who was in medical school for much of Brooks’s childhood, “taught me to follow my heart.”

More of this article can be read in the Spring 2013 issue.