October 07, 2011

Special Abu Muqawama Q&A with Bryan Denton

The photojournalist Bryan Denton has been a friend for several years, and this past year has been a career year for him.
Those who followed the reporting of C. J. "Chris" Chivers from Libya
probably also know of Bryan's photographs. Bryan and I caught up a few weeks
ago at the wedding of some friends, and I convinced him, late one night, to
answer a few questions for the blog. What follows is some pretty incredible
testimony from one of the bravest men in the business.

What a year! I hardly know
where to begin, given all that you and your cameras have seen over the past 10
months. Let's begin with something you didn't see -- Egypt. After living in the
Middle East for all these years, you missed the kickoff to the Arab Spring!

Ha, I wish I had been able to be there. I was stuck for most of
February on a small base in southern Helmand Province, embedded with U.S.
Marines on an assignment that had taken some time to get set up so I couldn't
get out of it. I was leaving Beirut for this assignment on January 29th, just
as Egypt's protests were beginning and I remember having goosebumps as I
watched al-Jazeera in the
airport with virtually everyone else on my flight to Dubai, in total silence. I
knew, after Tunisia, and based on the size of the protests I was seeing on TV,
that the region was changing in a way no one had called or could have foreseen.
Sitting it out in Helmand was tough, but I came back just in time to be in
position for Libya, once the revolution there really got under way, and the
borders opened.

Man, Libya was an entirely
different kettle of fish from Afghanistan. As someone who has always tried to
make myself as small as possible while under fire, I do not envy any 6-foot,
8-inch combat photojournalist trying to cover high-intensity conflict. Talk us
through the beginning of that campaign. What were some of the biggest
challenges you faced as a photojournalist?

I think in the beginning, myself and most of my colleagues thought
that Libya's revolution was going to be more tear gas and rubber bullets than a
conventional war, including combined artillery, armor and airpower. Virtually
no one I know, myself included, even brought body armor into Libya in late
February/early March, and I, despite my time spent in Afghanistan over the past
years, was in no way prepared for the level of combat that kicked off in early
march. I don't know if anyone was.

Most of us had been in Benghazi covering the aftermath of that
city's uprising for about a week when Qaddafi forces attacked the city of Brega
on March 2. We'd spent the previous two days documenting the rebels as they
were in the very beginning stages of starting to think about some kind of self
defense force, as many of them were calling it. Mostly, it was young students
washing 14.5mm ammunition that had long been in storage, putting it into links,
and then spending their mornings learning to line up in formation. On March 2,
I was at one of these training camps when news broke that Qaddafi loyalist
forces had attacked Brega, and the camp emptied out as men took to the road. It
was as if all of Benghazi had decided to fight that day, with hundreds of cars
full of men and boys, mostly unarmed, heading towards Brega. By the end of that
day, the rebels had repelled what in retrospect was a small probing force of
about 45 trucks, simply through sheer numbers of bodies on the road. Qaddafi
had begun using airstrikes though, and I remember going back to Benghazi that
day thinking that the revolution in LIbya had now become a military

I have always been pretty gung-ho, but what followed in the coming
days, as the rebels continued to push west, bouyed by what they saw as a
victory at Brega, and their destiny, along the coast was a hard introduction to
a kind of fear I hadn't felt before while working. They encountered relatively
light resistance up through Ras Lanuf and into Bin Jawad on March 5, where
there was a day-long celebration by rebels and some residents. I had bought a
bottle of Jameson with me that I was planning on cracking open once we arrived
in Tripoli, and at that time, I was convinced that was going to be in a week or
two tops. The next morning, March 6, we woke up to an entirely different

Qaddafi troops, not in trucks, but in tanks and aided by loyalists
in Bin Jawad had begun to push back against the rabble/horde of mainly unarmed
rebels. The force had come from Sirte, the garrison town that is now under
siege, and they were firing 122mm and 107mm rockets, T-72 tank main gun rounds,
mortars, Qaddafi's airforce was dropping unguided iron bombs on groups of
rebels massing on the road—which at the time was all the rebels really knew how
to do, and Mi-24 Hind attack helicopters were straffing rebel positions. I had
four of the most harrowing close calls of my career that day, all within the
span of about four or five hours, as did a number of my colleagues. By the end
of the day my fight or flight mechanism was completely shot, and I was the
closest I've ever been to all out panic — it took a lot to keep my

What compounded the fear most was the realization that many of the
things I'd taken for granted while embedded with U.S. troops, like a robust
Medevac chain, advanced communications and situational awareness tools, and all
the other goodies that I'd grown accustomed to were absent. Our access was
total and completely unfettered, which I think is why most of us braved it
through those days ... the pictures, if you could muster the courage, were
amazingly dramatic, but for the most part, and this became a theme throughout
the Libyan conflict, we were working in the blind, and basing decisions with
very real deadly consequences on very little information, if any at all.

The conflict turned nasty
quickly. But the rebels improved over time. You had previously spent a lot
of time with seasoned U.S. troops in Afghanistan and know the difference
between well-trained regular units and the kinds of citizen militias that were
fighting in Libya. Talk the readership of this blog through what you were able
to witness in terms of battlefield learning and innovation.

The learning curve for the rebels was most certainly steep. I
think the best way I've heard them described was by Chivers, who referred to
them as "accidental combatants," a term I've always thought was
pretty prescient. They were engineers, lawyers, students, unemployed youth, and
I don't think at the outset, they anticipated such a long grinding conflict
that would take so many of their lives, and require so much innovation in the
field. There wasn't a lot, if any combat experience within their collective
ranks at the beginning, and everything they did — especially in the early days,
was learned through a school of pretty hard knocks. No place better illustrated
this than Misrata — which was under siege for two solid months. By the time we
arrived there in mid April, it was like a mad scientists workshop of urban
warfare tactics. They'd taught themselves how to move between buildings by
knocking out "rat-holes" dug through multiple walls along the
frontline, and had turned downtown Misrata — essentially a circular network of
roads that link up at various roundabouts—into a virtual maze by blocking off
streets at various points with shipping containers and sand berms. In the
beginning, they built these fortifications by putting a brave sole in a
bulldozer or forklift, and having him brave blistering machine gun and RPG fire
in order to build them in place, when they lost enough people and bulldozers,
they started welding steel plates onto the bulldozers. Electricians and steel
workers who had worked in the oil industry perviously were now working in
make-shift weapons workshops, mounting all kinds of things onto the backs of
pickup trucks as rebel units filtered in for refits or repairs, suggesting
tweaks here and there. From an objective point of view, watching a civilian
population it was awe inspiring to watch. In April, maybe two out of five
rebels in Misrata had a weapon, and most of them were fighting from their

No amount of training can give a man absolute belief in his cause.
Most American troops I've spent time with in Afghanistan, where politics and
fighting are constantly happening side by side, and often times at odds with
one another, fight as much for each other as they do for their country. A lot
of the soldiering I've seen, in a variety of places, relies on brotherhood more
than rank to hold a unit together. In Misrata, what they may have lacked in
training was replaced by this sheer will and belief in their cause and the
notion of their city as a cohesive family unit. One thing Americans haven't had
in over a hundred years, thankfully, is the experience of fighting over our own
physical land. Fighting for something physical, like your life, or your house,
rather than something almost existential, like your security changes the
dynamic completely.

I remember this one day, in the hospital, a rebel came in badly
burned. I was talking to his friend later who said that he'd been been in
Birwaya, west of the city, when a Qaddafi forces tank had begun pushing on
their position. According to his friend, the man had charged the tank with a
grenade and a molotav cocktail, and in the process of trying to climb onto the
moving tank to drop the grenade in the hatch, the molotov cocktail had exploded
and engulfed him in flame. Perhaps not the smartest of tactic if self
preservation is concerned, and there were plenty of similar cases of negligence
in handling weapons that come along with an untrained fighting force, but the
belief one has to have in their cause to charge a tank with a grenade? You
can't buy, train, or equip a soldier with that ...

This has been a very tough
year for photojournalists. First, at the end of the last year, Joao Silva was
horrifically wounded in southern Afghanistan. Then several journalists --
including your friends Chris Hondros and Tim Hetherington -- were killed in
Libya this past spring. What effects have these events had on you as a
professional? And is there anything readers of the blog should know about these
men and the other men and women who put themselves in harm's way to bring us
the news here in the United States?

It has been a brutal year for our group, which is a small one.
Joao Silva's wounding in Afghanistan, as well as Tyler Hicks' and Lynsey Addario's capture in Libya in March — both of
whom I was working with just days before they were captured -- had me very
rattled before the loss of Chris and Tim. More than any others, Tyler, Joao and
Lynsey have been my mentors in covering conflict through the early years of my
career in places like Georgia and Lebanon. I was lucky enough to get my start
in this business by working alongside them, looking up to them both as
photographers, and as individuals, and as a novice, they've often helped me gauge
the safety of situations. What each of those three went through, before Chris
and Tim passed, was chilling in that I think for the first time I really
understood that this work potentially has serious consequences, no matter how
much experience you have. Tim and Chris' deaths didn't really confirm this any
more than it needed to be, but I still think about both of them a lot and
haven't been able to shake the sadness knowing that both of them somehow ran
out of luck, together, in Misrata, at such bright times in their lives.

None of us are immune, and we live and die by the choices we make
in the field. I think Chris and Tim both knew this better than most. Both were
brave in their reporting, but mostly to me, what I think about, is how
thoughtful they both were. Tim I only met in Benghazi, but over two weeks or so
working around him and talking over pictures in the evenings, I was in awe of
how he could freestyle incredibly sensitive narrative jazz into a visual record
based on what he was seeing. In an industry known for its large personalities,
he traveled almost directly from the red carpet at the Oscars to the western
gate of Ajdabiyeh, and arrived with no pretense or posturing. I, like most I
imagine, met him and knew immediately that he was someone genuine and special,
and am sad that I didn't get the opportunity to know him better.

Hondros I'd known since 2008, when we had both covered the war in
Georgia, and we had hung out in Afghanistan, New York and Egypt several times
in the intervening years. Chris took his work quite seriously, and I was always
struck by his ability to look at situations in a very un-stylized way and let
what was actually happening come through the image. It sounds easy, but it's
not, and he was one of the best in the business in my opinion. His last set of
photographs from Misrata, of rebels storming a building on Tripoli street, are
as terrifying as they are a perfect example of his dedication to his work —
especially knowing that he went back out to keep working after taking a break
to file them.

Along the same lines, we
spoke at length last weekend about risk mitigation in combat -- a subject I
also discussed with Chris Chivers recently. Tell us about your philosophy for
managing and mitigating risk in your work. What steps do you take to report
what you need to report while doing so in as smart and safe a way as possible?

After March 6, which I wrote about above, I knew that covering the
war in Libya would require a significant rethink in terms of managing risk if I
was going to continue to cover it on a long term basis. I was extremely lucky
to have had the chance to work with Chivers on my second trip, which included
our Misrata reporting. I had some idea about what I was doing, but Chris
(Chivers) can look at a battlefield, through all the light and noise, and see
it as a three dimensional and dynamic entity. As we probed the front in Brega,
and later, the frontlines in Misrata, and the Western Mountains, we came up
with a system that both of us were comfortable with. As soon as we were within
range of artillery, we wore our body armor and kevlar if we were outside or
driving, and would only travel to the frontlines if there was news or a
specific story that would justify the risk. Once there, we would do our
reporting, get the material that we needed, and then get out.

Artillery was probably the single greatest threat during much of
our time reporting together, and there were instances on the road to Brega
early on that had led us to believe that the teams directing Qaddafi's rockets,
mortars and artillery were striking pre-registered targets on the map such as
intersections, or key installations — many of which were occupied by rebels, so
hanging around at these positions just waiting for something to happen was
potentially quite dangerous.

What was amazing was that by not simply chasing the noise, as I
watched many photographers do — it's a natural reaction for many, including
myself — we were able to do what was, in my opinion, some of the better
reporting, particularly from Misrata, on the gears and moving parts of the

I always end these
interviews with something related to food and drink. You and I have together
polished off several bottles of Laphroig on the balconies of Beirut. Where are
the three best places in the Middle East to sit down with your photojournalist
peers and swap stories over a cold beer or glass of Scotch?

A great part of this year and the last has been drinking less to
be honest. Afghanistan and Libya are both fairly booze-free zones for me. I'm
realizing that I need to start exercising more, and living healthy if I want to
keep doing this job. That said, when in Beirut, one can never go wrong going
for a cocktail at Kayan in Gemayze, or on my balcony as you mentioned,
particularly if there's something on my BBQ. I was just in Sidi Bou Said in
Tunisia as well, and that place nearly gives Beirut a run for it's money.

For those
of you in New York City, an exhibit of Bryan's photos will be running from 20 October
until 19 November
at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York
University. The rest of you can follow Bryan on Twitter at@bdentonphoto.