Photojournalist, GI Bill Student Reflects on War Experience

Ben Brody joins the army to become a combat photographer
Thursday, February 17, 2011

“People often ask for advice on how to become a ‘war photographer,"” says Ben Brody ’12 (journalism), who has been embedded in the Middle East several times and is attending UMass on the GI Bill. “There’s no good answer, everyone has a unique story—no standardized career path will lead you to the heart of darkness.”

Brody’s story began in high school, in the mid-1990s. “I took a photo class freshman year and dove headlong into it,” he says. “I shot ludicrous amounts of film—that was before digital photography hit the mainstream—and worked on the yearbook as photo editor.”

At Goucher College in 1998, Brody entered the pre-med program. He also took some advanced photography classes. “It turned out that was the only thing that interested me, apart from antagonizing my humanities professors.” After two semesters Brody moved to Boston, got a job at a bio-medical photography lab, and eventually enrolled in the New England School of Photography where he learned “arcane black-and-white film techniques and made little effort toward developing marketable skills.”

After earning the NESOP certificate, Brody fell into a “classic post-grad rut. I moved to Amherst, worked some lousy job, and ate English muffins and frozen pizza every day. I was full of energy and big ideas but had no idea how to employ them and no money to get started.”

And then September 11, 2001 happened. “I felt like I had to get involved and discover the hard truths about the Middle East and America’s foreign policy in action,” Brody says. “I wanted to ‘witness’ it, but found that American news agencies were generally unwilling to underwrite an expense account for a starry-eyed 22-year-old whose resume boasted an expertise in large format black-and-white photography under moonlight.”

Two options presented themselves. “I could use what little money I had saved to fly to Amman, take a taxi to Baghdad, and hope for the best when the worst was far more likely, or I could join the Army as a combat photographer.” Brody chose the latter.

Deployed with the 3rd Infantry Division in 2005–06, and again in 2007–08, Brody covered Baghdad’s descent into sectarian chaos and the troop surge. He was embedded as a civilian reporter twice with troops for the GlobalPost in Afghanistan, this past July and August, and again in October and November when he took a leave from his studies at UMass. Brody’s photographs and accompanying writings have been published in the New York Times, GlobalPost, Washington Post, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Savannah Morning News, USA Today, AARP Bulletin and many others. To view his portfolio, visit Brody’s website.

After leaving the Army, Brody dedicated a year to becoming a better photographer. “I traveled, attended workshops, and made friends with some of the best photographers in the world. But it’s a tough market in photography right now, and my time in uniform entitled me to a free education. I would have been a fool to pass it up, especially since I could continue working.”

“There’s a big difference between being a military reporter and a civilian reporter,” Brody says. “As an Army sergeant, I had access to all levels of military operations in Iraq, from an infantry squad patrolling in Mahmudiyah to the morning briefings with General Petraeus in Baghdad. I could research classified mission briefs and operations orders to best position myself to get photographs in the middle of the action.” However, Brody was always a soldier first and a photographer second. “That can be frustrating,” he acknowledges. “On the other hand, using experience gained from countless operations and battles to help train young soldiers to stay safe was gratifying.”

In Afghanistan Brody, the civilian, didn’t receive regular briefings on the big operational picture. “I had to rely on rumors and hearsay on where the action might be. Remember, war is very, very boring 90% of the time, even in the thick of it. Making sure you’re there for the other 10% is a full-time job. Not having rank, rifle, and responsibilities that come with those things really freed me up to concentrate on making strong images.”

Another big difference between military and civilian designations involves censorship. “My writing for the military was often heavily censored,” says Brody. “Once I spent six days in continuous, vicious combat to wrest a village from the grip of 40 murderous al-Qaeda thugs. One U.S. soldier died, two were seriously wounded, and two of our vehicles were destroyed, but in the end we won the village.” Yet, a colonel killed Brody’s story, deeming it ‘too negative.’ Brody’s interpretation: the story didn’t fit the vision of what victory should look like. “Not being censored in Afghanistan as a civilian,” Brody says, “allowed me to write the way I had always wanted to.”

Brody does his best to help inform people about the realities on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, noting that he has spoken in several classes on campus. “I’ll continue to work in the Middle East as long as Islamic radicalism is a major issue,” says Brody. “I don’t think our military commitment in Afghanistan is more important than global warming or the resurgence of dangerous lunatics in American media and politics, but it’s important to me, so I’ll keep covering it as best I can.”

Samantha Denette '11 (journalism) contributed to this story.