Shedding light in darkness: Kate Brooks and capturing the Middle East

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Written by Helena Williams

When asked why she captures conflict for a living, Kate Books’ reply is simple:

“I believe in documenting history and keeping a public record, and I do it with my camera.

“Journalism is more of a vocation than a job – you go out, you’re underpaid, you overwork, and you can sacrifice your life. It’s a drive I can’t totally explain.”

But last night’s Frontline Club eventIn the Picture: Kate Brooks: A decade on the front line – shed some light on the motives behind Brooks’ incredible life: beautiful photography, capturing every shade of human emotion, from hope and happiness, to despair, and everything in between.

Beginning her career as a freelance photojournalist in Russia at just 20, while still a student, she moved to Pakistan and then Afghanistan immediately after 9/11, aged 23, with little more than $800 and a camera. Then began a ten-year trek across war zones in the Middle East.

Looking back, Brooks says that the intricate art of conflict photography soon became a passion of hers, and this is what spurred her on.

“How much of war photography is searching for the thrill? Adrenaline is a human reaction but it’s not a motivation.

“It had just become part of my life. I became interested in the regional dynamics and complexities of how one conflict influences another.”

From her first photograph of a civilian casualty in Afghanistan – a harrowing picture of a child lying on a hospital bed, who had both lost his eyesight and an arm – to the aftermath of a suicide bomb in Kurdistan, to mass prayers in Libya, Brooks’ photos are at once poignant, thought-provoking and electrifying. It is a collection of these photos that have been published in her first book, In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer’s Journey after 9/11.

But not all of her photographs depict death and despair – she also captures the joy and hope in these war-torn countries: images of women in Afghanistan who are running for positions in politics (“A woman being in public office 10 years ago was unthinkable,” she muses), and the pulsing nightlife of Lebanon (“They party like it is their last night on Earth, because they have lived like that for so long”).

From looking at her work, it becomes clear that there is more to these conflict-torn countries than meets the eye – and keeps returning to Afghanistan because she has “totally fallen in love with the country”.

Whatever Brooks captures, the intimate bond she builds between her, the camera and her subject is what makes her photographs commendable. She is truly able to tell a whole human story in an instant.

And although she seems unsure as to what fuels her passion, and what’s been driving her to do it for so long, a close colleague of hers thinks she knows why.

“She is invisible, so really quickly and easily she gets very intimate photos,” explains Ramita Navai, a reporter for Channel 4’s Unreported World who worked with Brooks a few years ago.

“She doesn’t just shoot and go. She lets it get under her skin.”

Kate Brook’s new book, In the Light of Darkness: A Photographer’s journey after 9/11, is now available for purchase.