Standing guard outside a meeting of Afghan police and village elders in Zabul Province, a U.S. soldier checks his phone. The soldier in the center of the photo has a green filter over him – presumably through a window – while spaces to either side are clear. “The green film on the windows prevents the glass from shattering in the event of a nearby explosion,” Ben Brody explained as he described the photo he took in 2013.
As an Army veteran combat photographer, Brody covered the Afghan War in a personal way. In his most recent endeavor, Foreverstan, Brody notes that “after years of hard news photography, I was looking to visually get beyond my role as a news reporter, to examine my feelings of absurdity and alienation in these strange places. For much of my career I tried to avoid the theatrical aspects of politics and war, to hunt for an unvarnished truth, but for the past few years I’ve chosen to focus on that theater, and show it for what it is.”
Brody graduated in 2012 with a degree in journalism and a minor in political science. He came to campus with extensive journalism experience as a military photographer. “Joining the military was a practical decision for me. I wanted to photograph the Iraq War, and had no money and no experience in hostile environments.” Brody served as a combat photographer with the 3rd Infantry Division from 2003 to 2008. “Military photographers are just like any other solider,” said Brody, “and our photographers always prioritized proficient soldiering before image-making.”
Following his service, Brody used the G.I. Bill to attend UMass Amherst and dedicate himself to strengthening his journalism skills. “When I was in the military, I learned how to handle myself in combat and how to function in a bureaucracy,” said Brody. "These are useful skills for a reporter to have, but CHC classes really taught me how to critically assess my sources and observations in a much deeper way.”
UMass alum Charlie Sennott, award-winning correspondent and co-founder of GlobalPost, came to speak to one of Brody’s journalism classes, and the two bonded over their interests in foreign correspondence. While Brody continued his education at UMass, Sennott hired him to photograph in Afghanistan for GlobalPost World News. Concurrently, Sennott spearheaded the GroundTruth Project, an initiative to train emerging foreign correspondents, mitigate the risks they face, and produce outstanding, in-depth reporting in the digital age.
As Brody worked with Sennott on several individual stories for the GroundTruth Project, they noticed that a common thread had emerged in Brody’s reporting, and wanted to pursue the story further. Working with Brody and other members of the GroundTruth Project, Sennott assembled a team of journalists to look at different aspects of the war in Afghanistan and its effects on the population there. “We felt like the combination of all four of our stories crystallized the maddeningly paradoxical situation in Afghanistan,” said Brody.
Foreverstan officially launched on September 11, 2015, as the war in Afghanistan entered its fifteenth year. A sprawling multimedia story, this project represented GroundTruth Project’s first major multimedia production and an exciting development in immersive storytelling. “When you’re reporting in the field, you’re beholden to the immutable rules of journalism ethics, but you don’t have to tell stories in time-worn formats. With Foreverstan we really wanted to push the envelope.”
Foreverstan was a team journalistic effort among Sennott, Brody, Jean MacKenzie, and Beth Murphy. “We didn’t set out to answer every question about Afghanistan—we set out to portray Afghanistan as an important, complex situation and provoke questions about the American role there.” Brody’s section, entitled “The Handover,” discusses the drawn-out process of removing the US military presence in Afghanistan, and the toll of the war on American soldiers as well as the Afghan people. “My own work with military focused on the absurdities and unintended consequences of America’s longest war. Through imagery and writing I argue that our military has very limited power to reshape Afghanistan into a Western-style democracy, and that it is counterproductive to try,” Brody explained of his work.
Currently, Brody attends Hartford Art School where he is pursuing a master's in photography and is working to produce a photobook of his work from Afghanistan. Brody hopes to shift gears and pursue a new direction in his work. “A decade of covering war has been difficult, and I’m starting to move onto another story. Climate changes is an issue I feel deeply motivated to cover, and I’m in the research phase of that work.”
Captions (from top to bottom):
1: Ben Brody.
2: Afghan Lt. Nasrullah Sharif shows off his American-made bomb disposal equipment and some Taliban IED components he has found locally. Nasrullah is one of six US-trained bomb techs in the Afghan military. With the drawdown in full swing, US troops were not patrolling regularly from Combat Outpost Ahmadkhan - they relied heavily on surveillance blimps like the one in the background, and Afghan forces like Nasrullah to protect their base.
3: Soldiers play video games in Bagram Airfield's new recreation center, a hulking concrete and steel structure with a reinforced roof to protect from Taliban rocket attacks. First-person shooter games like Call of Duty are massively popular with US troops at Bagram, many of whom work in office cubicles.
4: A soldier at Kandahar Airfield shops for jewelry on the 10-year-old store's last day of business on the Boardwalk. The Boardwalk was the social center of the base, once featuring a Burger King, TGI Friday’s, Tim Horton’s donuts and other Western shops. As the US dramatically reduces its troop presence here, some shopkeepers say they are going to stay and adapt to their new clientele, Afghan soldiers and civilians. But many stores are closing for good.
All the photos in this story can be found at Ben Brody's website, photobrody.com.