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Art From War 

Mark Brecke photographs the worst of the world's conflicts in his own way, and for his own reasons

Wednesday, Mar 10 2004
"You should know that man," says Cory McAbee over the din of Café Du Nord's main bar. "He has balls of steel. Balls of steel, I tell you."

There is nothing about the man-with-the-questionable-cullions to set him apart from the crowd, except that he is slightly apart, leaning against a wall, quietly sipping his beer, seemingly alone in a room droning with humanity. Mark Brecke might lean against that wall all night long, with his tweed cap pulled down over his longish ginger hair and his large coat all but engulfing his small frame, and one might never notice him. In Brecke's life, this is a quality worth cultivating.

Mark Brecke's business card, a standard, block-lettered, black-on-white affair, reads: "War Photography and Weddings."

This is Brecke's one-man production company and a sample of his understated, slightly twisted sense of humor. Brecke doesn't really do weddings. When he needs money, he works as a chef.

"I do what most people do. I work for a few months, I save up, and I go."

Brecke says this as if he were some crunchy planet-trekker off to see the wide blue world, but Brecke's hot spots are not Bali, Thailand, or the Czech Republic; they are places such as Rwanda, Kosovo, East Timor, and the West Bank, and, unlike most Westerners who enter these regions with camera equipment, Brecke does not travel under the auspices of some global network like CNN. Brecke moves into the center of world conflicts under no one's gumption but his own. He may indeed have balls of steel.

"I was embedded once [in Iraq]," says Brecke the first time I meet with him. "Never again. You can't get close to anyone like that. It's better to travel light and travel alone."

During the last nine years, Brecke has moved through more than 40 countries as a documenter, bearing witness to some of the greatest human travesties of our lifetime. His eye is uncanny -- a group of men wandering through the charred remains of their family home; the arms and clenched jaws of young soldiers already hardened by years of conflict; children playing in a street too desolate to be okay; a single shoe in a country where people have only two; a burka fluttering against a tank; a mother and infant caught in natural light -- and his photographs are human rather than sensational, as if he had turned his lens away during the shocking height of grief, turning it back again to capture the daily reality of horror. The Associated Press has noticed, offering good money for single photographs -- in particular, a lone Albanian boy burning a Serbian police uniform in the middle of an empty street -- but Brecke has said no.

"I don't approach these people and places as current events," says Brecke. "That's not why I do this."

It's difficult to extract Brecke's true reasons for gazing into the ugliest face of humankind. It may be that even he doesn't know them. Over the years, he has worked on some fascinating, thoughtful projects, strictly noncommercial, nongovernment operations -- a book called Letters to America, which sent him around the world to photograph the authors of a handful of letters chosen from thousands; a documentary by Mexican director Carlos Bolado called The Imaginary Line, which captures the passion of artists living along the border between Mexico and the U.S.; an article that looked at the conflict between Palestine and Israel through the eyes of artists working on both sides -- but the "why" of his war photography" is more difficult to determine. He speaks about Humanity's Obituary, a book he is working on that will chronicle the major genocides of the last half of the 20th century. The hope, he says, is that if people see the result, the act won't be repeated, but even Brecke is unconvinced of this.

"Vietnam was the most televised war the world has ever seen, or will see," says Brecke, sitting at a small desk in one of two modest rooms he keeps in a live/work warehouse he has shared in SOMA for more than a decade. "And what Pol Pot did in four years, the Hutu extremists did in 100 days in Rwanda. It doesn't stop."

While Brecke counts postwar Iraq as the most dangerous country he's ever worked in, he counts Rwanda as the most horrible. And he has the proof of pictures -- pictures that, despite their subject matter, are artful, even beautiful. Still, he is reluctant to share the material: photographs taken in huts where hundreds of people were slaughtered by gunfire, hand grenade, and then, ultimately, by hacking; landscapes of decomposed bodies, still lying where they fell; altars being built out of unnamed human skulls.

"I never show the gruesome stuff [in exhibits]," says Brecke. "Ever. I try to capture it in other ways."

He moves me to another pile, where children in a refugee camp, tired and bored, have drawn, in exquisite detail, the planes that fly overhead, and the face of the man who leads them.

"Children love bubbles," says Brecke. "I used to travel with balloons, but they can be a problem. If you blow up one you have to blow up a hundred. No one can own a bubble, though. I always take a couple bottles of bubbles."

In the early days, Brecke also traveled with a bundle of Xeroxed $20 bills for bribes if things started to go badly. Now that our currency has changed, he depends on other tricks: a small picture of a pinup girl pasted next to his passport picture to help break the ice at remote checkpoints manned by drunk, bored, trigger-happy young soldiers who haven't been paid for three weeks; a harmonica that relieves boredom and creates interest in countries where no one has ever seen such an instrument; a Polaroid camera, because people worldwide always love photos of themselves; maxi pads, which soak up great quantities of blood and have the benefit of a sticky side (Brecke put this device to the test in Congo, where he was caught in a grenade attack); a small bundle of colored cloth blessed by the Dali Lama; a tin box decorated by a friend's daughter.

In speaking of the rudiments of survival, the nervous, furtive quality that makes Brecke seem like a raw nerve ending during most conversations completely evaporates, and it strikes me that in Brecke's life, the how is actually easier than the why.

"I travel light," says Brecke pulling out the frayed motorcycle bag that has been his companion through the thick of it. "One bag. Not even a change of clothes. Just my cameras and film, contact info, maps."

Brecke shows me his equipment: small, simple, inexpensive cameras, with orange safety tape stuck on every corner, spelling "TV" in bright letters.

"The problem with 9mm cameras is that, at a distance, they look like Uzis."

This statement is notable, not because I can see similarities between the small movie camera and the favored machine gun of guerrilla warfare, but because Brecke has chosen the bastion of art students and would-be filmmakers to capture the truth of Bosnia. It takes a screening of War as a Second Language -- Brecke's first movie, which combines footage he shot in Cambodia and Vietnam during 1995 with audio recorded during the Vietnam war -- to see why: Warm and intimate, 9 mm film confers Brecke's work with the quality of home movies, making the subjects all that much more difficult to dismiss.

"The other cameramen think I'm really poor or really eccentric," says Brecke with a chuckle. "Either way, they buy me drinks."

Of course, it takes more than a few drinks to stabilize the nerves after having a gun held to the back of your head or mopping up after a grenade attack.

"The day after [the Congo grenade attack], I paid a guide to take me into the mountains to photograph the silverbacks [gorillas]," says Brecke, pulling out a stack of nature photographs that have the quality of character studies. "I'd had enough of people for a while."

"The people, though," says Brecke, getting very quiet and still, "the people I have met in these places are incredible. So generous and warm. Beautiful. And profound. It's as if, in the face of it, stripped of everything else, they find the center, something spiritual -- that thing that is most human. I never take it for granted, though, that I can always return here."

But I wonder. What of the times Brecke has hit the dirt while wandering through South Park on his way to get a cup of coffee, just because a car backfired? What of the culture shock and social disconnect he must feel being shot at one day and standing in a crowded nightclub, sipping microbrew, the next?

"It's getting hard to come back," admits Brecke quietly. The sentence hangs there, a whispered thing, and I know he's talking about more than the return of his corporeal body.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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