‘This is what the war did to me’: Southampton photographer chronicles life in combat 

  • Photographer Ben Brody of Southampton talks in his Easthampton studio about the making of his book, “Attention Servicemember,” which includes this photograph of a Chinook helicopter delivering supplies to a post in Afghanistan. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Photographer Ben Brody of Southampton posts a dozen photographs on the wall of his studio in Easthampton recently. Brody used the board to help him edit down to his selection of 160 photographs from thousands of images. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Photographer Ben Brody of Southampton talks about one of the images in his book, “Attention Servicemember,” published through Red Hook Editions, during an interview at his Easthampton studio on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Photographer Ben Brody of Southampton posts a dozen photographs, on the wall of his studio in Easthampton on Friday, Jan. 31, 2020. Brody used the magnetic board to help him edit down to his selection of 160 photographs used in his book, “Attention Servicemember” from thousands of images. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Southampton photographer Ben Brody’s book, “Attention Servicemember.” Brody used five different paper stocks in the making of his self-published book, including for the cover which resembles a packaged MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • The back cover of photographer Ben Brody’s book, “Attention Servicemember.” Brody used five different paper stocks in the making of his self-published book, including for the cover which resembles a packaged MRE, or Meal Ready to Eat. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • An uncaptioned photograph by Ben Brody in his recently published book, “Attention Servicemember.” COURTESY OF BEN BRODY

  • An uncaptioned photograph by Ben Brody in his recently published book, “Attention Servicemember.” COURTESY OF BEN BRODY

  • An uncaptioned photograph by Ben Brody which appears in his book “Attention Servicemember.” COURTESY BEN BRODY

Staff Writer
Published: 2/7/2020 3:33:06 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A body covered in cloth as flies swarm above. A brass band playing in Iraq. A soldier sitting across from an Afghan child. Another soldier with a foot blown off. These are some of the images included in a new book by Southampton resident Ben Brody.

Since 2005, Brody has known war, first as a U.S. Army photographer in Iraq and then as a photojournalist in Afghanistan after he left the military. This fall, Brody, 40, who has called Southampton home for more than a decade, published his first photography book, “Attention Servicemember,” in which he tries to make sense of what he went through.

“It sometimes felt like all those years at war were like a dream,” he said, standing in his studio in the basement of the Eastworks building. “I didn’t know if it had really happened.”

Last month, the photographer’s work was spotlighted in The New Yorker, which observed: “On one level, Brody’s book feels like an explicit rebuke of the military that exploited and weaponized his talent. But it can also be seen as an act of personal and artistic redemption.” The book sold out its print run of 1,500 copies and was shortlisted for the First PhotoBook Award given out by the Aperture Foundation and Paris Photo.

But these aren’t the accomplishments Brody pointed to when asked about the book’s success.

“People who lived the war are reaching out to me and telling me that the book feels legit,” said Brody, who currently teaches and works for Report for America and The GroundTruth Project. “The response from people who lived the war or people whose loved ones lived the war has been extremely redemptive.”

While the book is primarily concerned with the two wars Brody has seen, he says Southampton is another major influence on him and his work. “Living in Southampton is a really important part of this book and a part of my transition back to the world,” Brody said. “It’s a really important community to me.”

Ben is married to Becca Brody, a librarian and fiber artist.

“She’s been my best friend since I was 15,” he said. The two met in boarding school in New York state, later becoming pen pals.

Becca was in the Peace Corps in China when Brody was deployed to Iraq. They corresponded during that time, she said, finding commonalities in the culture shock they both experienced.

When their friendship took a romantic turn, “It was kind of a surprise to both of us,” Becca said. They married in 2012, a few years after putting down roots on Wolf Hill in Southampton.

In December, Brody donated a copy of “Attention Servicemember,” which is self-published, to the Edwards Public Library in Southampton because he wants it to be widely available to people who live in the Valley. He said he intends to donate copies to the public libraries in Easthampton and Northampton as well.  

The photos in the book have no captions. “It’s not meant to try to explain the war to you,” he said. “It’s trying to show you what it feels like.”

‘The world looked different’

The book also shows how Brody, who grew up on the North Shore, chose this path. The son of a lawyer and a health care administrator, he recalled the “insane nationalistic fervor” that swept the nation in the run-up to the war in Iraq, “a pivotal moment for my generation,” he recalled thinking. 

He said he wanted to witness the conflict but didn’t know how to go about it as a civilian. “I didn’t have money for a plane ticket, so I joined the Army as a combat photographer,” he said.

In an Army career that stretched from 2003 to 2008, Brody served two deployments in Iraq. After leaving the military, he enrolled at the University of Massachusetts Amherst in 2009, and in 2010 got the school to agree to let him photograph the war in Afghanistan as a photojournalist while he completed his undergraduate coursework from abroad. He last took photos in Afghanistan in 2016; from 2015 to 2017, Brody went to Hartford Art School, where he received his MFA.

Although Brody acknowledges Iraq and Afghanistan as distinct conflicts, he said that, for him, the two wars merge into one. (He often refers to “the war” when speaking of both conflicts.)

Southampton, on the other hand, is a world apart. Photos of his hometown bookend “Attention Servicemember.” These pictures appear in black and white and are printed on a different stock than the full-color photographs of the war that make up the majority of the book.

Brody said that after he returned from photographing the wars overseas, “I came home to Southampton, and the world looked different.”

“When I had made that body of work,” he said of photographing Southampton, “I felt like I really had something to say about the war.”

While some of the photos in the book show horrific scenes of war, many of them give glimpses of mundane life: soldiers sitting down at meals, sleeping and even dancing. One of the only photos not shot overseas in the main body of the book shows Brody’s girlfriend at the time — her back to the camera — partially wearing his uniform as light floods in from a nearby window.

Brody has no memories of taking a number of the wartime photographs, including one of a wrecked kitchen in an Iraqi home.

“I don’t know if a solider did that or if this was sectarian violence that we were responding to,” he said.

Woven throughout “Attention Servicemember” are Brody’s accounts of life before, during and after the wars.

“I’m not this neutral observer,” he said. “This is me saying, ‘This is what the war did to me.’”

Consequences of combat

Brody’s main point of reference for creating the book was “Slaughterhouse-Five,” which he said he reread multiple times while working on “Attention Servicemember.”

Written by World War II veteran Kurt Vonnegut, “Slaughterhouse-Five” centers on the firebombing of Dresden, Germany, which the author lived through as a prisoner of war. In the 1969 novel, protagonist Billy Pilgrim becomes unstuck in time, meaning that he is no longer living in a linear timeline. 

“It’s the literary device that Kurt Vonnegut is using to show the disorientation of war,” Brody said.

“Slaughterhouse-Five” is both a book that deals with the horrors of war and a novel that is full of humor, and Brody said he had “really wanted to make a war book that was funny.”  

For example, he referenced a photo in his book of a soldier about to throw a Beanie Baby into a crowd of people, including children with outstretched hands.

“Throwing Beanie Babies into this crowd in Sadr City,” Brody said. “Mad.” 

Brody pointed to a number of layers in the book, which examines propaganda, the symbiosis between the military and the media, and what the public expects war pictures to look like. But at its heart, it conveys “the corrosiveness of the experience of war,” he said.

The photographer, who was awarded the Bronze Star as a soldier, said that he was wired “pretty well” to deal with combat. He said he “can’t even count” the number of times he was under fire, having served in East Baghdad in 2005 and in the so-called “triangle of death” during the surge.

“It made me feel like this was something I could do for a living,” he said. “That I wasn’t going to just fall apart.”

Still, he said, there are personal consequences of being exposed to combat.

“It doesn’t matter how tough you are — or dumb you are in my case,” he said. “It changes who you are, being wired for fighting.”

As an example, he described what it’s like for him to enter a room.

“Part of my brain is calculating the tactical geometry of the room. I’m thinking about how to fight in it,” he said.

“It’s almost like there’s a second moon. Like this other tidal force that pulls me towards strong places in the room,” Brody continued. “Sweeps me through doorways quickly.”

What he went through changed his relationships with a lot of people, and “this book is actually trying to reconcile some of those relationships,” he said.

He went to Afghanistan after serving in Iraq because he felt there still was a story he needed to tell, he said, and the book is his attempt to explain it.

With “Attention Servicemember,” Brody said, he wants people to reevaluate their own ideas about war. For instance, two competing narratives about veterans are that they are either absolutely unimpeachable heroes or have been driven crazy by war. “I don’t think either of those are useful narratives,” he said.

Brody said he doesn’t regret anything that he did while he was in the military. And though he feels he was complicit in war in a more active way than most people, he sees a direct line between what Americans do on our soil and how it connects to what’s happening around the world.

“I see war at the gas pump. I see war in our drug use and our collective anxieties,” he said. “There are lots of people who consider themselves peaceful, but the decisions they make and the choices they make are directly related to the war.” 

Bera Dunau can be reached at bdunau@gazettenet.com.




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