Review by Wayne Swanson •
Ben Brody understands the chaos, absurdity, and surrealism of war. He was a combat photographer covering the United States’ involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, which resulted in his acclaimed photobook Attention Servicemember (reviewed here). His new book is an epilogue to that one, and a fitting way to sum up United States’ ill begotten military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
300m is a very different book from its predecessor in form and presentation. While Attention Servicemember featured straightforward imagery and exposition, 300m is more impressionistic. This time his tool is a toy camera that shoots 360-degree panoramic images, and the book uses a leporello (accordion-fold) layout to show off the super-wide images.
Brody says he occasionally brought the toy camera with him in Afghanistan as an “icebreaker” with troops, and it’s a fittingly absurd choice for the job. It’s shaped like a grenade, complete with a ring resembling a grenade’s firing pin. The ring pulls a string that spins the lens to make a 360-degree image. “One time, a soldier thought I was detonating a grenade and dove into the dust as the camera spun around above him,” Brody writes.
He had no particular use in mind for the images, until the abrupt and ignominious withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan in 2021. By then, Brody was back home in Massachusetts, but his longtime Afghan friend and interpreter was part of the mass of humanity struggling to escape to the Kabul airport. Brody and a group of veterans in the U.S. communicated with him via WhatsApp chats and helped him and his family make their way through the desperate crowd and the gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints. That experience provides the context for 300m.
300 meters (nearly 1000 feet) is the final distance those seeking to flee needed to travel in order to reach safety at the airport. The book begins with the text of the harrowing WhatsApp exchanges between Brody and his Afghan collaborator during their successful attempt to traverse those 300 meters. The exchanges and Brody’s short introduction to the book are printed inside the dust jacket that encircles the book. A black rubber strap secures it to the stiff-cover leporello inside, which features 4 images covering 32 panels on each side. Each shot by the toy camera exposes 7 inches of 35 mm film. In the book, individual images stretch up to 54 inches wide. When all the pages are unfolded, the book reaches nearly 16 feet.
What we see is disjointed scenes of life in a war zone. Soldiers patrolling poppy fields during an opium harvest . . . soldiers on patrol and in camp . . . concertina wire surrounding an Afghan military checkpoint wire . . . . The accordion design allows multiple viewings. Readers can page through the panels like a normal book or unfold them to create their own compositions.
The inherent imperfection of toy camera images— distortion from its plastic lens, light leaks, the jerky motion of the spinning lens, along with grainy film and admittedly sloppy developing — magnify the gritty feeling of being on the ground there. The 360-degree view contributes a sense of disorientation by capturing everything in its path. Depending on how the camera is aimed, it skews the perspective and even turns people at the edges upside down. It’s a perfect tool for capturing the chaos of war.
What does it all mean? There are no answers here, just random impressions of the distorted, fragmented, and confusing reality of life in a war zone. In other words, it’s a perfect epitaph for the futility of America’s misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Read our review of Ben Brody’s Attention Servicemember featured on PhotoBook Journal here.
Wayne Swanson is a Contributing Editor and a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer.
300m, Ben Brody
Photographer: Ben Brody, born Boston, Massachusetts, resides Easthampton, Massachusetts, USA
Publisher: Mass Books (Easthampton, Massachusetts, USA, copyright 2022)
Essay: Ben Brody
Stiffcover book with dust jacket, leporello bound, 6 x7 inches, printed by NPN Drukkers in Netherlands, ISBN 9780997216349
Photobook designer: Kummer & Herrman
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