Ben Brody‘s Attention Servicemember was on everyone’s radar when it first appeared in 2019, and quickly sold out. Not being one to be particularly interested in war or fighting or pictures of either, I didn’t jump on it. Thankfully, it was Charcoal Book Club’s photobook of the month for January 2020, and so I ended up with a signed copy of the first, Red Hook Editions edition. Brody has since reissued the book, with some new pictures added, on Mass Books, his imprint with Peter Van Agtmael.
Brody joined the army as a Combat War Photographer in the early 2000s, got out after two tours in Iraq, then went back as an embedded journalist for several years in Afghanistan. This time as an actual soldier give his pictures a more inside feel than, for example, Peter Van Agtmael’s work from some of the same places, and it’s clear throughout that Brody is really one of the guys, that he’s there in it with the soldiers, and this extends into the work he made as an embedded journalist in Afghanistan: he ‘fit in,’ understood the jargon and hierarchies and all in ways that some others could only pose towards.
Pictures from the first several years are in the public domain, as they were made by an employee of the United States Government, and have therefore been used in a variety of contexts; later pictures belong to Brody or whoever hired him. This might not mean much, but given that Attention Servicemember is (or seems to be) loosely chronological, the ownership of various images has an impact on the organization of the book and its design.
The book opens with spooky, sort of spiky, violent, black & white pictures, and closes with somewhat calmer pictures, also in black & white, and with a simmering undercurrent of violence, taken in Massachusetts before Brody went to Iraq and after he came back from Afghanistan. The paper in these sections is of medium weight and has a smooth, eggshell finish. The first section ends with the title page, and then we’re on a commercial airplane with a group of young, smiling soldiers on their way to Iraq.
Brody’s pictures in theater are on a thick, heavy, sort of rough stock, all in color, broken up according to tours and periods, by sections of text, reminiscences and thoughts on a slightly thinner, slightly smoother, but still heavy, light cream or khaki paper, and by high gloss magazine pages featuring, in the first two sections, some of Brody’s pictures as they appeared out in the world (in Vape ads, as memes on message boards, and used for propaganda in Armed Forces magazines), and in the second half, pictures of meals and drawings reminiscent of those found in Army training manuals.
The book itself is designed to look like a field manual, though it’s quite thick and heavy for such, with craft paper covers and a taped spine. All together, it’s effective and moving, as both a pointed, inside commentary on the absurdity and schizophrenia of the recent American wars, and as a sort of photographer’s coming-of-age story. Photographs in the early portion are wide eyed and innocent; in the second tour, by his own admission, Brody was stoned much of the time on the quarter pound of homegrown hydro he smuggled in, and the photographs are, in his words, “vivid, punchy, wide-angle”* as a result, though they’re also much more propagandistic. By the second tour, Brody had largely internalized the unwritten mandates of Armed Forces media machine, and made some spectacular war photographs as a result, cinematic and professional and somehow clean.
The rest of the pictures, in Afghanistan, made as an embedded journalist rather than active duty soldier, show Brody as he struggles to shed the internalized rules, and as he tries to first subvert the “military’s theatrics and public affairs messaging,” and later attempts to photograph these “theatrics” head on, unvarnished.
Each of these sections has a feel, sort of, and there’s something of a shift in the pictures as time goes on and Brody gets better, first as a propagandist, and then as a journalist, but he works throughout—in the editing of the book, if not in the production of the pictures themselves—to show the absurdity of it all, to put us right in the thick of the adrenaline-fueled excitement and mind-numbing boredom and macho or political posturing.
After several days spent embedded in the recent American wars via Brody’s (and, earlier, Van Agtmael’s) photographs, I find myself feeling sorta macho and jacked up, bored and ready to explode, and I really need to get off this train…
If the absurdity of my star ranking system wasn’t yet apparent (and it wasn’t, entirely, to me), well the fact that I’ve ranked Attention Servicemember at 4.5 stars, half a star higher than Disco Night Sept 11, and that I didn’t even bother to rate Sorry for the War at all, well, make of it what you will.
If you want a masterclass in the United States at war over the first 20 years of the 21st century, look no further than Attention Servicemember.** It’s an excellent book, and while I haven’t seen the newer, Mass Books edition with the extra pictures, I suspect it’s just as worthwhile as the first edition.
Brodys website has a good selection of the pictures and all from Attention Servicemember and is worth checking out. He also lists various reviews of the book. I read a few and they were different than mine, more professional, more academic, better written, than anything you’ll find at james.com, but I won’t link to them directly. Apologies.
*Brody, Ben. Attention Servicemember. Red Hook Editions, Brooklyn, 2019. p. 101
**And if you must look deeper, the Van Agtmael books Disco Night Sept 11, Buzzing at the Sill, and Sorry for the War should probably be next on your list… they all sorta fit together in my mind, anyway…. Van Agtmael has a screen grab of Toby Keith’s “American Soldier” video in the Sorry… book; Brody mentions the song in his text, and I wonder if they met each other during embeds or something… Is Van Agmael the “often-reckless colleague” Brody planned to photograph a “dangerous assignment” with near the end of his work? (ibid, 253) I have no knowledge of that, and wouldn’t suggest it: I’m sure Van Agtmael is completely professional… After all, Brody and Van Agtmael set up Mass Books together recently, after also working together at Red Hook Editions.
Anyway. Brody’s book is great, as are the Van Agtmael books. Any will add something to your library.