A Big Sur photographer releases an acclaimed new book full of gripping decay.
Thursday, March 24, 2011
If Bruce Haley’s been there, chances are you haven’t. In his 23 years as a professional photographer, the Big Sur resident has sought out the hinterlands of the globe, traversing such regions as the rebel-held territory in Burma, a starving Somalia, and the industrial wastelands of post-communist nations.
Self-taught in his mid-20s on a manual camera (and with the help of two books, The Joy of Photography and More Joy of Photography), Haley navigated a career arc that’s the stuff of legend: He went from commando to cop to renowned war photographer in less than a decade, winning the prestigious Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1991 for his work in Burma.
His exploits began in 1988 when, after five years of growing disenchantment with police work, he cashed out his retirement fund and hopped on a plane to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, where he proceeded to “wander through the mountains with the mujahedeen.” Pictures from that trip, and a few others to northern Ireland, built a portfolio that landed him a job at the esteemed Black Star agency in New York.
Haley entered the profession to go after the stories that others weren’t telling, which is how he came to Burma, home to the longest-running civil war on the planet and a place that would profoundly impact his life.
It was where Haley had his “Indiana Jones trip,” a drama that unfolded as he trekked from the Thai border to the Andaman Sea with soldiers from the Mon National Liberation Army. He was swept up in a monsoon-swollen river, passed through villages that had never seen a westerner, and after being snitched out by a local (“I’m like a wanted man in Burma,” he says) he was pinned between government troops to the north and south. From there, Haley (whose toe had been badly injured by a booby trap) and the rebels “did a cat-and-mouse thing all the way back to the Thai border.”
His reporting from that country – in particular, one set of photos that depicted a rebel executing a government soldier – also landed him in controversy. When the pictures ran in The Sunday Times in 1992, they sparked an outcry among some, and his role and responsibility in the scene were widely debated. One commentator suggested that he “should lose his credentials as a human being.”
“It’s the kill-the-messenger syndrome,” Haley says. “People don’t want to see something, the photographer gets the blame.” The few pictures weren’t representative of his Burma work, he adds, “but if it bleeds, it leads.”
In the early ’90s, Haley volleyed from one war zone to another, earning a Pulitzer nomination for his work in helping break the story of the deepening crisis in Somalia. But worried his images might start to be repetitive, he gave up conflict photography, left Black Star, and embarked on what he calls “a sea change.”
From 1994 to 2002, Haley ventured through the Iron Curtain and explored the margins of post-communist nations. He started out taking pictures more of people than of places, but over time, he transitioned to New Topographics (man-altered landscapes) and found his focus on scenes of industrial decay. “When you see these places,” Haley says, “it’s like walking into a post-apocalyptic film set. For a photographer, it’s the ultimate playground.”
It is pictures from this project that comprise his newly released book, Sunder, a hauntingly beautiful sequence of 55 black-and-white photos that are at once foreign and familiar, presented without captions, leaving the mind free to build its own narrative.
One image, a defaced sculpture set amid a ruinous landscape, grabs the viewer. “It reminds me of that Shelley poem, ‘Ozymandias,’” Haley says. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Dina and Clint Eastwood penned the foreword for Sunder, and the images are prefaced by a wonderful essay from Romanian poet Andrei Codrescu. His writing is equally potent: Tao of War Photography, a collection written by Haley about 10 years back, went viral since he put it online two years ago.
Since 2002, Haley has worked in-country in the New Topographics vein, exploring timber operations in the Pacific Northwest and mining in Nevada. Those projects are completed, and he doesn’t yet know what’s next, but the itch to go abroad is coming back.
“It’s time for another sea change,” Haley says.
Wherever it is he ends up, we can look forward to the view.
Sunder by Bruce Haley (Daylight, Charta) is available at online book outlets for $49.95. For more images, visit www.brucehaleypictures.com