In 1988, Bruce Haley, then a Central Valley cop and former paratrooper, quit his job and flew to Soviet-occupied Afghanistan.
He was chasing a dream.
Armed with only a camera, he embedded with the mujahideen and shot the pictures that would launch his career: Haley landed a job at a top agency in New York and spent the following years capturing images in war zones; as quickly as 1991, won the Robert Capa Gold Medal, an annual award given for the “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise.”
Haley’s journey has brought him into danger in places like Myanmar and Somalia, and to harsh desolation in remote reaches of Nevada. He has spent years documenting regions – like Nagorno-Karabakh in the former Soviet Union – most people couldn’t find on a map.
His interests are always changing, his work ever-evolving.
“The more I travel, the more I see,” he says, ambling down a beach in Big Sur, where he’s lived for several years, on his 57th birthday, “the less of a clue I have about anything.”
How did you go from commando to cop to photographer?
When I was in the Army, I picked up photography as a hobby, which was in a way kind of strange because I was never interested in it at all up to that point. I had an operation on my knee and I was off for like a month. I basically just went out and bought myself a nice camera; it was all-manual so I had to force myself to learn how to operate a camera inside and out. It sort of grew from there. I became a very passionate hobbyist.
I get that you wanted to be a photographer, but what made you decide to jump on a plane to Afghanistan?
All of my background was military and law enforcement and I had been through some specialized training. I was a paratrooper, SWAT, high-speed stuff. When you wed that to an interest in photography, the compass needle sort of points towards conflict. It seemed like a natural way for me to get into the business.
What made you want to get out of conflict photography?
It wasn’t a matter of getting out of it, there’s never been any official getting out. Obviously, if you push your luck too many times you’re not going to come home. But that wasn’t really it. It was the fact that if you do the same thing over and over, you fall into a rut, even if it’s something as dangerous and fast-paced as conflict photography, in that you’re making similar types of images of fighting or wounded people or refugees. I just needed to do something different.
Some of your writing, “Tao of War Photography,” made quite a splash when you put it on your website. What inspired you to write it?
Before I was a photographer I used to write. It was constant. When I started in photography I was writing lengthy pieces to go with my work.
One of my favorite lines from that is, “True anarchy sucks.” Where have you seen true anarchy, and what does it look like?
Somalia. When I was in Mogadishu before the U.S. and U.N. troops came in, it was block-by-block control. It was whatever group of three, four or five khat-chewing teenagers toting AK-47s and RPG’s happen to be standing on the corner. Literally, I couldn’t move anywhere without a heavily armed gun jeep with a .50 cal, and surrounded by armed guards.
How did you transition from the work in Sunder (images from the former Soviet Union) to timber and mining operations in the West?
There’s fascinating stuff here, and I had spent so much time out of the country. The West is very much alive in my psyche. I’m a child of manifest destiny.
What photographers inspire you?
The geologic work I did out in Nevada owes a heavy debt to Timothy O’Sullivan. He’s something of a modernist, in that his work was just raw and stripped to the bone. There’s no artifice. As the West was being depicted, mostly in paintings, it was huge vistas and this dramatic lighting and vivid colors. And then along comes O’Sullivan and he’s doing severe desert rocky canyon pictures, and they just reach up and say: “This place can fucking kill you.” There’s no romanticizing.
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