I first met Kate Brooks when I moderated a panel that she was speaking on at the Sun Valley Film Festival, but I knew her work long before that. Living in New York City on and after September 11th, 2001, left me feeling particularly raw about that moment in history. Like many people who witnessed the devastation first hand, I developed a very narrow view of the tragedies of that day. It was Kate’s work that helped me break out of my myopia. Her photos of Afghanistan and later Iraq (published in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Yorker, among others) widened my lens and helped me to understand the endless layers of collateral damage created by the “War on Terror.”
In photojournalism circles, Brooks is a legend. Not just for her work (though very much for that, too), but also for her deep commitment to illuminating important, agonizing, too-often untold stories. She outlasted scores of colleagues in a harrowing field and is known for a sort of mental toughness that can’t be faked. In person, she exudes a quiet confidence and deliberate thought process that never fails to see the bigger picture.
Brooks’ newest project is a documentary focused on the last two living Northern White Rhinos and the broader problem of elephant and rhino poaching, titled The Last Animals. It’s a departure for her, in that it’s based around animals rather than humans, but her unflinching approach is very much intact. The documentary tells stories of illegal wildlife trafficking, black market trading, and ranger attacks that will leave you disquieted.
After being purchased by National Geographic, The Last Animals, already a festival darling, is sure to find a wider audience. In order to make sure the buzz translates into action, Brooks developed a portal for anyone eager to get involved with the cause. On the eve of its Earth Day premiere, Kate and I spoke about her movie, her career arc, and her abiding commitment to creating change.
So, first of all, tell me how your career began, and about that initial risk you took after September 11th to move to Afghanistan and start telling stories visually.
I was a Russian major in college, but I also discovered photojournalism and knew very, very early on that I wanted to be a photojournalist. My first documentary photography project was documenting child abuse in Russian state orphanages back in 1997-1998.
I then worked as a photographer in Russia for about three years. When 9/11 happened, I was living in Moscow, and was sent from there to Pakistan for what was supposed to be a few days’ assignment. After arriving, at 23, I decided very quickly to relocate so that I could fully devote my attention to covering what was happening in Afghanistan and the geopolitics in the region.