After 15 years in conflict zones, war photographer Andrea Bruce is searching for the meaning of “Our Democracy”
In 2003, Andrea Bruce was on a plane headed to Iraq, almost by accident. She was a last-minute fill-in for another Washington Post photographer who had to drop the assignment because of a family emergency.
Her life would never be the same.
“I just never really came back,” she said.
She spent the next 15 years mostly outside the U.S. covering conflicts and the heart-breaking aftermath of war. She saw far too many friends, colleagues and strangers die.
Life in a combat zone
For those years, she called Iraq, Afghanistan, Israel and Mexico City home. Along the way, she became an award-winning conflict photographer for the Post and later as a freelancer.
Her images have won awards from World Press Photo and Pictures of the Year International; the White House News Photographers Association named her photographer of the year four times.
She also won the inaugural Chris Hondros Fund Award in 2012 and the Anja Niedringhaus Courage in Photojournalism Award in 2018. Both awards are named in honor of photojournalists killed in conflict zones — both were friends of Bruce.
Covering bloody and brutal conflicts took its toll.
She still has nightmares and jumps at loud noises. But she credits her network of friends and family and her ability to release her emotions for helping manage the trauma.
“I have empathy on a weird level — whenever I see people cry, I cry,” Bruce said. “I think it has helped me get a lot of stuff out as I go, instead of bottling it up.”
Community Journalism was first love
It’s not the life Bruce imagined when she fell in love with photography as a senior at the University of North Carolina. As a young photojournalist, she wanted nothing more than to tell the stories of everyday life in the towns she worked: Concord, New Hampshire, Clearwater, Florida, Washington, D.C.
“I had no intention of being a war photographer or even traveling that much,” Bruce said. “I loved community journalism.”
What she found, however, was that people need that kind of journalism in Iraq and Afghanistan, too. Families in war-torn countries are trying to lead their lives the best they can, she said.
Back to her roots
Now, her life and career have come full circle.
She is back in the U.S., living in North Carolina and undertaking the ultimate in community journalism projects — traveling to small towns across the country in search of democracy, or rather, what “democracy” means to the people living in these often overlooked pockets. [The Our Democracy Project]
In a way, she is rediscovering the country she spent so many years away from.
The first part of the project was supported by a Catchlight Fellowship Grant. Now, National Geographic has stepped in as a partner and will publish the multi-media project later this year.
Bruce and her team spend a few weeks in each community, giving presentations, talking to schools, organizations and businesses. They do a lot of listening.
In those small, often rural, towns, it’s impossible to avoid talking about the current political turmoil in the U.S.
“The idea that people are totally left or totally right is wrong,” Bruce said. “That’s not how they see their daily lives.
“Whether you’re in Iraq or in western Virginia, not everyone fits a stereotype — people are way more complex.”
Some of the areas Bruce has visited are ones that had extremely low voter participation. It would be easy to judge them, contrasting the decision of Americans to sit out elections to people in other countries who literally risk their lives in order to cast ballots.
But Bruce cautions the issue is much more nuanced.
Many of the people in these communities feel that government doesn’t work for them, or that their voice doesn’t count — or they’re too busy spinning their wheels “trying to exist,” she said.
“There’s a basic frustration, of course, that ‘oh well, the people in the United States just take this for granted,’ ” Bruce said. “It is a little more complicated.”
Nearly 200 years ago, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville traveled the U.S. for his famous treatise, Democracy in America. De Tocqueville wrote that the American system was worth celebrating for the opportunities it created.
“The greatest thing that he did was he talked about how democracy works locally,” Bruce said. “My question is are those still successes? Are those still ideas that the United States can promote? Do those things still exist?”