Camera Amid Chaos

Sunday, Oct. 2, 2005

Reprinted with permission of the Anchorage Daily News

Anchorage Daily News Staff

Just as Heidi Bradner has made painful portraits of Chechen parents whose sons have been “disappeared,” she has photographed Russian mothers searching battlegrounds for their missing boys. Just as she has shown the agony of a Chechen man burned in an explosion, she has captured the vacant stare of a wounded Russian soldier after an ambush in which many of his comrades were killed.

Those who have seen her photographs of Chechnya are struck by her ability to show compassion for both sides in this drawn-out war.

Bradner, 41, now living in London, is a graduate of Service High School and the University of Alaska Anchorage. Her photographs have been published in newspapers and magazines all over the world.

She talked about her work in Chechnya last week via e-mail and by phone from a hotel room in Amsterdam, where she met with a book publisher interested in the project. There’s a chance to see some of these photographs in the current issue of Alaska Quarterly Review, which features a 10-year retrospective documenting what Bradner calls “a violent struggle going nowhere.”

Ron Spatz, founding editor of AQR, a critically acclaimed literary journal published at the University of Alaska Anchorage, wasn’t looking for sanitized photos when he approached Bradner about publishing her work. She didn’t give him any. Even when photographing bodies, she does so with “extraordinary dignity,” he said.

“I was physically affected by looking through her portfolio. Powerfully moved. There are a number of images in the children’s section that are very difficult to look at.

“She draws you into them. You can’t slip away.”


Bradner’s photographs are presented in three sections, beginning with “The Lost Boys: Portraits of Russian Soldiers in Chechnya,” which stares into the eyes of teenagers drafted into the Russian Army who seem poorly equipped, even awkward with their guns, as they shiver against the cold.

“People Live Here” takes you into the devastated lives of the Chechens as they mourn their dead, sift through the rubble of their homes and flee for their lives over a mountain pass.

“The Children” documents a generation that has never known any way other than war, kids whose parents walk out the door never to be seen again, kids with limbs lost to rocket attacks and booby traps.

Of the 72 black-and-white images included in AQR, one of the most haunting is of a handsome young Russian soldier, dead and abandoned in the streets of Grozny, who struck Bradner as more a farm boy than a warrior.

“I could not stop looking at him. … He was just like the sons and children of families I had stayed with across Russia the last couple years. By the time I made this photograph, he had laid dead on the streets for more than a day or two. … He is looking upwards … and seemed like an angel or some truly innocent kid whose life should not have ended on the streets of Grozny with his chest half-eaten by dogs.”

Bradner has captured these images from both sides, giving depth to the experience of this war, Spatz said.

“That context is extremely important. You can see they’re all suffering. At a certain point you’d hope the world could learn something.”

This body of work has earned Bradner several international awards, including the Leica Medal of Excellence and a grant from the Alexia Foundation for World Peace. It was also chosen for exhibition this year at the prestigious Visa pour l’Image photojournalism festival in southern France.

Jean-Francois Leroy, the festival’s founder, calls Bradner “one of the greatest photojournalists in the world.

“The way she makes us share the misery of the Chechen people is absolutely unique,” he said via e-mail from Paris. “There are some pictures extremely graphic, violent. … The picture of this civilian woman, face to earth and the blood in the snow around her head. The small, skinny cat with the dead woman. The burned soldier.

“So true, so disturbing, so necessary.”


“Courageous” comes up a lot when Bradner’s colleagues speak of her. Sebastian Smith, a Moscow-based reporter for Agence France-Presse and author of “Allah’s Mountains: The Battle for Chechnya,” thinks of her that way, explaining why via e-mail.

“You really just have to look at the photos and think where they were taken — in what most agree has been the most violent small war anywhere in decades and in a place where dozens of journalists have died doing their work.

“She has always been one of the only, if not the only, woman photographer in the generally male environment of war correspondents in Chechnya. … She is not a journalist who just parachutes in, gets what’s needed for a quick fix, then out. She’s really gotten to know the people there — a good thing professionally because she can literally trace the facts and the history of events through a whole range of personal relationships. That’s an approach that leads to quality, not sensational, journalism.”

In pursuit of other stories, Bradner has been caught sneaking onto a plane headed to Afghanistan after being refused a ticket. She has crept into a building under siege, been caught in angry mobs, dodged gunfire, witnessed people being shot.

In Chechnya, she has been arrested several times by both sides. And as the region has slid increasingly into lawlessness, she has had to hire bodyguards for protection against kidnappers and bandits.

But she has had surprisingly few of what she considers close calls in Chechnya. She described one:

“As I was leaving Grozny with a colleague, we drove past a few people standing on a street corner. Just a minute later there was an artillery attack, and we bolted out of the car to safety. We turned around to head out of town and came upon the scene. The attack had been exactly where they were standing. Now all these people were dead.

“Two men in the background had their legs blown off but were still talking and conscious. In fact, one of them motioned to me for a cigarette, which I had, as I always have some to help get past checkpoints.”

When pressed, Bradner attributes her bold spirit to her parents, both of whom arrived in Alaska before statehood. Born in Fairbanks, she’s the daughter of Janet Kruse Bradner, a core member of the Fairbanks theater scene, and Mike Bradner of Anchorage, a former speaker of the Alaska House of Representatives and publisher of the Alaska Legislative Digest and the Alaska Economic Report.

Bradner took her first photography class in high school from Nelson Gingerich at what is now the King Career Center in Anchorage, using an old Nikkormat her father used when he worked as a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in the 1960s. At the time, she was into shooting ice and trees.

She spent two years as a summer intern for the Juneau Empire, taking pictures of parades, salmon derbies, cruise-ship passengers and orphaned bear cubs.

At the time, the Empire tended to go for interns from more prestigious journalism schools Outside, Bradner said. But Empire photographer Brian Wallace was adamant she be given a chance.

Another mentor at the paper was Mark Kelley, who encouraged her to apply for an Eddie Adams Workshop in New York, a program she hadn’t even heard of.

Adams, who died last year, photographed 13 wars, including Vietnam. He won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for the iconic photograph of a South Vietnamese general executing a Viet Cong prisoner on the streets of Saigon after the man had just murdered eight people. Bradner was accepted to the workshop, which got her thinking of working overseas.

With the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, she made the leap, moving first to Prague in 1990, then to Moscow to document the demise of the Soviet Union.

Those early days weren’t always what she had in mind.

“I remember standing night shift outside the East German embassy, waiting for a glimpse of Eric Honecker coming out in a moving car or whatever. Horrible. And $30 a picture. That felt like paparazzi work and not photography.”

She hooked up with group of young freelancers, dubbed “The Mercenaries,” who were covering Eastern Europe and forever battling editors and news agencies for decent pay and copyright protection.

On the Mercenary Photos Web site, Alan Pierre Hovasse, Agence France Presse photo chef in Moscow at the time, tells a story from 1991, when civil war broke out in the former Soviet republic of Georgia and all the photographers were sending in picture after picture of “guys with guns.”

“All fine, but you can only run so many of these, and I was getting, well, many. But Heidi sent me a wonderful photograph of an old woman in a Georgian costume standing on a balcony, weeping, and the photo played and played all over the world.”

Bradner, who taught herself Russian, had covered several conflicts in the former Soviet Union when the Kremlin turned its sights on Chechnya, a mostly Muslim republic about the size of Connecticut making a bid for independence. On New Year’s Eve in 1994, the Russian Army invaded the capital city of Grozny.

Grozny was once a modern city of about a half-million people, with universities, oil refineries, tree-lined avenues, orchards and gardens, Bradner said. It has been reduced to shrapnel- and bullet-ridden rubble comparable to the World War II destruction of Warsaw and Dresden.

Bradner arrived a day after the invasion and stayed among survivors in the cold and dark. What she witnessed became a turning point of her life and work.

This is a story she has covered since the beginning and has stuck with long after most journalists moved on to other tragedies, other wars, other headlines. She has returned again and again over the past 10 years.

“I found myself ignoring what people told me was or was not important …,” she said. “I stopped caring if I got into this week’s magazine or next week’s. It felt like one of the most important things I could be doing, instead of running from this war to that war.

“I think photography is one of those fields where it takes a long time to find your voice or your way of seeing.”

Natalie Nougayrede, former Moscow bureau chief for the French daily Le Monde, has known Bradner since her Prague days.

“Heidi is one of the very rare journalists to not give in to Russian government censorship of this war,” she said via e-mail. “She does not accept the restriction rules put on journalists and travels to Chechnya in a clandestine manner. She knows that the silence and media blackout on Chechnya are only leading to more and more killing.

“Her work is about relating to people, anywhere, even in some kind of hell like Chechnya. It’s about showing what these people are going through when everyone else is looking elsewhere.”

As the war has dragged on, the story of Chechnya has become even more important to Bradner but no easier to stomach, particularly since the second Russian invasion in 1999, when Chechnya “sank into a black hole — inaccessible to the media, closed to international organization, where human-rights abuses went unseen, unpunished and unknown to the outside world,” Bradner wrote in commentary accompanying her photographs in Alaska Quarterly Review.

“At the outbreak of war, everybody trusted each other and helped each other. They were unified. Now there has been so many years of society breaking down, lack of jobs, education, betrayals, torture and arrests and disappearances and dirty politics and economics that … people are unable to trust each other.

“The horror of Chechnya’s second war produced extremism that was not part of the Chechen resistance 10 years ago when I first went there,” she said. “Mass hostage taking in Beslan’s school and in a Moscow theater and the simultaneous downing of two passenger planes by women suicide bombers are examples of this new expansion of the war.”

Still, she goes.

“What sustains her is this search for the truth,” Spatz said. “She will risk her life to bring back whatever she can of that truth. That’s what keeps her going.”

Daily News reporter Debra McKinney can be reached at