He was born into a coal miner’s family in Kilsyth, W.Va. For generations, every male in his family had become coal miners, but a chance encounter when he was 12 years old ultimately resulted in a different career.
“In seventh grade, they told us if we kept good grades, that when we got to eighth grade we would have the option to learn photography as part of our science class,” says Brown, who became captivated by cameras in his early youth. “So I went to the [teacher] and said ‘I don’t want to wait, I want to do it now.’”
With Brown’s continuous prodding, his teacher relented and challenged Brown to give up his lunch breaks to pursue photography. Brown showed every day, learning first to develop film and then to print. “As soon as I saw that image come up… I was hooked.”
After intensively studying photography in college, Brown wound up in advertising and marketing. He quickly grew disillusioned and reached an “existential crisis” with photography around age 23, while also going through a divorce. Around this same time, Brown met a Lakota Medicine Man who would eventually adopt him as a grandson and bring Brown to a pivotal choice.
“I walked away from everything and just moved out onto the reservation in South Dakota.”
For three years Brown lived in relative isolation from the rest of the world, teaching in the tribal school and taking pictures of the beautiful mesa countryside. One day a woman from the tribal college asked if he would create a photo documentary of the issues bearing down on Lakota teenagers — pregnancy, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide — and detailing how traditional tribal culture could help.
“It was a big success, people really loved it,” Brown says. “Kids would come to me and say ‘You changed my life.’ And I thought, wow, here’s something I can do with photography that actually does some good and is truthful, and I can live with the results.”
“I realized I could do something with photography besides just make money. I could make a difference.”
In the mid ‘90s, Brown returned home to West Virginia to help his ailing mother. He took a part time job as a photographer with a local paper, and soon started to hear talk of mountaintop removal coal mining and a group of people campaigning to stop it. He asked his co-workers about it, but heard nothing.
“But it didn’t make sense to me, because nobody could really tell me what MTR was,” he says.
Then a press release about an anti-mountaintop removal rally in the nearby town of Blair found him. Brown’s editor was not interested in the story and refused to let him leave to cover the rally. Brown requested the day off.
Brown was so moved by the event’s speakers — including retired miner Jimmy Weekley — that when organizers called for the public to speak, he jumped to the mic. “I was mortified of speaking publicly. But For some reason, the injustice of [mountaintop removal] overwhelmed me to no end.”
Rally organizers, impressed with his passion, recruited him to present the issue and he soon recognized a need for impactful images conveying the scope of devastation. Brown connected with the newly-formed SouthWings organization to produce some of the first aerial photographs of mountaintop removal mine sites.
“My first thought was “Oh my God, these things are huge,” says Brown of his first overflight.
Brown worked to document the families affected by mountaintop removal, making international waves with his images. He was invited to testify in front of Amnesty International about the issue. “I told them, “We in the coalfields of Appalachia are suffering from a genocide,’” he says.
Shortly after, Brown started his travels around the world documenting humanitarian issues in exotic and turbulent places like Rwanda, Indonesia, northern Iraq, Laos and, most recently, Haiti.
“I don’t use the word genocide lightly. I’ve been to Rwanda five times, I’ve slept on the streets with kids who were orphaned by genocide. I know what genocide looks like,” Brown says. “The death of my people doesn’t come quickly and at the end of a gun,” he adds, “It comes slowly and from the simple act of drawing water from your kitchen sink. And we have a government who’s complicit in it.”
Brown’s photographs are haunting and evocative: a family holding jars of sludge-brown water drawn from their kitchen sink; a stream frothing with thick, orange and red ooze; a man examining his property destroyed by out-of-control flooding from mountaintop removal operations.
“The strength of a photo is that it captures a moment, and gives you a chance to study that moment for a long time,” he adds. “Photos are a way to give a voice to people who otherwise would not be seen or heard.”
Brown chooses to live simply in order to pursue humanitarian photography. He shares his images freely with organizations who cannot afford to pay. Situated on family land in Fayette County, Brown built his home with recycled and reclaimed materials. He exists primarily off the grid, refusing to add to the problems created by coal-fired electricity generation, and farms to grow most of his food.
“I never got in this movement as a way to make a living, or become famous,” Brown says. “I got in this movement because I want to end mountaintop removal.”
On a recent photo shoot with two West Virginia civil rights religious leaders, the Rev. Jeremiah Watts made a comment that resonated deeply with Brown and epitomizes his work to document the tragedies of the world. “’The only thing that powerful people fear is the truth,’” quoted Brown. “’And that is what we can do, we can offer the truth.’”