Episode 2: Documenting democracy

National Geographic photographer Andrea Bruce shares how her experiences as a war photographer in the Middle East shapes the way she’s chronicling democracy in America in 2020.

New Zealand. Bronwyn Clifford, 16, stands with other Maori women on Waitangi Day, observed each February to commemorate the Treaty of Waitangi, signed by some 500 Maori chiefs and the British in 1840. Much ancestral land was lost during Britainís 19th-century colonization. Today Maori women use social media to mobilize support for indigenous land rights and other reforms.
Photograph by Andrea Bruce. This project was supported by CatchLight, the National Geographic Society and PhotoWings.

Andrea Bruce, a National Geographic photographer, has covered conflict zones around the world for nearly two decades. She shares how the experience of capturing democratic ideals as a war photographer in Egypt, Afghanistan, and Iraq now shapes the way she's chronicling democracy in America in 2020.

During the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, a man votes at the Metz Volunteer Fire Department in Angola, Indiana.
During the 2018 U.S. midterm elections, a man votes at the Metz Volunteer Fire Department in Angola, Indiana.
Photograph by Andrea Bruce. This project was supported by CatchLight, the National Geographic Society and PhotoWings.


ANDREA BRUCE: Lots of tear gas. Lots of rubber bullets. And I think I lived with garlic and onions in my pockets for several months—because that's one common way to kind of get rid of the effects of tear gas—that people would just hand to you to help you out when you're miserable with tear gas in your eyes.

AMY BRIGGS: About a decade ago, Andrea Bruce had a front-row seat to revolution. She’s a photographer who covered the Iraq War. And in 2011, Andrea found her way to the heart of the Arab Spring: pro-democracy protests in Egypt, Bahrain, and Morocco. Andrea wanted to capture the moment when people said, It’s our turn to have a voice.

But in the middle of a protest, there was no telling if it would suddenly turn violent. If the police would find a reason to fire into the crowd. And there was no way to tell who was the good guy, and who wasn’t.

BRUCE: It's really complicated—so complicated that I'd get on the airplane and go back [home] to Iraq or go to the United States. And all I’d want to do is watch superhero movies. Because in a superhero movie, there's like a good guy and there's a bad guy. And usually, there's something simple that happens and it's—everything's good. And that is not like what happens in the middle of turmoil and revolution, and especially war.

BRIGGS: As a foreign correspondent, Andrea saw revolutions give birth to new democracies. And she photographed the everyday people who wanted a seat at the table. Now Andrea is back home in the United States. And she’s pointing her camera at a new subject: American democracy.

I’m Amy Briggs and this is Overheard at National Geographic, a show where we eavesdrop on the wild conversations we have at Nat Geo and follow them to the edges of our big, weird, beautiful world.

This week, we sit down with a war correspondent who asks, What is democracy? And what does it look like in the U.S.?

More after the break.

Andrea Bruce is a busy woman. Lately she’s been photographing the buildup to the U.S. presidential election. She’s also in the middle of moving. About a month before Election Day, Nat Geo sent Andrea to cover wildfires in California. And somehow, in the middle of all that, she made time to talk to me.

I don't know where you get your energy from, but you need to tell me because I want it.

BRUCE: Well, I also have a two-year-old.

BRIGGS: Oh my God, you have a two-year-old? Wait, you have a two-year-old. You’re covering wildfires. You're moving.

BRUCE: It's insanity.

BRIGGS: Did you always have Wonder Woman levels of energy, or is this a new thing?

BRUCES: No, I think I've just mastered the art of naps. This is something I learned covering conflict in Iraq. I can take a five-minute nap and be totally energized for three hours and then crash again, and then another five-minute nap, and I'm good. So, yeah, that's how I survive.

BRIGGS: So how did you start taking photographs?

BRUCE: I went to college to be a writer. My last semester, senior year, I took a photo class just kind of as a joke or as for fun—and totally fell in love with it. I dropped everything else in my life and dedicated everything to photography, and finally landed my first job at a small community paper in New Hampshire called the Concord Monitor.

BRIGGS: So when you were starting off on that first job, were the photographs you took mostly just related to the stories you were covering?

BRUCE: Yeah, you know, the Concord Monitor was this dream of a newspaper for young journalists. And I also was given a lot of freedom to do my own photo column. So I got to write and take pictures. And small-town investigative stories, which is really fascinating. And stories that just kind of show the everyday life. Because that's what attracted me to photography, is that everybody has a story. And it doesn't matter if you're in a small town in New Hampshire or if you're in Iraq. It's—you have a story. And it's important.

BRIGGS: So when you were covering the everyday life stuff in Concord, what did that look like? What were the things that you were drawn to?

BRUCE: I would do things like, for this photo column I would just say, OK, I'm gonna drive in one direction for 14.5 miles down this one road. I'm going to stop my car. And the first person I see, I'm going to talk to them, and I'm going to follow them in their life for the next few hours and see what happens. And that was like the best way to find really interesting moments because everyone thinks their lives are so boring, and you just follow people and meet people and talk to them and see what's going on.

BRIGGS: So how did you get from the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire to overseas?

BRUCE: I got a job at the Washington Post. And it was just a little—a few months before 9/11. And so 9/11 happened, and I was suddenly covering that from Washington, D.C. I mean, I remember I was living in the suburbs of D.C. and driving in while everyone else in the city was driving out. And then I was sent, kind of as an afterthought, to cover the Iraq war. And I got there and I almost just never left. I found that that kind of small-town community approach to stories and storytelling was actually more valuable in Iraq than it even was like in the United States, in New Hampshire.

BRIGGS: Why is that?

BRUCE: Because it's hard—first of all, it's hard to get people to pay attention to people who are in a culture, a language, a religion, a situation that's different than their own. So my audience was in the United States, in mostly Washington, D.C., and it's really hard to get people to pay attention to what it's like to be Iraqi. It was hard to get people to pay attention to the war altogether. I mean, no one really wanted to know about it. And I found that covering it like a small town—I started another photo column called Unseen Iraq. And it was highlighting, in the same way the one—the column I did in New Hampshire—highlighting these kind of small moments that are almost invisible or not really normally newsworthy but show the common humanity of people and life. And I thought, OK, well, people aren’t going to care about what's happening to someone in a different culture unless they can relate to them first.

BRIGGS: One entry in Andrea’s column is called “Exam Day at a Baghdad Girls’ School.” In the photo, high school girls sit in neat rows, in front of a blackboard, focusing on test papers in front of them. But Andrea writes that there’s more to the scene. The girls are in a neighborhood with frequent suicide bombings. As they take their tests, sirens blare outside and helicopters swoop low over the city.

The war didn’t stop for exam day.

BRUCE: So it's kind of combining the everyday life of living in a war zone with common humanity. There's another picture that I took of a man who is, you know, a very kind of handsome man who has gray hair and he's wearing a suit and he's outside, and he's standing next to some blast walls. And there's a ton of trash and there's some wild dogs. And he's waiting for his bus to go to work on a Monday morning. It's his Monday morning commute and he works for the government. And he kind of has his eyes closed, like, this is what living in a war zone is. No matter how normal you look in your normal suit and tie to go to work, you're still surrounded by all the chaos that living in a war zone creates. And I thought about the readers in Washington, D.C.—this published on Mondays—also going to work on their Monday morning commute and hoped that I could draw connections there.

BRIGGS: So at what point in your work in Iraq did you first start to think about democracy? You know, what it is and how people are thinking about it—were thinking about it—then.

BRUCE: Well, I've always been fascinated about what women go through in war zones. And one common thing that happens to women throughout history, all over the world, in war zones is prostitution. And Iraq is no exception. So I met this woman named Halla, who was just really strong. Her husband died in the initial bombing—U.S. bombing of Iraq—and she was left with her two children and no way to provide for them. And there are not a lot of jobs available for women. So she turned to prostitution. So I followed her and she became like my best friend for that year, for basically all of 2004. And I hung out. We did each other's hair. I met all the other prostitutes that she hung out with. She styled herself after Britney Spears and had blue contact lenses, even at times and dyed her hair blond. And one of the questions she asked me one day was, so, you know, Americans are always talking about democracy. What does that mean? And I was like, Oh! Uh, well, I guess it means, you know, something about the Bill of Rights. And I named my takeaways from the Bill of Rights. And I was really disappointed with my own answer. It was pretty lame.

BRIGGS: Wait, were you disappointed in the moment or did you think back and go, Ooh, I could have answered that differently. How did that go?

BRUCE: Oh, I was totally embarrassed in the moment. It was like, right, I am from the United States. We are bringing democracy. But what is that? Let me define that for you.

BRIGGS: Like, I'm envisioning soldiers showing up with something like an apple pie and just being like, Here's democracy. There you go.

BRUCE: But that’s the thing. And she was like, Oh, well, I thought democracy meant money—that you guys were gonna make us rich. And I actually think that was kind of a common misunderstanding of a lot of Iraqis. They’re like, well, the U.S. is rich. Now the U.S. is here, we're gonna get rich.

BRIGGS: What was Halla’s reaction to your answer?

BRUCE: She just said, Oh, I thought it was money. And then she was kind of disappointed, and we talked about something else.

BRIGGS: Halla’s question stuck with Andrea. The U.S. said it wanted to spread democracy around the world. But what did that mean? And what even is democracy?

In 2004, Afghanistan held its first elections after the U.S. toppled the Taliban government. Many Afghans would be able to vote for the first time. The Washington Post sent Andrea and her camera to see what happened.

BRIGGS: Can you set the scene for me? What was going on? What did it look like? What did democracy look like there?

BRUCE: Oh, wow. I have to say that that was one of the most beautiful situations I've ever photographed. Regardless of what you think of the U.S.'s role in Afghanistan and Iraq, seeing people vote in 2004 was beautiful. I went to a small village in Logar Province and it was—these old men came and they waited for an hour before the poll station opened. And they were lined up. There was at least 25 older men, and they all had these roses in their hands that they had picked on the way there. And they were like throwing the rose petals on top of everyone and celebrating and singing. And then the women came to vote, and they had a separate polling area. But they were all lined up in their burkas, and then they filed inside the polling area. And as a woman—this is one of the big honors of being a female photojournalist is that I got to see them all pull over their burkas. And then they go in. They had these huge smiles. They went in and they voted! It was pretty cool.

BRIGGS: Was it surprising at all when they pulled back the burka to see them smiling, or to see the rose petals, or did you expect that?

BRUCE: No, I didn't expect it at all. I mean, I guess I didn't really know what to expect. But Afghans did embrace the entire process. I mean, they were—like you would go to a campaigning event for one of the candidates and there would be like a thousand people joyously supporting their candidate, because they could, and singing and dancing. And, you know, under the Taliban, things were much different. And you couldn't, you didn't have that kind of free expression. So then to have this very open like celebration of an election was fun. And something I'm actually not used to in the United States.

BRIGGS: So you see the elections in Afghanistan. And I know you also photographed Egypt's revolution in 2011. What's it like to be there during these historic democratic moments?

BRUCE: I mean, as a journalist, you're working on adrenaline, you barely have enough sleep to even think things through, you're kind of reacting to events as they unfold in front of you, and trying to piece it together as it goes. And it's kind of like an aha moment, like, Oh, this is what's happening now. And in Egypt, you know, you had this revolution, which was beautiful. And then you see people, like the military helping people overthrow the government. And then you see this like slow disillusionment of the military, who they thought of as heroes. And then they realize, Oh, wait, now the military is in charge. And is that really where we want to be too? And watching everyone kind of also react to, like, what is what is going on here? And like, who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? And the truth is that no one is either. There's good with the bad and bad with the good. And that is maybe the hardest part of being a journalist and watching all of these things, is that there's so much gray and everything is so much more complicated than people realize. And when you're reading a paper or a magazine, really you just want it to be simple. And it's not.

BRIGGS: As Andrea covered wars and revolutions overseas, something nagged at her. Over and over, people asked her the same question as Halla in Iraq. What is democracy? This thing the U.S. says it wants to spread around the world. This thing some Americans are even willing to die for.

Andrea wanted to know what other Americans thought. So in 2015, she came home. She started a new photo project called Our Democracy.

BRUCE: So normally I get an assignment or I come up with a story idea and try to find the people who fit this idea or this theme or this premise that we've researched. And what I was trying to do with this project is something completely different. I just wanted to listen, which is a lot of what we do when we do things overseas, because I'm not part of that community. But for some reason, when we're covering a community in the United States, we think that we know them already, which is kind of ridiculous because the difference between someone living in, like, Detroit versus Montana versus Louisiana is so different. They're almost like different countries sometimes. So to think that I would know everything that everyone goes through and their issues is pretty ridiculous. So I wanted to go with an open mind and have almost like tiny town hall meetings, just to hear people out. Like, what do you think democracy means?

BRIGGS: She held more than a dozen of these tiny town hall meetings all over the U.S.: in Memphis, Tennessee; in a small town in West Virginia; on land belonging to the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. Andrea asked people whether they felt like they had power to make change.

And Andrea says the answers surprised her.

BRUCE: If you take away the kind of politics and you listen to people, the big division in the United States is actually between the rich and the poor. And maybe that's obvious to other people. It wasn't what I expected to find, because it's not necessarily people living in poverty, but it's sort of like right above the poverty line, so people who have no safety net. And regardless of what race they were, where they lived, or what their job was, they all kind of had the same reaction. And that was, You know what—the people in government and national government, they don't do anything for us. We have to do it ourselves. And they feel like democracy or having a voice isn't for them. It's for people who have money. And that was such a crazy takeaway from this project—it wasn't at all what I expected to find.

BRIGGS: So did witnessing the elections and revolutions as a journalist, did it make you think differently about how you participate in democracy as a citizen?

BRUCE: Yeah, I'm sure. I guess for me personally, I find elections really important. I find going to town hall meetings or school board meetings really important. And I am such a geeky fan of those meetings. I think one of my biggest challenges in the past few years is how do you make a town hall meeting sexy? How do you make it beautiful? How do you make people understand the importance of just that simple meeting and how boring they can be, but how important they are to participate in? It's not easy.

BRIGGS: So I’m curious. You just moved to North Carolina, but I know you work all over the country. Where are you going to be on Election Day? Where's the best place to cover that story this year?

BRUCE: I'm sure I'll be somewhere in North Carolina. During the last presidential election, I was here in Pamlico County, which is the county where I live. And I covered it from here. And it was fascinating because I went to every polling place in the county. That was my goal. And I was doing it for myself. It was part of the project. It wasn't really for a publication. I just wanted to see. And one of the polling places was this brick building with one tiny window. No other windows, just one tiny window. And it had on the door, handwritten, “Vote here,” in like, a scribble, like out of a page that was torn out of a notebook. It was like lined paper. And I was like, Whoa. This almost looks like a strip club more than a polling place. What's going on? So I went in and I saw two guys who just got off work and it was probably—it was dark, so it was probably around 7:00 or so here, and two guys who came in and they were like they looked really nervous. And I asked them—well, they actually asked me, Where do I go? And there's this one woman at a table. She'll help you. And they were like, Well, we've never voted before. That was just like a fascinating moment. And I'm curious again what people in this county will do. So hopefully I'll be here.

BRIGGS: Now that you've done all this work, covering democracy and looking at community in the United States. I'm curious if you could go back to Halla, to the time she asked you about democracy—if you could have a do-over, what would you tell her? What is democracy?

BRUCE: I guess I would say that democracy is a place where you feel like you have an equal chance to make a difference in your community or to change your situation in your community. So I guess maybe that's what I'd say. But I'm more interested in knowing what everyone else wants it to be also, not just even how they define it now. Because if we don't know what it is or if we don't have a common understanding of it, then we—then I guess it would be hard to know if it disappears.

BRIGGS: Andrea Bruce’s photo project is called Our Democracy. We have a link in our show notes where you can see some of her work.

More after the break.

Check out some of Andrea’s photography in our show notes. We have a link to her project Our Democracy. And you can also see photos from her time as a foreign correspondent. Also, we have some tips to help you understand Election Night. Take the maps you see on TV. They may be misleading. We’ll show you a better way to visualize vote totals. Also, elections can be especially confusing for kids. Hear how experts say you should talk to them about what’s going on.

And for subscribers, see photos from four countries where women have gained a lot more political power. Andrea Bruce captured the women in charge—and the women still fighting for change.

That’s in the show notes, right there in your podcast app.


Overheard at National Geographic is produced by Jacob Pinter, Brian Gutierrez, and Laura Sim. Our senior editor is Eli Chen. Our executive producer of audio is Davar Ardalan. Our fact-checker is Michelle Harris. Hansdale Hsu composed our theme music and engineers our episodes.

This podcast is a production of National Geographic Partners. Whitney Johnson is the director of visuals and immersive experiences. Susan Goldberg is National Geographic’s editorial director. And I’m your host, Amy Briggs. See ya next time.


Want more?

Explore dispatches from Our Democracy and follow the project on Instagram.

Andrea hoped to capture the beauty of Syria’s capital in case civil war destroyed it. See her 2014 photos from Damascus and more of her work on her website.

Also explore:

A contentious presidential election can confuse and upset kids. Use these tips to help them understand and process the news. Plus, see resources for educatorswho want to explore democracy in their own communities.

This graphic explains why election maps may be misleading and how to make them better.

And for paid subscribers:
What do Bolivia, New Zealand, Iraq, and Afghanistan have in common? Women there have made huge advances and gained political power. See the women in charge—and the women still fighting for change.

The National Geographic Society is committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world. Learn more about the Society’s support of its Explorers.