In Shooting Ghosts (Viking, Aug.), photographer Finbarr O’Reilly and his coauthor, retired Marine Sgt. Thomas J. Brennan, explore how combat affects lives on and off the battlefield.
My camera shutter whirred as I photographed the rocket-propelled grenade fired at U.S. Marine Sgt. Thomas James Brennan during a Taliban ambush in late 2010. I had woken up beside Brennan that morning, the rails of our camp cots just inches apart under an open sky in the desert of Afghanistan’s Helmand province. Now the explosion from the warhead was about to change the course of his life, and mine.
Being under fire together forged a bond between us that deepened when he returned home in 2011 and struggled with a traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress from combat tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. By that time, I too had begun to feel the weight of too many assignments in war zones. We kept in touch and worked together as he began to write about his experiences and pursue a career in journalism.
Then, in early 2015, after more than a decade spent as a newswire photographer covering conflicts, coups, and disasters across Africa and the Middle East, I put down my cameras. It was shortly after the 2014 war in Gaza, where I photographed entire neighborhoods reduced to rubble by an Israeli offensive and the broken bodies of countless men, women, and children blown apart by bombs.
I was no stranger to violence and suffering. My career as a journalist was built on it. I bounced for years from one trouble zone to the next, a willing witness with cameras. Awards and accolades followed. But now, the conflicts I’d covered—Congo, Sudan, Chad, Afghanistan, and Libya—had become an unending blur. Too many friends and colleagues were being injured and killed. And I burned out. My desire to photograph faded. My work hardly seemed to help those I photographed.
This felt especially so in Gaza, with its recurring images of explosions rising over cities and of dead, dying, and grieving Palestinians. My pictures offered nothing new. I began to feel complicit in the violence I sought to condemn. Rather than capturing an image, I was maintaining one.
Since stepping back from the front lines, I’ve spent the past two years collaborating with Brennan on a book about the emotional fallout of war. In Shooting Ghosts, we confront our motivations for seeking out combat and examine our different roles—mine as a witness, and his as a combatant—as well as the impact that violence has had on us as we try to shape our new identities.
We didn’t want to write a book that glorifies war. Our story is about how and why war changes people, and what happens as we come to terms with the things we’ve seen and done. Trauma untethers us from a world that was once familiar. After war, we struggle to find again the purpose, the bonds and—in truth—the love that exists on the battlefield. We drift and come undone. The journey back is a lonely one, but we cannot make it alone. Friendship, family, and a sense of belonging helps us find our way again.
My friendship with Brennan steered me in a new direction. I still make pictures, but writing and mentoring others has become my new focus. Some photographs may be remembered for holding history, but most won’t. Instead of images, the legacy I now hope to leave behind is through those lives I might influence and touch in invisible ways.