By Jim Colton
Military personnel refer to their combat missions as tours of duty. It's not uncommon for our men and women in uniform to engage in several tours during their service to our country. It's a mission they accept with full responsibility knowing they will be placed in harm's way.
Journalists who cover these wars may also refer to their time overseas as tours of duty. But their duties are to cover the war in an unbiased and ethical manner and report their findings to a deserving audience. Nowhere is this truer than for the photojournalist. Combat photographers need to be on the front lines and wherever the action is or they don't have a story to tell.
Enter: Louie Palu. By Louie's count, he's had seven tours of duty...in Afghanistan alone. He estimates his combat time has been about 18 months over the last 5 years with 3 to 6 month embeds not being uncommon. And in between those embeds, he’s covered wars of a different kind like prisoners at Guantanamo Bay or the violence caused by drug cartels in Mexico.
Palu is a much decorated photographer as well, winning awards at major photography competitions like POYi and the NPPA's Best of Photojournalism and has been the recipient of the Alexia Foundation Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Grant. His work has been published worldwide in TIME, Newsweek, Paris Match, the BBC, The Globe and Mail, the New York Times and the Washington Post to name a few.
His collection of work has been displayed at George Eastman House, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the National Gallery of Canada and has had exhibitions at Visa Pour L'Image in Perpignan, France, Centrum for Fotografi in Sweden, Fotografia International Festival of Rome and the New York Photo Festival. His work is represented by ZUMA Press.
He has co-authored several books including: Cage Call: Life and Death in the Hard Rock Mining Belt (Photolucida) which documents the lives of hard rock miners in Canada. He has currently just received funding for his latest co-authored project; "Kandahar Journals."
Louie is an independent spirit...who probably doesn't suffer fools well. As he says, "...the core tool to my success is a positive attitude. I don’t hang out with photojournalists...complaining they didn't win an award...or someone else got a grant and they did not. I stay far away from colleagues who are negative. Being positive is the biggest tool to your success!"
That positive attitude and commitment to his work is unparalleled. And many of his portraits are, in a word, haunting! Former Newsweek Senior Photo Editor Jamie Welford was the photo editor behind the publication of four of Palu's portraits of soldiers in Afghanistan as alternating covers of the same May 10, 2010 issue. According to Wellford, "The idea was to show the spectrum of US soldiers (male, female, black, white, Hispanic) involved in the Afghan conflict. There is something in the looks that reminded me of great photography from the Vietnam War, the emotions rendered by Larry Burrows and particularly the classic image of the shell shocked marine holding his rifle by Don McCullin. We used 4 covers by Louie, 3 already existing of the Hispanic, white, and black soldiers and 1 of the woman that we commissioned to round out the series. Louie was fortunately in Afghanistan at the time to make this possible."
Wellford describes Louie as, "...one of the finest journalists I have worked with; smart, courageous, inquisitive, always professional, and able to channel passion and concern in his work. I always found him to be a fresh and important voice and image maker capable of untangling the dense confusion of conflict into meaningful and historically important imagery."
This week, zPhotoJournal has a conversation with the deeply passionate and concerned photographer; Louie Palu.
Jim Colton: Tell us a little about your early years. When did you first get interested in photography? Who or what were some of your earliest influences?
Louie Palu: I started out at a very early age drawing and painting in elementary school. My parents are Italian; it wasn't uncommon to hear talk of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci and other artists around the house. I have to say my parents encouraged me to practice visual art; without that I would not have ended up in photography. Art was the seed of my becoming interested in visual storytelling.
When I was 15 I failed a class and went to summer school where I made friends with a girl who bought me a book by British photojournalist Don McCullin. There was no question what I wanted to do after seeing his work. I then took a high school photography class, spent hours in the library looking at photography books, built a darkroom under my parent’s basement stairs and became my high school yearbook photographer…all by the age of 18.
I also read biographies on Robert Capa, Gordon Parks, Lee Miller, Dorothea Lange and Edward Weston’s Daybooks while working my summer job in construction where I mixed cement. I completely fell in love with all things photographic. My true love was photojournalism and then I discovered W. Eugene Smith and the photo essay and really liked the idea of sequencing pictures.
JC: You’ve done some in-depth work on the subject of mining…including a series called “Cage Call” in Canada. What was your initial attraction to the subject? Is it something you are continuing to follow?
LP: My initial attraction to the subject of mining was the workers. My whole street was a community of immigrant laborers; I grew up watching the politics of class and income. In some ways it was a symbolic exploration of whom I was and where I came from. However, what the project became was an exploration of resource extraction and the politics around an industry we never see because it is hidden from us. Take for example the phones we all carry in our pockets have several essential metals from mines, but many of us never wonder or ask where they are from and how they got there.
My father was a stone quarry man. He started working in a small northern town in Ontario called Kirkland Lake. After college he encouraged me to explore the history of the town relating to mining. This was the kind of mining town where during strikes, militant miners and companies used violence to defend or fight for their goals. It all revolved around the economy and the battle over who controlled it. That interested me.
I was obsessed with being a photographer…and doing this project. I did everything to fund it and keep it going. I was so broke at one point I worked in three bars to buy film and slept in my jeep in the mine parking lot because I could not afford a motel.
I have been meaning to revisit the subject; I was so young when I started that project I am surprised I got the body of work that I did. It began when I got out of college and I think inspiration is what carried me, not skill. I have been looking at the body of work recently; it’s certainly youthful work but there is so much there.
I shot that project over a period of 12-years and spent years editing it. Finally, Ken Light at Berkeley and the master himself John G. Morris helped me with some editing insights and I saw what could be done with it. The work was first published as a small monograph by Photolucida in Oregon as part of an award. The work has been collected by many museums and published in many places. Jean Francois Leroy of Visa Pour L’Image and Alison Nordstrom from George Eastman House were the first big supporters of the work.
I feel really strongly about having another go at editing the full body of work for a bigger hard cover book or something else maybe online. I have been talking to one of my favorite photo-editing mentors William Snyder about doing something at RIT for editing it and maybe doing something online as well. We’ll see how that develops; William is a genius.
JC: You also did a series of photographs on the effects of asbestos. Are issue-oriented stories the ones which you feel you can sink your teeth into more? Or are breaking news stories equally attractive to your photographic appetite? What kinds of stories drive you the most?
LP: This has been a question I have been asking myself for years. In the end some stories move me more than others. However, I also really love covering spot news as well. I love being a photojournalist. I can challenge, question and monitor power structures and try to bring light to a wrong with a camera and it’s non-violent and thoughtful. That means a lot to me to bring peaceful engagement with an issue. I would say some news stories are also issue driven, so really, yes, issue-oriented stories are what drive me most.
I was just finishing up a 12-year project on mining in northern Canada when the asbestos story came along. I became well known by many unions for tackling many issues including industrial disease in the workplace. An advocate for injured workers who saw my work contacted me and asked if I would be interested in the issue of asbestos. Of course I said yes and she introduced me to Blayne Kinart, a pipe fitter who was dying from mesothelioma, a cancer attributed solely to exposure to asbestos.
All I thought when I covered that story is; imagine going to work and you breath in some dust everyday not knowing all along your employer is slowly killing you. I learned when covering the mines that when workers become ill they usually suffer alone and in silence. It’s hard to find subjects who are willing to be photographed as they slowly die at home. Blayne asked me if I would photograph him until he died…and I did.
The general public has no idea how many millions of people in America and the rest of world have been impacted by asbestos. That made me angry and I realized very few photo essays existed on the subject so I committed to creating as much content on it as possible. Over time I became very well known for working on the issue. I just completed another extensive report on it with the Globe and Mail in Canada where asbestos is still very much a problem.
JC: You’ve been to the Latin American region many times. There used to be a huge interest in Central America in countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua. But now we are hard pressed to hear any stories out of that area with the possible exception of Mexico with border or immigration issues. Why do you think that is? Do you agree that it is an under-covered region?
LP: Yes it seems the media and the world is focused on the Middle-East. Almost all the cocaine and many other drugs that affect the world come from or through Latin America. It’s a huge story that not enough people seem interested in, mostly on the side of the media. It’s our job to get everyone to pay attention. When I was a teenager in the 1980’s I followed many great photographers like Susan Meiselas, James Nachtwey and Larry Towell’s work from Central America. Larry has been a great friend and mentor to me.
However there were also many more important photographers’ work that we don’t talk about enough today like Harry Mattison who currently teaches at the Maryland Institute College of Art, and the work of and tragedies surrounding Olivier Rebbot and John Hoagland who were both killed in El Salvador. I also always think of the work of Jean-Marie Simon. She did very important work in Guatemala and that really moved me to become the photographer I am today with regards to human rights.
My work in Mexico was tied completely to organized crime and drugs. The neighborhood I grew up in had a lot of low-level Italian organized criminals and other groups I could never photograph. It’s a subject that resonates with me to this day. I got a lot of death threats down there so I am taking a break from Mexico for now.
JC: Both Olivier Rebbot and John Hoagland were killed while I was the Senior Photo Editor for International News at Newsweek magazine....perhaps two of the darkest days of my professional life. Do you know John's son Eros Hoagland? Are you familiar with his work from Latin America?
LP: As a teenager, my decision to one day become a war photographer was really cemented by the work I saw coming out of Central America in the 1980’s. That was work that I felt really challenged governments and their policies. I was aware of the level of human rights violations going on down there because of these photographers, I felt like that was important.
I followed Olivier and John’s work and was saddened by their tragic deaths. That kind of commitment they demonstrated motivated me even more to pursue the work I do now. When I was 16-years old I tried to get a quote for a plane ticket to El Salvador and got kicked out of the travel agency. A year later I became my high school’s yearbook photographer.
I first met Eros in Kandahar in 2010. I think I was completely out of my brain at the time having just been on a six-month embed. I know his work very well and his commitment to covering conflict. We have communicated several times sharing logistical information of various war zones. He is a great guy.
JC: In 2008 you made a remarkable series of portraits of US Marines in Afghanistan. (My favorite being Carlos “OJ” Orjuela) The stoic nature of their faces told a greater story than many “action” pictures from that war. How did this project come about? Was this something that came to you while you were covering the war, or was it something you thought of doing before embarking on this particular trip? Do you think portraits are an essential part of storytelling?
LP: I think portraits have a very special place in storytelling. Look at what David Douglas Duncan did with his portraits of US Marines in Korea. Before taking those photographs, I had covered almost three-months of combat in Kandahar and then moved to this unit of marines in Helmand. The fighting had ended and the media had left the area completely. It was 2008 and a key part of the war in Southern Afghanistan had been forgotten…even more than how forgotten the entire Afghan war had become. The media was all in Iraq and then Russia invaded Georgia and no one cared about Afghanistan in the U.S. Over my many years on the frontlines I have learned that the best pictures of war have little to do with bullets flying and people shooting their guns. War is a deeply personal experience that people are affected by.
My first thought was how can I connect these guys to history? I always wondered who the men were that were lifting the flag in Joe Rosenthal’s photo from Iwo Jima. I wanted to add to the dialogue of that photograph and personalize this group’s experience. So I spent weeks getting to know those Marines and began only taking photographs after their patrols or combat operations. There was this great sandbag bunker structure with beautiful light. That became my frontline naturally-lit portrait studio. I don’t think I spent more than 10-minutes with each marine taking the actual pictures over the course of over a month. I spent many days getting to know them while living with them. I think I went on 4-6 patrols per day. Those patrols were how I got to know the Marines; setting them up for the portrait when we got back. That area we were in was Hell!
JC: Regarding the Marine portraits; I see that many of them ran as a cover for Newsweek...in the same week, I think. Do you remember who you worked with at Newsweek on that story? Or was it something they did without your knowledge?
LP: The Marine portraits that ran on the covers of Newsweek was all Jamie Wellford. That guy is not only a phenomenal photo editor, but a very big supporter of photographers. Jamie saw the portraits a year before he published them and told me he was going to try to get them published in Newsweek. He did something that was a first at Newsweek; he published four different portraits (three Marines and one Army soldier) for the one issue. That means there were four different covers of the same issue.
The portraits have been also published in TIME and New York Magazine. One of them was included in the WAR exhibition organized by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, which featured Carlos Orjuela. That really brought the work to even more prominence. I really liked when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC had a massive mural of the portrait hanging from its façade looking over toward the White House.
JC: You live in, and cover news events, in the very political city of Washington D.C. How do you change gears (mentally and physically) from international wars to domestic issues?
LP: I am not quite sure because when I get back from long trips I am in a fog, sometimes a very big cloud of confusion going from daily threats...to living at home. I guess I run and ride my bike a lot. I also spend a lot of time alone thinking things through. Though I like to socialize with the photo community, sometimes I find it hard to connect within large groups of people.
I did see a therapist after one of my long stints in Kandahar, talking through my experiences was very helpful. I now have the tools to get through any day no matter where my mind wanders. I also spent time grooming horses and walking my friend’s dogs. Animals have an amazing healing power. Eating healthy and not drinking a lot is very important as well. Most of my friends who went over the edge have abused alcohol at one time or another.
JC: You've been to Afghanistan many times? Do you recall how many trips you've made? How does an American photojournalist get around in that country? How do you deal with the US Military and their restrictions like “embeds?” And how does one afford to be able to cover a long-term story like that?
LP: Let me see…I believe the count is 7 times and my total time covering combat alone is 18 months, over the course of five-years. I think my average embed was 3-6 months or longer. In between covering Afghanistan I worked on projects like Guantanamo Bay and a few others. I never stopped working.
When Afghanistan had almost been completely forgotten, I forged several relationships in which I was able to move from combat unit to combat unit and covered several combat operations. I think the tempo in which I covered combat in 2007 and 2008 was insane. It was like packing a 1-year embed into a 3-month embed all at once. Covering Kandahar, which is where I focused my work, was far more than the 4-week to 6-week embeds most journalists were doing. A short embed for me was 3-months. Many journalists had to base themselves out of Kabul to cover the government and a wide range of stories.
Then again, I did a lot of independent non-embed work as well. I really was inspired by the fieldwork of writers Graeme Smith, Murray Brewster and Matthieu Akins…all who had diverse styles.
In our business there are restrictions even when you go to cover a press conference in the mayor’s office in your hometown. My job is to slip under the velvet rope, show up early, leave late, and build relationships to help get extra access. If I share how I do it here, then they will know our tricks.
I got around in every way I could; in tanks, flying in helicopters, with soldiers, without soldiers, in a truck with goats and chickens with both Afghan soldiers and civilians. I paid for this work by selling pictures to publications, museums and grants, and every ethical funding source I could. In 2007 I also started shooting combat video for the television pool. The Alexia Grant was a very special grant that helped me complete the project.
JC: Your Kickstarter campaign with Devin Gallagher for the project “Kandahar Journals,” was recently fully funded. Congratulations! Can you tell our readers a little about that project, what we can expect and why this film was so important to you personally?
LP: Over the years in Afghanistan (and way before DSLR’s were being used) I started shooting video in Kandahar. In 2008 I edited and subsequently published a series of short 1-2 minute videos on The Atlantic magazine’s website instead of a photo essay in the magazine. It was really fun to work on that. I took classes in Final Cut Pro and editing, and made friends with my instructor Devin Gallagher, and the seed of the project began then. We really felt that a first-hand view and voice of a photographer was a unique window into the war. We also wanted to take the audience to a different place other than Kabul or where only U.S. troops were operating.
When you see so much tragedy, it’s important that we create something that lasts beyond the news cycle; a document that over time will be around for people to remember and think about what happened. A film like this can add to--and encourage--more dialogue on the war and Afghanistan.
The success of our Kickstarter came from our personal contact list and creating dedicated videos and content to promote it. Social media is a huge part of any success in a crowd funding campaign; without it you are dead in the water.
JC: Is video (and multimedia incorporating video) going to be an essential tool in the photographer’s camera bag to better tell their stories in the future? What advice or tips can you suggest to the aspiring photojournalist that is being newly exposed to video?
LP: Though I use the term multimedia in discussions, I just want to say that television has been editing “multimedia” pieces for decades. Almost every documentary film is a multimedia piece dating back way before we discovered it. What is different is the internet; which is a platform for our work. If someone likes video, then explore it and learn how it can fit into your life and work. Video is essential in the news business yes, but it’s not a big money maker from what I have heard or seen.
I first started shooting short documentary films on my super 8 in the 1990’s and laid in audio from cassettes and edited it all in VHS video tapes. I think the news industry is looking for a silver bullet solution to survival; video certainly is one more tool and revenue model but it’s not our savior.
I think things are still changing too much to know what we all really need to learn. I think social media is very important, and where the conversation should be. There’s no use in creating a great video if we don’t have the platform to share it on or not knowing where our audience is and how long they will give to watch a video. Last I heard, most people watch an online video for 45 seconds or less. Audiences no longer come to find us, we have to call them to our content now and that content better be good or they will just click to some other webpage or scroll past that tweet. That is what is essential.
JC: What’s on the horizon for Louie Palu? And what parting thoughts would you like to leave us or to young photographers who are considering a similar career path?
LP: We have entered into a time where thinking outside the box has been taken to a new level and can result in so many new journey’s and successes as a photographer. I think accepting change and adapting to new things are your best tools, not video.
Consequently, what has been the core tool to my success is a positive attitude. People have been quoting me saying this a lot recently, “I never lose; even when I lose I win.” One of the main reasons I don’t hang out with most photojournalists, or find photo festivals problematic, is there are always photographers there in large groups complaining they didn't win an award…or someone else got a grant and they did not…or something negative like that. I try to stay very far away from colleagues who are negative. Being positive is the biggest tool to your success!
On another note I am about to release a second concept newspaper following in line with my first titled “Mira Mexico” which explored how we see or don’t see the drug war in Mexico. The next concept newspaper will be called “Guantanamo: Operational Security Review” and will explore the same theme of “who controls what we see,” with my work from the detention center in Guantanamo Bay.
An additional piece of advice to all photographers is build your archive and produce long-term projects on relevant issues. Hard work and a positive attitude always pay off more than anything else or a new technology, because only you can do it!
Kandahar Journals: https://www.facebook.com/KandaharJournals