On assignment, photojournalist Benjamin Lowy has survived roadside bombs, gunfire, and brutal beatings to capture the unrelenting realities of war.
Benjamin Lowy (pictured, top left) began his career as a photojournalist in 2003. His first assignment was covering the war in Iraq, and since then his work has taken him to Haiti, Afghanistan, Darfur, and dozens of other destinations across the globe. Like any skilled photojournalist, Lowy of course knows when and where to shoot. But it’s his unfaltering sense of his surroundings, and how well he grasps the gravity of every situation, that elevates his work. His images of heroin addicts in Afghanistan’s opium dens are unsettling. The wartime shots he took while embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq are horrifying, depicting Humvees torn in two by roadside bombs and wounded soldiers receiving medical aid in the field.
In 2004, Lowy’s images of Iraq were chosen by Photo District News as some of the most iconic of the 21st century. And he has received awards from World Press Photo, Communication Arts, American Photography, and the Society for Publication Design, among others. He’s also been a finalist for the Oskar Barnak Award, and nominated three times for the ICP Infinity Award. Most recently, Lowy returned from a trip out west in the United States, where he was on assignment covering the mid-term elections.
What convinced you to pursue photography as a career?
I was originally planning on being a comic book artist, but that didn’t work out - I initially used photography to help my drawing, by tracing nudes i photographed in the studio and from found photo books. I was in a book store in St Louis — where I went to university — pulling fashion photo books off the shelves looking for the right figure when I accidentally pulled Nachtwey’s “Inferno.” It changed my life. Instantly. It opened my eyes and led me down the path to where my life is now. Other inspiration came into play — other artists and my own experiences in the field, but it was that moment in St. Louis that lead me to pursue photography over any other endeavor.
One of your first major assignments was covering the war in Iraq. How did this assignment come about, and what was this experience like?
I had surreptitiously gotten an embed through the Corbis photo agency, when one of their photographers had to pull out of his slot at the last minute. I had walked into the agency’s NY office looking for any type of job - even an office cubicle — and I ended up heading to Iraq. While I was in Kuwait before the war, I was picked up by Time Magazine after I photographed the aftermath of a disgruntled US soldier’s grenade attack on his commanding officers. After that, I spent six months working in Iraq.
How difficult is it to work in such a dangerous environment, and what are the challenges?
Besides the obvious dangers, it’s more of a logistical problem working in warzone/natural-disaster environments. Where do you get food/electricity? How to get the images transmitted? Where is a safe place to stay? Those are issues you have to figure out before you do anything. You can’t jump off a plane and start shooting without covering your logistical bases first. In Haiti and Darfur I charged my cameras and computer off a car battery. Everyday I turned the car on and gunned the engine for a good half hour to charge everything. In Darfur, I didn’t shower for a good long time. My travel partners and I ate french camping rations until they ran out and we were shown how to slaughter and roast a goat.
The subject matter you cover is all quite intense — from opium dens in Afghanistan to the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti. Does the serious or grave nature of your work ever take its toll?
Of course it does. Mentally and physically. My body has some serious issues, and I’m not a huge fan of crowds.
What experiences have stayed with you the most and why?
This is a pretty personal question. There have been a few instances that replay in my head everyday. Things I saw and experienced that bother me to this day. I was dragged into the street and beaten by a group of 20 men in Hebron in 2002. I was in a 10-car Humvee convoy in 2007, five were hit by IEDs. The Humvee I was supposed to ride in — I changed at the last moment — was blown up. I was standing next to a soldier in 2005, in Mosul, when a single bullet from a random drive-by pierced his shoulder and lungs, killing him. In 2008, in Kirkuk, I was 50 meters from a 15-year-old suicide bomber. After the explosion I had to drag my translator/fixer to a hospital, was eventually smuggled out of the city.
You’ve already tackled a vast array of topics with your work. With that said, however, what would be a dream assignment for you, something you haven’t had the opportunity to cover?
Hmm, that’s a tough question. I think it’s not the topic, but the time. I would really love to work on something really long term, nonstop without having to lose the rhythm of a story to work on another assignment just to pay the bills. I would love to travel around America in a Winnebago with my wife and just tell the story about this changing country of ours. A Robert Frank’s Americans 2.0
In America, we’re often shielded from visuals deemed inappropriate for general audiences. For example, we rarely see video footage or photographs of the returning caskets of service members killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. How does the mass media’s often conservative stance on visuals influence and/or effect your job?
It effects the reach of my imagery — the impact and education for my audience. But I don’t think that any visual journalist — whether still or video, conservative or liberal, will self censor in the field. The problem is editorial clients, and in turn their advertising partners, deciding that some material is too negative. And in turn they won’t spend the money on sending journalists to cover these historical events. More money is spent on covering sports, fashion, and show business (not to say these aren’t important culturally) then on social issues. The audience itself has developed tremendous apathy towards anything beside self-gratification, and unless we can change that, our message, or work recording these events and situations will go unnoticed and eventually fade away.
What do you think has led to such a shift in the general public’s attitude toward hard news?
Two things. One: everyone is worried about themselves. Life is tough these days, the economy sucks — it’s hard to make people care about anyone outside their sphere of understanding. Two: technology. Information is out there, on everything. The Web brings us so much closer to each other — but that can also create an overload. An overload of information. And it can have an opposite effect. People just want to turn it off and tune out. They want to stop being inundated with news from this place or that place.
As a photographer regularly dispatched on assignment, there’s probably no such thing as an ordinary day. But as much as possible, what does an average day look like for you?
I think my days are pretty similar in structure to anyone else’s. I get up, drink coffee (if available), eat (if there is food), decide what to photograph — go out to work basically. Work usually entails shooting something very specific (i.e. an assignment with time and location) or wandering around an environment trying to capture something emotive. Again, a lot of it depends on where I am. I Haiti, there were pictures all around me. I would get up and wander into the refugee camp next door, or jump on a motorcycle and drive a different hard-hit neighborhood. In Iraq or Afghanistan, I would plan out my movements with a bit more care. If embedded, I would basically just wait until a patrol leaves the base and go with the soldiers.
End of the day usually entails walking back in to home/room/tent and dropping gear, downloading and editing pics — that takes hours, by the way. Transmitting images (if on deadline), eating some food, and going to bed.
Originally appeared as part of Computerlove’s “Let’s Talk” interview series in November of 2010.