Alexia Foundation: Describe Afghanistan to me. How is Kandahar unique in comparison to the rest of Afghanistan?
Louie Palu: Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world and has been ravaged by conflict for decades. For centuries empires from all over the globe have invaded it and been a part of a war there.
Kandahar for centuries was the land bridge between the Middle East and Asia. It is also the birthplace of not only the first Afghan Empire, but it also is a major spiritual and historical capital for the current insurgency and Pashtuns in general, which is the dominant ethnicity in Afghanistan, especially in the South. The holiest religious site in the country is also there which is the Shrine of the cloak of the Prophet Muhammad which is adjacent to the Mosque and tomb of the founder of the country Ahmed Shah Durrani.
Sadly, I think many people including people in western governments and the military still don’t have a proper appreciation for how significant Kandahar is in the scope of things in that region. Hence the Pashtun proverb “Control Kandahar and you control Afghanistan.” From my experience, too many people have looked at a map thinking they can change what a culture thinks and believes in without actually immersing themselves in the place and the people for long periods of time.
Alexia Foundation: What was Afghanistan like as a Globe and Mail photographer?
Louie Palu: When I was a staff photographer at The Globe and Mail in 2006 I covered the war on very tight deadlines. The Globe and Mail was instrumental in introducing me to Kandahar and also giving me a great opportunity to go to Afghanistan. However, I realized that for my long term goals as a photographer I would have to return to Kandahar on my own and for longer periods of time to get the story I wanted to tell. So I left The Globe and Mail in 2007 and made Kandahar a long term project, which lead to many great opportunities and collaborations including the Alexia Grant.
Alexia Foundation: What was Kandahar like working independently? Where did you stay? How did you keep safe?
Louie Palu: The areas I wanted to work in at the times I worked there were pretty much without hotels or accommodations that I could stay in, so I stayed on military bases. I could leave those bases on my own anytime and I did. There really was no choice for the rural areas I worked in. Other than Kandahar City, these areas were the most violent areas of the country.
I think a part of me never came back from Kandahar… I have grown to personally feel and appreciate how important conflict resolution is after witnessing so much trauma and savagery.
The main issue was if I were kidnapped or killed somewhere I was afraid for my Afghan colleagues who were working with me. If you are kidnapped the first thing that would happen to your Afghan driver or guide would be death where I was working. To mitigate that I did not live with any local Afghans off of a military base. The years I worked there independently from 2007-2010 I lived on bases big and small with a significant number of Afghan soldiers who taught me a lot about Afghanistan and Kandahar. I set up my time to be with Afghan soldiers as much or more than western troops, so I was constantly surrounded by Afghans in Kandahar. I ate with them, went out on combat operations with them and lived with them. I worked in Kandahar City a lot.
For this, I grew my beard, dressed locally and kept a low profile. I planned every movement with my Afghan colleagues while moving through and working in the city. I was lucky that once I grew a beard I fit in very well due to my European background and features. I moved around a lot and stayed in many different locations to break up any patterns to avoid risk.
Alexia Foundation: What moment from your time there sticks with you most?
Louie Palu: There were so many moments I can talk about. I used to go see an Afghan Army cook everyday to pick up some bread when I was in Zhari District, which is west of Kandahar City. I also had daily tea for months with several Afghan commanders, which was a great learning experience. Several of them were former mujahideen fighters who fought against the Russians, they taught me a lot about being an insurgent.
Everyday they told me stories over tea and explained how they defeated the Russians. They also explained in great detail how the Taliban worked and undermined the western troops. Some of them were former Taliban. However, I think the moment that sticks with me the most is when a bomb went off under a helicopter I was in at night while picking up an Afghan soldier who had been wounded. That night I thought I was going to die.
Alexia Foundation: How has seeing what you have seen changed you?
Louie Palu: I think a part of me never came back from Kandahar. I was always turned off by violence, however I lacked the first hand experience of what extreme violence feels like. I think I have grown to personally feel and appreciate how important conflict resolution is after witnessing so much trauma and savagery.
Alexia Foundation: What is your favorite image from your Alexia project? Which one sticks with you? For part of the Alexia Foundation project, you shot very wide, panoramic images. Why did you decide to shoot like this? How did you shoot these?
Louie Palu: I don’t have a single favorite image, I like many of them and in the past I found that if I had any favorite single images, that would change over time and different pictures said different things as the years passed. I shot two bodies of work for my Alexia project, one was panoramic black and white images and one was mainly in color, in which I followed a medevac unit, which is an army unit that picks up casualties with a helicopter on the front lines.
I think the medevac work is my favorite series of pictures right now. The panoramic camera was used to photograph many times in public places where I need to keep a low profile. Because of how it is built, it essentially is a non-focusing toy camera and I could shoot very quickly and be discreet without attracting attention.
One of the images from my medevac work of a wounded Afghan soldier will be in an exhibition in the Smithsonian in 2013. The panoramic images became the continuation of something I started in 2009 which was an exploration of the land and the spaces people occupy in Afghanistan. The color medevac work was done to focus on casualties and the cost of war and is a widely known and published body of work.
Alexia Foundation: In our Q&A on your profile page, you say you want to go back. In the PDN interview you see to express a great deal of hesitation at the idea of returning. Where do you stand on the idea of returning?
Louie Palu: When I left in the fall of 2010, I was definitely traumatized, but felt that I could heal and go back. However, over a period of several months from when I got back home, photographer Joao Silva lost his legs in Kandahar after stepping on an improvised explosive device in an area I worked in extensively. Giles Duley lost his legs and an arm there as well. This really hit me hard because I had worked in these villages for years and I was lucky to get out with minor injuries relatively speaking. Then came Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros being killed in Libya. The death of photographers just seemed to continue and it sent me into a very dark place.
Over the course of my Alexia Grant I had four very close calls with land mines and roadside bombs in Kandahar and was nearly killed or wounded in each event. In one case I stepped on a mine but it did not go off until a soldier behind me stepped on it. Over the years I had many close calls with land mines. I think the death of Tim Hetherington whom I knew, really awoke all my demons from my past five years of covering the war and I needed to really rethink what I was working on and reflect. I am still reflecting.
I am open to going back. I hope my mom doesn’t read this.
Alexia Foundation: What are you working on now? What similarities does it have with your work in Afghanistan and your work documenting gold miners in Northern Canada?
Louie Palu: I am working on a project on the Mexican-U.S. border. It pretty much focuses on poverty, violence and impunity which are very much are issues that hold Afghanistan back from growing and moving forward as a country. When I was finishing up my project in Kandahar I knew I wanted to go to an area in the world which the popular media was not focusing enough attention on. I felt that Latin America would be my next location and it turned out that Mexico was a place that I felt needed a deeper investigation as it was being swallowed by so much violence.
My work on miners, as does all my work, focuses on creating a dialogue on our world and how we all fit in to it, rich or poor. I think we need to be honest with ourselves and understand how the world works, who is taken advantage of and how are injustices created by greed and impunity.
Alexia Foundation: Why are you a photographer?
Louie Palu: I am a photographer because I have a belief in engaging and challenging people in a dialogue on social and political issues using peaceful and thoughtful tools such as pictures.
Alexia Foundation: What did being awarded the Alexia Grant mean to you?
Louie Palu: It was an affirmation from my peers that the issues and subjects I had focused on in my life were important to raise awareness about. I was also deeply moved and honored to be awarded a grant named after a photographer who had been tragically killed in a terrorist attack. It also came around the 20th year of my professional career and was a deeply personal achievement after working for so long and struggling to work on my projects.
Louie’s work on the US-Mexico border will be released at the beginning of January. As well, Palu has a number exhibitions through North America. His work appears in “War/Photography: Images of Armed Conflict and It’s Aftermath” which opened Nov. 11 in Houston and will be travelling to Los Angeles, Washington, DC and Brooklyn, New York. “The Fighting Season” is being shown in Portland, Oregon and Ottawa, Canada. For more information, see our events listings.