Louie Palu on War and Photography

Louie Palu began working in Afghanistan in 2006, and was awarded The Alexia Professional Grant in 2010 for Kandahar, a project examines the cultural, historical and contemporary significance of Kandahar and its people within the region and the current Afghan state. Since that time, he has exhibited the work he did in Afghanistan widely, was awarded a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship and has produced two major works on the conflict in Afghanistan.

The first of these works was Kandahar Journals, a critically acclaimed documentary film which explores a photojournalist’s first hand account of his psychological state while covering a war. The second is the freshly published Front Towards Enemy, a deconstructed photobook which allows Palu’s images to extend beyond one specific conflict to make a statement about the chaos of war and the ways in which media influences our perception of armed conflicts. Both were made possible with the help of his Alexia grant.

Over the past two weeks, Palu has taken over the Alexia Instagram account to share his powerful work. In this new Q&A with Palu, we explore the meaning and purpose of his work, as well as the advice he has for others who would like to follow in his steps.

Alexia Foundation: Why does this work matter?

Louie Palu: Imagine every history book without any photographs. Imagine your family album with no pictures. There would be no reference points to any dialogue, history or anything else to help each one of us imagine what people or experiences look or feel like. In essence we would have no way of understanding our own identity and or the social political issues affecting so many people’s lives. The ongoing conflict in Afghanistan, specifically in Kandahar where I worked needs to remain a very key part of our dialogue as it is the wellspring from which so many of the wars we are seeing now began.

Alexia Foundation: If you had grandchildren, what do you think they would say grandpa does and why does he do that?

Louie Palu: I would hope that some sort of oral history was preserved and passed on to anyone’s grandchildren. I think teaching both your own personal and in general world history to our future generations is important to the fabric of a strong society made up of informed and empathetic individuals. Though I don’t have children, if I did I would hope that they would think that I helped people see things they should understand and know people that we could all help in parts of the world where we could affect positive change.

Alexia Foundation: What do you want people to understand about the war in Afghanistan? About all wars?

Louie Palu: I don’t think I have met a single soldier on the frontlines who wouldn’t agree that at some point absurdity is a part of their daily experience while fighting a war. I would also add that no matter how well planned a combat mission is or how precision a weapon is civilians will always be caught in the crossfire. Children are the most vulnerable and when land mines are used, they are usually the victims from walking their farm animals in fields setting off bombs planted in the ground.

Also, that no single photograph can ever explain a war. War is a very complex, multi-layered issue that exists beyond a single photograph. I would also say that any policy maker or senior military leader should always have a historian and cultural advisor from the country they are operating in working with them before they arrive in the country where they are deployed to.

Alexia Foundation: What advice would you give to someone who wants to cover conflict as a professional photographer?

Louie Palu: I am approached by many photographers who are motivated to work in this field I am in, who contact me on a regular basis telling me they want to do this work. I am always confused by most of these young photographers because when I ask “why do you want to do this work?”, they have no answer that I believe. Many say they want to be a “conflict photographer” or a “war photographer”. I really don’t know what those titles mean when inexperienced photographers say that in context to what they don’t know anything about.

We are supposed to be photojournalists first who adhere to a code of ethics like my colleagues and I do at the NPPA (I provide a link to it in the about section of my website). Everyone is in a rush to skip learning all the essentials like human rights laws, what war crimes look like, knowing how to effectively work your camera, safety training and simple photography experience and head right to a war zone. This is an important job that involves being in places with real people who are suffering, if you can’t clearly articulate why you want to do this kind of work, please don’t do it.

You also owe it to your colleagues and the people affected where the war is taking place to be prepared and understand why you are there. I have taught some workshops and courses on safety training for working in war zones and it’s very disappointing to see how many people do this to “play war” or do something exciting for an adrenaline rush including some of my colleagues. You need to really believe in what you do as a photographer and be personally invested in some way in the issues you are covering.

Finally, if you die remember your family suffers and has to deal with your decision to do this work so you owe it to them to discuss all possible eventualities. Your death or serious injury affects others so it’s your responsibility to make sure you have a talk with your family before you consider this work. There is no romance to this work and it should be treated like a serious job.

Alexia Foundation: What has Alexia meant to your work

Louie Palu: Being selected for the Alexia Grant is one of the most important moments of my career. This is not just any photography grant, it is one named after someone who was killed in a terrorist attack, which for me says something special. It says to me that the response to a violent act should be one of peace, empathy, dialogue and trying to understand the world and not more violence.

Palu is currently touring the U.S. discussing his work and war. On Nov. 3, you can join him at the Stephen Bulger Gallery in Toronto, where he will be screening Road Through War and discussing and signing Front Towards Enemy. On Nov. 4, he will be speaking on the Red Cross/Journalists for Human Rights Panel in Toronto. On Nov. 6, he will be discussing Front Towards Enemy at the Kitchener Public Library in Kitchener, Ontario. On Dec. 9, he will be part of the group show, (un)expected families at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. And currently, his work is on display at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in the exhibition, The Face of Battle: Americans at War, 9/11 to Now.

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