Recently, Ben Lowy’s book, Iraq | Perspecitves was awarded the Duke University Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize by photography legend William Eggleston. Split into two parts, the book is made up of images captured in Iraq up to 2008. The first chapter was shot exclusively through blast-proof windows in armored military vehicles, and the second involved rigging a DSLR to a pair of night vision goggles. Ben (who is currently represented by Reportage by Getty Images) talked to us about his decade in Iraq, and what it’s like to transition from a war zone to New York fashion week in a matter of days.
For more from Lowy on his career, his work, and what kind of person ends up in the fascinating crucible that is conflict photography, see the rest of this interview at PopPhoto.com.
You’ve covered a fairly wide variety of locations in your career, but a large portion of your work is from Iraq. What is it that kept you there and inspired you to keep shooting there over the better part of a decade?
I think young photographers, who have some luck when it comes to being in the right place at the right time and starting a body of work, tend to focus on that place and hold onto it for various reasons. One, because we don’t know how to move on. It takes a certain maturity level before you can disconnect yourself. I think there’s also this hope that you can “own” that story and really make it yours—be a witness.
I also think a lot of young photographers learn from looking at photo books, the magnum opuses that older photographers developed over their careers . We want to rush into finding that one thing to focus on. I can say that in 2003, I wasn’t mature enough to see that. I realize that I do what I do to document history, to create a legacy of our past so someone else can be educated by it. I saw it as a privilege for me to be there and I kept wanting to be there for that reason.
Since photographs from Iraq span a large portion of your career, are you able to look back on them and trace the progress you’ve made as a journalist and as a photographer?
With the book launch, I’ve been giving a couple of lectures and I made this Keynote presentation with the progression of my work from when I was in college until now. It’s amazing how much my eye has changed — how much my style has changed just from seeing more, feeling more. I like to make an analogy to basketball players and what they call “court sense.” Really experienced players know where everyone is on the court at all times and have their own flair. They know how to move with the ball. Why do we watch college ball? Because there’s a lot of clumsiness in it that makes it interesting as opposed to the NBA, where everything is just so fluid and amazing. That’s not to say that I’ve reached that NBA-level, but constantly working really helps develop your skills and I’ve matured along with my work.
Was it always your intention for this specific work you were shooting in Iraq to end up as a comprehensive book? Do you see its publishing as something of a symbolic closure to your time there?
The last time I shot in Iraq was in 2008. I really put this project together to be a book. I couldn’t find a publisher that wanted to do it. Getting a photo book done now is hard enough, but getting a photo book done about Iraq is even harder. And this book really straddles the line between art and very forward photo journalism. I ended up submitting for this prize for photographers who have never had a book published. I sent in the two chapters and William Eggleston gave it the thumbs up. Now it’s a book.
Will I do more of it? Probably not, because they’re not going to be in Iraq much longer. The book is also a closing chapter for me of sorts. In a way, that was the innocence of my youth. I was single, I didn’t have kids and I could spend years working in a war zone. I didn’t have an apartment or rent and I could be dedicated to this one story. That’s a part of my life that’s gone now. I have a wife, I have kids, I have dogs. I have responsibilities. Will I spend as much time on one story in the future? I don’t know, but probably not. That was my 20s. That was my period of growth. That was my reaction to 9/11. Iraq was my graduate school basically.
One collection of images in the book depicts the streets of Iraq as shot through blast windows in an armored vehicle. Was it necessity that guided that creative decision?
Basically from 2005 to late 2007, you couldn’t really get out of a car and just walk around Iraq and photograph daily life. It was just too dangerous. If you wanted to show how Iraqis were living or the state of the country from a daily life point of view, it was sort of impossible because you could only be with US soldiers or armed guards. You could only be in one place for maybe two minutes before you had to move on because of possible kidnappings or bombings. There was really no way to show what was going on outside of raids and hospital beds.
So, you didn’t feel like people were getting an accurate picture of what it was actually like to be on the ground in Iraq if they weren’t part of the US forces.
The way that this project started was that I had lost all my clothing in a bag that burned up, so I had asked my mom to FedEx me pants. I don’t know why I didn’t ask my wife, but I asked my mom and FedEx worked in Iraq, which was awesome. Instead of saying, “Sure, I’ll go to the Gap to buy you some pants and send them to you,” my mom said, “Why can’t you go to the mall?”
My mom’s not an idiot. I said, “What do you mean, go to the mall? Do you think there’s a mall in Baghdad?” She said, “Why not? I don’t know. What does Baghdad look like? I haven’t seen it. All I see are attacks and raids and soldiers in Humvees and in hospital beds. You haven’t shown me if there’s an escalator in Baghdad.” There are actually two escalators in all of Iraq and I’ve ridden them both, but she was right, I hadn’t shown her any of that. I couldn’t. I could only photograph outside the windows because that’s the only experience I have with Iraq beyond the actual scenes of war. So I just started photographing out of windows to show my mom what Baghdad looked like. It grew from there and took on a life of its own. I did it from 2003 through 2008. Everything basically started with my mother.
Is the genesis story for the night vision images as amusing as that one?
That actually started with my wife [laughs]. As I started growing as a photographer and I was incorporating more of my artistic sensibilities into what I was doing and really envisioning things from a different perspective rather than being a straight forward photo journalist. I was looking for something that would go with the windows and my wife went through all my work and found all these night vision situations from when I had gone out on night raids. She started curating it and pulling out all these images and she said, “you know what? You have a second strong body of work here of just Iraq at night.” She was right. We started putting that together as a second chapter that went with the same thesis. I look for opportunities to create situations or bodies of work where the aesthetic is part of the narrative. I think that’s important.
**Going through your body of work, your Fashion Week photos really stand out, in large part due to their juxtaposition with the hard conflict reportage. But, despite the subject matter, that work still seems to apply a very unique, gritty aesthetic to a world that’s typically very glossy. How did that project come about? **
I had just survived a suicide bombing in 2008. I was still in Iraq when the photo editor for New York magazine, Jodi Quon, called to give me that fashion assignment. She called me on my New York phone. It was afternoon in Iraq and I was driving back from the hospital where I was visiting my friend who was injured in the bombing. I remember being like “yeah, I’ll do it.” I’d take whatever work came my way, but it was very unexpected. I didn’t know how to deal with it. I was still wearing pants that were bloodstained.
So, I left Iraq and went to Easter Island for another assignment. It’s a 36-hour flight. Then from Easter Island I went back to New York and right away started shooting this fashion stuff. The first show that I got to — I don’t remember the designers name, but she was having a complete meltdown. None of the pieces looked good and the models were making fun of her and something wasn’t dressed right and the makeup was wrong. It was the worst day of her life. I just thought, “I just survived a suicide bombing and there were body parts all over the street and you fucking suck.” I remember thinking, “how can I do justice to this while still giving respect to what I had just seen?” I struggled with that for a long time.
**That definitely comes across in the images, but it seems to give them a certain unique perspective and depth. Were you eventually able to reconcile the creative dissonance? **
When I first started the fashion work I was making fun of everyone in my mind. I was doing this flash where I kept the strobe in my belt by my crotch. I called it the crotch flash. I eventually started using rubber bands to secure the flashes to my shoes. I would just kick up my feet whenever I wanted to under-light someone. There were all these other photographers there who had their flashes up above or they were doing Rembrandt lighting or soft boxes and I wanted to do something that was harsh and from the ground up. I wanted to make arches out of everyone’s eyebrows and make their nose shadow appear on their eyes. I just wanted to make it grotesque in a way.
But, then I started to get into it. I was using the Devil Wears Prada excuse that fashion is its own art statement and it does help move the world. You know, they do stuff like any other industry to help bring awareness. One of the models started calling me Baghdad Ben. She was reading The Stranger by Albert Camus while she was getting her nails done and totally went against the cliché about what a model is. That really helped me tone down my anger at what I was seeing.
**So, you see the visual aesthetic to be extremely crucial to the overall efficacy of the images themselves, regardless of content. **
All of my successful work that I’ve found rewarding is where I’m able to create a narrative that’s not just contextual. It’s the same with my oil images. The visual aesthetic carries the narrative as well. I think that brings an audience. We have to remember that the general public in the West is extremely visually educated. They see thousands of ads on the train, on the street, and on TV. We have to find a way to bypass what those ads do. All that information that people see serves to create an overload of information. It creates a certain level of apathy to keep on looking at images. We have to find a way to cross that, to get past that, to bridge that reaction. I do that by creating a unique visual. It repeats itself constantly and people wonder, “why does it do that. What is it saying?” Then I’m already successful because I’ve drawn them in and they’re asking questions.