A Look Into the Life of Conflict Photographer Benjamin Lowy | Popular Photography

A Look Into the Life of Conflict Photographer Benjamin Lowy

Beatings, broken cameras, suicide bombs, and lots of gaffer tape

Ben Lowy Iraq 1

Ben Lowy Iraq 1

DIWANIYAH, IRAQ - MARCH 13: An Iraqi woman walks past a compound wall as and American military vehicle convoy drives by on March 13, 2008 in Diwaniyah, Iraq. (Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

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 career, his work, and what kind of person ends up in the fascinating crucible that is conflict photography.

When you started college in St. Louis, you were actually a design and illustration major. How did you make the transition to photography. It's a relatively big jump, especially when going to something like photojournalism.

I started taking photo classes because I wanted to trace my friends. I wanted to trace forms because I wasn't very good at drawing them. I wound up taking studio classes about how to light. I would get friends and girlfriends and whoever to pose for me and I'd trace their figure. When I couldn't figure out how to go any further, I went to Library Limited, which is a book store in St. Louis. It's unfortunately no more, but they had an awesome photography section. I used to spend hours in there pulling out the big fashion photo books and tracing and sketching the figures. I'd pull out Howard Schatz's Nude Body Nude, or Herb Ritts books or whatever.

One day I pulled out Nachteway's Inferno because it was big and tall like the others and I didn't know it wasn't a fashion book. I was like "holy shit." It changed my life. I sat there for hours and I just looked at those pictures and it changed something inside of me. It was like, this is what I want to do with my life. I actually took a year off from school to teach myself photography.

(Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

Where did you go from there?

I ended up following a girlfriend to Paris and then promptly ran out of money in about a month. I had no cash and ended up hanging out with a lot of other photographers. I ended up going to see the premiere of Harrison's Flowers, which is a decent-ish movie about war photographers, and meeting a photo editor there. This was right around when the second intifada was starting in late 2000, early 2001. We were talking about war photography and he said they could really use people who could speak Arabic and Hebrew over there. I was like, "Of course I can speak Arabic and Hebrew!" I mean, I can't, but it didn't hurt to tell him that. He gave me 400 rolls of chrome and I went over there and started shooting with absolutely no knowledge of how to do this. I kind of New-York-talked my way into becoming a photographer.

**Did you have any desire to come back and finish your formal education after having been out in the field like that? **

I eventually came back to the States and went back to school. I wanted to graduate and start my career. I ended up switching out of the design and illustration major to basically art photography. My professor said basically, "I have nothing I can teach you because we don't teach documentary here. You fulfilled all your credits already, so just do a thesis and I'll let you graduate." So I spent five months living in a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis, photographing life there.

Did you try out the other various forms of photojournalism, or was it straight back to conflict photography immediately after graduation?

I did one internship at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, which is a very sports-oriented newspaper and I learned that I never want to work for a newspaper. Most of what the intern did was like the menu item of the week or high school wrestling. So, it was very much not what I wanted to do.

(Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

**Ultimately, you chose a branch of photography that would regularly put you in harm's way. Have there been times when you questioned that choice? **

When I went back to the West Bank to shoot some stories, I got beaten up very, very badly in the summer of 2002. I lost all my gear and broke pretty much all the major bones in my body. A group of about 20 men dragged me out into the street in a mob situation and beat me.

How do you bounce back from something like that?

My mentor at the time was a Time magazine__ photo editor in Washington D.C., James Coburn. I was speaking to him from the hospital and I said, "I have to go home. All of my gear has been destroyed and I have a fractured skull." He was like, "Ben, if you leave now, you'll always be scared. You'll never, ever be able to photograph this kind of stuff again. I have a couple of cameras here in the office that I'm trying to sell on this new website called eBay -- I don't know if you've heard of it. One of them happens to be Joe McNally's old F3. I'm going to send it to you and I'm going to help pay to extend your ticket for another month. You're going to stay there for another month and work on a project." That's what I ended up doing.

How did you come to end up in Iraq to shoot the photos for your book, Iraq | Perspectives?

My first assignment when I got back was photographing the D.C. sniper case. Then some more serendipity happened. I said, I don't want to stay in D.C. -- I don't want to do the White House stuff. I tried my luck and came to New York. I went to every photo agency I could find because I knew the war in Iraq was going to happen. I walked into Corbis looking for an office job. I was looking for anything and they were the last agency on my list.

As luck would have it, they had a photographer that was going to embed with the US Military in Kuwait. It ended up being that it was Shaul Schwarz, who is Israeli and also works for Getty now. The Kuwaitis wouldn't let him get a visa, so a couple of days before the war started, Corbis needed a photographer to embed with the 101st Airborne. Everyone else was going from the north and had decided not to embed. I was like, "I'll do it."

Brian Storm was the president of Corbis at the time and he was like, "OK." That was it.

(Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

It definitely requires a certain type of individual to do the kind of work you do. Can you shed some light on what kind of person can thrive in such hostile environments?

I love waking up in anonymous hotels day after day. I love living out of a suitcase. In Lybia these last few months, I had like two T-shirts and a pair of pants. I shared a room with Ron Haviv and we did our laundry in the sink. I love that aspect -- that adventure. There's a lifestyle of being a photographer. It doesn't have to be war photography, either, it can just be travel photography in weird places. It's sort of like extreme Boy Scouts, or extreme camping. It's an adventure, and it's fun.

Are there any moments you can look back on in your career so far that encapsulate what it really means to be a conflict photographer?

One of the most interesting experiences I've had was in Libya back in March. As the rebels were fighting for control between Brega and Ras Lanuf, a group of about 17 of us drove into this ex-pat oil worker facility. It was like a western housing complex with all the cul de sacs. It was like we were in Kansas. It was abandoned and rebels were just taking houses. We ended up hunkering down in one house, waiting to see what would happen that night. There was no electricity, so we all had our head-lamps on and we were trying to charge our gear with like one or two car batteries. I brought some canned humus and someone had some pasta. We found a hookah-like thing and someone had some tobacco and we sat around talking about everything we were seeing. In the midst of all that war, we were having this really interesting camp out.

There have been weeks where I'm on a plane every day. I stay at random places and I meet random people who have no idea who I am. Or I'm in China, where I stick out like a sore thumb and the whole idea of what I do is to blend into the background. You see a whole other part of the world, which I totally love doing. I live for that kind of stuff.

(Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

For some of the images in your book you shot through night vision goggles. Was it difficult setting up your gear to get those shots?

It's not very high-tech. You take these goggles that are made for one eye, not for both. I used different combinations of gaffer tape, dental floss, and chewing gum to basically ram it up against my lens. Then it was just a matter of keeping it steady and focusing both of them. You have to focus your lens, but the night vision goggles need to be focused themselves as well. It's a balance. I used gaffer tape on the side of the lens and dental floss wrapped around the front of the goggles and tied to the flash mount for support.

Was there a lot of trial and error to get the technique down?

You have to work with the depth of field a little bit because it's straight up against the camera and you need to use a higher aperture. I found I needed to use a more standard lens rather than a wide angle, so I ended up using a 50 most of the time. I just used what I had on hand.

What kind of gear do you usually carry when you're covering stories in hostile environments?

It has varied throughout the years, but I usually carry two workhorse DSLRs. Right now it's two Canon 5D Mark IIs. I have a 24-70 that I hardly ever use in my bag as a backup in case everything else blows up, but I use prime lenses. I have a 35mm, a 50mm and a 135mm. Occasionally I'll use a wide angle, like a 20mm or a 24mm, but it depends on the situation. In Haiti, I used a 20mm lens. Lately in Afghanistan, I was just using a 35mm and a 50mm. I also carry a film camera -- usually something that shoots 6x6. It's either a Mamiya 6 or a Holga, which I use to make these long panoramics. Lately I've been using my iPhone quite a bit. That's always around.

The work you shot in Libya with your iPhone drew a wide variety of reactions. Now that it has been out there for a bit, how do you see the overall response to those images?

There are the critics who remain steadfast against it. Then there are the people who have always accepted it. Then there are those who just based their reaction on the content, which is how it should be. It's just another tool. I switch tools all the time. Will I use my iPhone forever? Probably not. It becomes boring after a while, but I've been using it for years. I experiment with it because it's the camera that you have on you. It's fast and it creates an interesting aesthetic. I think it also talks about the availability for the masses of these tools. It talks about the paradigm shift that journalism has to undergo now with social media and every person having a camera.

Is the whole idea of citizen journalism as prevalent in the rest of the world as it is here in the U.S.?

It almost seems like more people have cell phone cameras in third world countries than they do here in the US. My wife is from the Philippines and we've gone to the south, which is a really war-torn area. They hardly have roads, but they have cell phone towers. The first way to try and create dialog and bring people together, is to work on the communication infrastructure. You can go to the middle of nowhere in Africa and people have cell phones, which I find really interesting. All those cell phones have cameras.

I remember being on the front lines of Ajdabiya back in March and I basically had my 5D in one hand and my iPhone in the other, taking pictures at the same time. I'd be in a foxhole, behind a berm with a guy firing an AK-47 with the shells landing all around me, and in my frame somewhere was a rebel kid with a cell phone camera in his hand, taking pictures just like me. When I came back, I realized I had too many pictures of people taking pictures.

(Photo by Benjamin Lowy/Edit by Getty Images)

What happens with all the images they're taking?

If you look at Syria right now, there are no journalists traveling there. That is all information from random Syrians taking pictures with their phones and posting it on Twitter, or YouTube, or Flickr, or whatever. I think that is part of the reason, specifically with Libya, that it was particularly apropos to use my iPhone because it found its place. It deserved to be used to photograph a conflict or a social situation that was, in fact, brought on by information disseminated by mobile phones. It's interesting where it might lead.

What do you think the main problem is that people are having with this shift?

A lot of the criticism about the iPhone is that it's not real and that it creates a different look that doesn't exist in reality, but so does black and white film. That doesn't exist in reality, but no one has a problem with that. I think some people hold onto staid ideas because they're afraid of change. At the end of the day, our responsibility as photojournalists is to efficiently connect with our audience and communicate an idea. If you can do that by creating a new aesthetic that provokes people to take the proverbial step forward to consume the image, then your job is successful. What writers do with prose, photographers do with style. I want to tell the story of Libya and make it look different than other wire images or 35mm -- that rectangular shape that everyone has grown accustomed to. If I can do that and make it harder for John Q. Public to turn away from the image, then I've been successful and it doesn't matter what tool I use. Maybe next time I'll draw.

**After you're done with the promotional efforts for your book, what's the next project you'll be working on? **

I have to finish all of this book tour stuff, but I don't know what the next thing will be. I've applied for grants to go back to Libya. The Iraq pull-out is happening. I've been working a lot in Afghanistan, but I don't know. I'm just waiting for that next new project to land in my lap. I'm not one of those people who plan out what I'm going to do far in advance. I have very visceral reactions to what I see in front of me and that's how I base what I'm going to do. I don't know what I'm going to do until I start doing it. Right now, I'm just working on my diaper fund to pay for my kid's Huggies over the next couple of months, so wherever that takes me. Maybe I'll just start doing still-lifes of diapers.

MORE FROM BENJAMIN LOWY ABOUT HIS BOOK AT AMERICANPHOTOMAG.COM

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