Ben Lowy Interview – Part 2

- - Photographers

by Jonathan Blaustein

I caught up with Ben Lowy in August. He’s a busy man, juggling family and personal projects with a super-charged career. In the last year alone, he was in Libya, on Jon Stewart, won the photojournalist of the year award from the ICP, and had his book, “Iraq Perspectives” published by the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke. This is Part 2 of my interview, part 1 is (here).

Jonathan Blaustein: We met in 2009, a little bit before you were king of the world. You were probably prince, but not yet king.

Ben Lowy: Whatever. I’m not king of the world.

JB: All right, I’m exaggerating a little. You get the point. You don’t have to be humble, you’re being interviewed.

BL: OK.

JB:You said to me, “I’m about to have my first kid, and I need to transition my career. I’m done with the war stuff because I’m going to have a family, and I need to figure out a way to be based more in New York.”

BL: As with any type of specialized job, where people excel to be part of a niche, a lot of it is ego. I couldn’t, and I still can’t put my ego aside. I worked really hard to be this war photographer. That started when I was 23, where my first assignment was the Iraq War. I was really ambitious.

JB: Did I read that you took Saul Schwarz’s place on your first job? Is that right? As a 23 year old kid?

BL: Yeah. There are no hard feelings between us about that. But I couldn’t give it up. Even now, when I see my friends who are in Syria, I feel a twinge. Not just because I want to cover that story. It’s what your contemporaries are doing. There’s a certain keeping up with the Joneses of every industry. That’s the only way you keep going, is to have somewhat of an ego.

Photography, regardless if it’s photojournalism, or some sort of esoteric contemporary art, you’re putting a bit of your soul in it. That soul is what makes you take a picture at that instant. It’s what makes you compose, to wait for things to happen. For serendipity.

Every photograph is a product of the photographer’s experiences in their entire life. It’s everything that comes together that makes them want to take that picture at that instant. Otherwise, we would all be robots.

When I had kids, I fought the idea that I have to give this up. Am I being an irresponsible parent to go back and do this? And I think what was really hard, especially after my second son, Kaleb, was my wife went into labor an hour after Tim Hetherington’s memorial. And Kaleb was born on May 25th, which was the day Robert Capa died.

Two months later, Tripoli was falling, and I wanted to go back. My wife had a big problem with me doing that. So I promised her, look at Joachim Ladefoged’s book on Albanians. It’s an amazing book, and there are no violent situations in there. So I can go back and cover Libya without getting into any violence. And she was like, “Sure.”

And then I went, and me, Ron Haviv, and Yuri Korzyev shared a car together. Of course, those dudes are just looking for violence. I ended up grabbing this picture of this guy getting his head blown off like 5 feet in front of me. Literally, he got his head blown off in front of me.

It was in a stairwell of an apartment building. I watched as the blood started cascading down the stairs. I took several pictures of it. And then, I was standing next to Ron, and we were like, “We need to get the fuck out of here,” because the rebels had just left. As we were running out of the building, someone chucked a grenade over our head. Ron has a video of this, as we were running down the stairs.

I sat on those pictures for weeks. And I didn’t move them. The minute I moved them, my wife was going to know. Actually that’s what happened. Within an hour of transferring them, my wife had seen them on the Getty site, and she was furious.

She said, “It’s basically like you cheated on me.”

JB: Wow. You cheated on her with War.

BL: Yeah. She was almost going to leave me. When I left Libya last year, I went to Afghanistan for an assignment, and I was there for about 6 weeks. My American phone bill must have been $5000, because I was constantly on the phone with my wife, begging her not to leave me.

One of the things that I had to recognize, which was really hard, was that I’m selfish. I had to man up and acknowledge that, for this job to work. Even yesterday, when I walk out of the door to come here, my son was crying. Standing by the door, crying. And I just took my camera bag, and I left.

I’m sure that happens to everyone with children, but to do this job, to be on the road, and then to risk your life when you have a child waiting for you is selfish. Is it any different than being a soldier or a police officer? No one has to do these jobs. We choose to do them because we feel like we bring something to the table.

A soldier protects his country, a police officer protects his community, and as a journalist, I’m trying to educate my community. We all make these sacrifices of our home, our friendships, or our family. There has to be an awareness that to do this, I was being a little selfish. Or a lot selfish. To put myself in danger, to say, “I might die and my kids might grow up without a parent because I want to take these pictures.”

Why do we as photographers always go straight to the worst parts? The first pictures any student takes are of homeless dudes. It’s easy, it’s grimy. We’re taught that it’s the epitome of photography, the off-center, because the normal photo of Billy on Main Street holding a balloon is not enough. He has to be holding a grenade like Diane Arbus.

JB: It’s the drama. It’s innate human nature, to look at or hear or read something that takes you out of your head. The drama of someone’s tragedy is what drives people to want to look at the pictures that you make.

I was looking at your most recent work on your website, “The Fall of Tripoli.” First of all, the work is so present. It seems like you’re growing, which I’m sure was your goal. I could almost smell the pictures. There were a lot of photographs of char, and burning. They bring you into the moment, and I was almost having phantom smells.

That’s interesting to me, because photography is clearly a visual medium. Beyond the smells, even sounds were popping in my head, like wailing sirens.

What sensory impressions do you have from your time there? Is it sounds, or smells, or what?

BL: Smell is amazing. Cordite, and explosions, and burning have really unique smells that you don’t smell in the West. The smell of death is really intense. It’s one of those things where if you smell it, even if you’re uninitiated, you will know that something is dead. The smell is that strong, that pungent, and biologically, you will recognize it.

When you’re on the front lines, you can smell burning gunpowder, the dust in the wind. There is something very visceral about that.

Sound is very difficult. We are ruined by Jerry Bruckheimer movies. We are ruined by Hollywood. When you see an explosion in a movie, you hear it. But in real life, you see it way before you hear it. The speed of light and the speed of sound are two different things. It’s very disconcerting. Not how we expect it to work out.

The closest thing is like a David Mamet movie. There’s no soundtrack. Have you seen “Haywire?” It’s by…

JB: Stephen Soderbergh? No, I haven’t seen it.

BL: If you look at “Haywire,” all the fight scenes have no soundtrack. And the gunfire was real. It was real sounds.

JB: Is that the one that featured the female MMA star?

BL: Yeah. Gunfire doesn’t sound like what it does in the movies. Silencers don’t work like you think they do. Explosions are…you only learn this stuff from being in the field. I guess it’s weird that I know that.

There’s no way to accurately portray what it’s like being there. We’re trying to do it in the most efficient way possible. But there’s no way to record smell. Yet. And I’m not sure that would really jive with the crowd who eats their breakfast and watches the news in the morning.

JB: Do you think it’s interesting that I thought your pictures were implying it?

BL: I do. But I have to say that’s not something that I was consciously trying to do.

JB: Your new work is some of your best work. You know, my training is in Art. That’s the way I make my work, how I express myself. And with these images, the sense of presence, of someone actually being there, combined with some formal compositions, there was a bit of transformation.

I look at a lot of pictures, as you can imagine, and looking at that particular batch, it wasn’t so much the thrill of the chase…

BL: I’m just maturing as a photographer. Earlier in my career, I was making images because I thought I had to make them. Or because this was what an image was supposed to be like. Now I’m making images purely based upon my experiences. This is something visceral to me, so I’m photographing it.

That’s where you’re getting more information, because I’m reacting to those sounds and those smells, and now, my eye has matured enough where I’m able to construct an image that implies all these things.

JB: Yeah.

BL: I’m there more in these images than in the past.

JB: That’s what I’m getting out of it. How do you gauge your improvement as a photographer?

BL: To be honest, I feel like I hit this plateau in the last few years. There was a point in 2007-8 where I was constantly working. I had a client at the time who really championed me, kept me busy. Because I was working so much, it was like I was practicing so much. I was able to really grow.

In the last two years, because of the downturn in the economy, it’s been very hard, and there hasn’t been a lot of work. And then, having kids, I haven’t been doing anything on spec, because I’m not allowed to raid the diaper fund. It’s been a little hard to grow my eye.

That being said, I’m definitely seeing the world more in a way that I want to see it, rather than the way I thought I should see it. I think when we all start, we look at the photographers that we enjoy, and we try to construct images based on those archetypes.

How many students have recreated that eyes cut off on the bottom of the frame picture that we’ve seen 1000 times? Or the foreground crazy out of focus head, and then something in the background, for easy layering? These are tropes of compositional photography that we use as crutches, and once you get through them, and you understand the language of photography, as you grow, you move past those. And you start creating your own tropes.

JB: OK. In the beginning of the interview, you mentioned that with your busy life, you don’t have time to do go see any shows or anything. Outside of looking at your colleagues’ photography, what do you look to for inspiration? How do you feed your brain?

BL: That’s a problem. There hasn’t been a lot of that of late. I read a lot.

JB: Anything interesting lately?

BL: I’m just finishing up my last Haruki Murakami book.

JB: The master.

BL: I wish I could photograph like that. I wish I could take his literary vision and photograph it.

JB: You and everybody else, dude.

Jonathan Blaustein

There Are 26 Comments On This Article.

  1. Interesting interview however the presentation of the images is at odds with Lowry’s description of himself as a ‘journalist’.

    He says ‘and as a journalist, I’m trying to educate my community.’

    Bollocks.

    Not a single photo here has a caption. It’s totally gratuitous.

    • Oh Duckrabbit. You should know better yourself. Since when do subjects of interviews get approval on final edit or presentation? Could you not have pointed your finger at Jonathan instead of Ben? Nah wouldn’t help you now would it. About as gratuitous as selectively pulling quote and using it as an inflammatory hed right?

      • @myles Ah so you have the inside. Lowry, being a proper journalist, provided the captions and Blaustein, being a sycophant, ignored them.

        And pointing out that gratiuitously publishing photos of dead people to show what a great photographer/journalist someone is, is well, as bad as pointing out how dumb that is?

          • Brilliant.

            You could come back on the question as to wether using multiple pictures of dead people (someone’s son or daughter), stripped of any context other than to illustrate what a great ‘photojournalist’ someone is, is gratuitous and contradictory, or you can just call the critic a douche.

            Good call.

                  • Hello APE? Its not a Scooby do mystery!

                    Everyone can see you’ve just published snuff seemingly with the only purpose of showing what a great photojournalist Lowry is.

                    Nothing ‘thinly veiled’ about that, is there?

                    Some people will get off on that, others will say that in this instance you have no taste, respect for the dead or understanding of journalism. But you can’t answer the question because it seems it doesn’t even occur to you? Instead I’m douche.

                    Brilliant.

  2. Brutha I wish I had the inside. Sadly, like you, I sit on the outside – was merely pointing out that Ben shouldn’t be held responsible for what is written about him or how he is portrayed.

  3. “Or the foreground crazy out of focus head, and then something in the background, for easy layering? These are tropes of compositional photography that we use as crutches, and once you get through them, and you understand the language of photography, as you grow, you move past those. And you start creating your own tropes.”

    Did he not shoot the second image above? Did he forget that he moved past this crutch?

          • Am I not looking at a photo in this interview of exactly what he said he moved past? Why is it obvious then?

            Maybe you should “edit” the photos then so they don’t contradict what your subject stated.

            Talk about being a “douche”, wtf is up with you lately?

            • yes, that’s the trope the the other images are not. we picked it because we liked it and because it illustrates the point that you can’t move past it because that’s what magazines want to publish.

              so, nit picky. what crawled up your ass?

              • ‘So, nit picky. what crawled up your ass?

                APE, is that a rhetorical question?

                Here’s another one:

                I take it you had your tongue firmly in your cheek when arguing that that the other images are not war tropes? I mean a dead body in the street …

                  • I had to laugh at your comment above, nice!

                    The comments make an interesting read in addition to the interview Thanks JB. I certainly didn’t need a caption to relate the story of the images. Whether the local is Libya, Afghanistan, or Sudan it really doesn’t matter. Then again not many have seen the ravages of war first hand.

  4. scott Rex Ely

    Tropes illustrating death? What part of the delivery makes it incorrigible? The content or the viewer’s consistent reaction to any dose of the truth that the image the are in fact looking at is one of human death?
    I’d like to know why we can’t apparently move past this phenomenon. We obviously can’t move past the idea of DR being a douche, so where’s the aesthetic laxative to all of this?

  5. I for one think it is a very insightful interview into the practice of a paid-up Photojournalist who risked his own life to photograph – scratch that – report of the reality of a situation, and how that has affected his current life and future practice. Surely one who photographs the reality of a war ravaged country has a responsibility to show the living and the dead; to show the results of war. Is this not what the history of photojournalism has taught us?

    Tropes aside, they are images selected which, from my reading regard the text in complimentary fashion being that both JB and BL (that is LOWY by the way not LOWRY) talk about the stench and sound of death, the insertion of the photographer deep within the threat of mortality and this if anything justifies the selection.

    If Duckrabbit wants to throw the gratuitous card around, well, I’m sure ‘gratuitous’ is a word which best describes the needless death of thousands of sons and daughters in war. The fact remains they are images of real situations, taken by someone with obvious skill, talent and balls, so we in our secure world can see what is actually happening. Simply put, this if anything is photojournalism.

    By the way, the tongue-in-cheek/friendly banter between interviewer and interviewee doesn’t come across as “sycophantic” but more a conversation between two people, like I hear most days.