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.
Jonathan Blaustein: Forgive me if I’m a bit slow today, but we’re about to have a kid, so my mind is frazzled.
Ben Lowy: I absolutely love being a Dad. I love having two kids. They’re both in the tantrum stage right now.
JB: Because you bunched them up, right?
BL: Yeah, the oldest one’s about to turn three. And the youngest one is about 15 months.
JB: Oh my goodness.
BL: Yeah, they’re right together there. I love it. The thing is, I have no social life. By the time we put them to bed, at 7:30 or 8pm, we don’t want to go out or do anything. We’d have to do it separately anyway.
Whatever free time we have is either with the kids, or working on the evaporating work environment of photography. You’re holding on by this much. There’s no time to go to museums, or go to a movie. There’s nothing coming in to inspire you.
JB: That was one of my questions for later on, so we can touch back in on that. It might be really interesting to talk about it in depth, because I’m a big believer that input is really necessary to make us grow.
Let’s start with the obvious. You’re in Denver right now. What are you working on?
BL: I am shooting a UFC fight. A cage fight.
JB: When you said Denver, I assumed you were there for the aftermath of the latest psychopathic episode.
BL: I think that was covered right away. And the follow up is just the memorial. I think the American news cycle has moved away from things like that. There’s so much content on the wire services, and people who are out there. It’s sort of like the death of spot news.
JB: So they hire Ben Lowy for the action, not the reaction.
BL: I’ve been here twice, and neither time was for Aurora. I was here last week to shoot Broncos practice for Peyton Manning.
JB: You got to hang out with Peyton?
BL: No, no. I was working for ESPN, and the Broncos blew off ESPN. I got 20 minutes on the training field. That’s how high brow they think they are.
JB: You know why? Because John Elway is John Elway. He doesn’t even need ESPN.
BL: (Pause) C’est la vie.
JB: That was a big pause. Clearly, my amateur response was not quite it. There are more details there, and you’re not saying them.
BL: I wish there was more to it. You know, I’ve been shooting cage fighting on and off for the last 5 years.
JB: I didn’t know that. Is that a personal project for you?
BL: Yeah. I had really bad PTSD after a bomb in Iraq in 2007. And I had no one to talk to about it. My wife was going through her own battles with depression at the time, and was hospitalized. I don’t know if you saw the project she had done on it.
BL: She was in the hospital, and I really didn’t have anyone to talk to. I was starting to feel really guilty about surviving. And then also taking care of my wife. I started, at night, going around the city of New York picking fights. Because I wanted to get beaten up because I felt so guilty.
JB: I wanted to talk to you about how you protect and deal with your psyche. Before I could ask, you started talking about it in ways that are pretty extreme.
BL: I’m an open book. I’ve got nothing to hide. I was pretty fucked up by things that happened in 2007. And I felt really guilty about surviving.
JB: A bomb attack?
BL: A bomb attack. When I came back, I had no way to process it. I tried to work through it, but it just kept getting worse. I used to be a man of infinite patience, and found myself losing it. Little mundane things. Like if I dropped a glass while washing dishes, it would send me on a rant, and I’d end up punching the walls of my apartment. I was so angry.
A lot of it was feeling guilty for surviving, and feeling angry for being out of control. One of the leftover effects, after going through therapy, is that I can’t drink or do drugs. I just can’t do it. And it’s not because of a moral choice.
This bombing happened. This series of IED’s, that destroyed five of the ten car convoy. The last car I got in, I was sitting behind the driver, and was watching how he was driving. Turning the steering wheel here and there. He could have driven over any IED. I had no control over whether I lived or died. My life was in that guy’s hands.
JB: So we’re talking about a convoy of multiple humvees, five of which exploded, and everyone died, and you survived.
BL: A lot of people died, and were injured. Yeah.
JB: And you were there by choice.
BL: Yeah. Yeah. I had just gotten out of a vehicle that I didn’t want to be in. I wanted to be a bit further up to the front, where I thought I’d be able to make better pictures. The vehicle I’d just gotten out of was actually destroyed. Five minutes after I’d gotten out.
JB: For your photography, your method of expression, you’re putting yourself in situations that 99% of our readership are not going to understand. Myself included. But I don’t necessarily want to ask you why you do that, because that stuff has been covered. Do you ever get tired of trying to explain yourself?
BL: (Pause) You know, right now, I’m staying in a hotel. I’ll sit at breakfast with a bunch of other businesspeople. We’ll all be schmoozing, and I’ll tell them what I do. They’ll say, “You were in Iraq?” and I’m like, “Yeah,” and they’ll say, “What was that like?”
JB: That’s what people are going to say.
BL: That question is annoying after a while, but at the same time, how can you blame someone for asking that? You want people to be genuinely interested. You want them to look at your pictures and read the stories.
The one thing I would never ask a soldier is what it’s like to kill someone. That’s a very private thing. Everyone asks me what it’s like to photograph dead babies, or to see people being killed. It’s a very hard question to answer, because we’re all sensitive and empathetic in our own way to different things.
I always knew I was going to be a war photographer, when I first got into photography. I picked up a copy of “Inferno” by Nachtwey, and I thought, this is what I’m doing. I don’t know what it is inside me that let’s me operate. I feel a certain contentedness in doing this work.
Not all combat photographers or photojournalists are close friends. Definitely there’s animosity and rancor and jealousy and envy between a lot of us. It’s a very competitive field. But when you’re in the field, and you’re under fire… I don’t know if you read Sebastian Junger’s book on War?
BL: He talked about the brotherhood of soldiers. Regardless of where you’re from, when you’re under fire, there’s an intense brotherhood. Definitely with photographers, when you’re in the field, and you’re working, there is an intense comradeship. Is that a word?
JB: Dude, it’s the 21st Century. You can make a word just by saying it. Ready? Blart. To blart means…
BL: We’re blarting right now.
BL: But there’s an intense comradeship. You’re part of this organic group, covering something very dangerous.
JB: To be honest, I am less interested in asking you why you do it, and more interested in the effect upon you, which is where you started.
BL: I was picking fights, and ended up joining a fight club. Then a friend of mine introduced me to cage fighting. I started fighting in it myself, but I’m not much of an athlete, and was getting my ass kicked. Which is what I wanted.
Then, I just started photographing it, and it’s been a catharsis for me. Not really the professional level, where it’s more of a sport. But the amateur level, where it’s more of anger. More of an explosive pride and frustration that builds inside the fighters’ hearts. Being around that helped me tremendously.
JB: It sounds like it puts together two different incredibly powerful aspects of your life. One is the anger and aggression that you’re talking about feeling, and the other is raw, primal nature of what they’re doing, which is gotta be what’s driving you to make a living the way you are.
You’re a very bright guy. You know there are a lot of things you could do. It’s not just that you’re capable of doing what you are, but it must be answering some sort of compulsion, no? There are a lot of things you could do, and yet you keep going back.
BL: I know. Much to my wife’s annoyance.
Part 2 tomorrow