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.
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.
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.