FRONT TOWARDS ENEMY- LOUIE PALU

What draws a photographer to harsh environments?

Here Louie Palu talks about his trip from photographing hard rock mines in Canada to the front lines in the war in Afghanistan. The reasons he does it might surprise you.

He also talks a bit about the how’s and the why’s of his book, Front Towards Enemy, which is a box that holds a newsprint, an accordion book, a ‘zine and 10 loose portraits. All these aspects can be looked at individually, or they can be pulled apart and mounted on a wall.

Read on . . .

Tell me how you got from hard rock mines to Afghanistan.

My childhood was full of oral histories to do with war and the lives of workers. I realize, looking back over my life, that until I discovered photography, all I could do was use my imagination to try to see my family’s stories.

I literally started out in the darkness of underground mines looking for my direction. Before I started working in the mines I worked as an intern to photographer Mary Ellen Mark which gave me the structure of working on large, long form projects that went beyond magazines and newspapers. This set up how I approached every project I have worked on.

How does that you do relate to the stories you heard from your family when you were growing up?

The story that haunts me to this day is from one of my father’s closest friends who was in a prisoner of war camp. The story I was told was that the camp guards made his friend fight the guard dogs for the left over scraps of food from the guards meals. The cruelty of the stories told to me from my childhood were made a reality in Afghanistan.

It is hard to come to terms with your family identity in which your parents lived in poverty and experienced the trauma of war. For years I only had my imagination to visualize my parents detailed oral stories from the war. In Afghanistan it was now very real and right in front of me and it affected me deeply. When I looked at the young boys I asked myself if that is how my father looked when he was a boy.

What are your first impressions of Afghanistan.

To answer this question I need to go further back, before Afghanistan, to when I covered the Afghan refugee situation in Pakistan in 2004 as a Staff Photographer at The Globe and Mail. That assignment was my first view into Afghanistan. I had to document the repatriation of refugees from Pakistan back to Afghanistan. I worked out of Islamabad and Peshawar and rode a truck through the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border. I also lived with an Afghan family with 9 children that were accepted into Canada as refugees. Witnessing first hand that journey to a new country and leaving everything behind was very personal for me because my parents and sister left Italy in the 1960’s after growing up through the Second World War.

How many tours (is that what you call them) did you do in Afghanistan, and how long did it take, once you decided not to return there, to arrive at some kind of conclusion you wanted to present to the world?

I would just call them trips, tours are for soldiers and I am not one. I think I made around 7 trips total, maybe 8, I forgot and they ranged from 3 to 7 months per trip. I did the math once with a friend who also covered the war . . . we figured out I spent about 18 months only on covering frontline combat, more than 150 medevac missions and I lost count of how many miles I walked around on patrol. I also did a lot of independent work away from the military covering civilian related stories. Over the course of 5-years I produced a series of photo essays, shot video and wrote a lot.

As a photojournalist I was sharing my reporting daily, weekly and monthly in the news. I knew there would be a book one day, but it took 7-years to produce my book Front Towards Enemy after the war. The big surprise is I also made a feature documentary film, Kandahar Journals, which was not something I planned and it came out in 2015 before the book. The film was my friend Devin Gallagher’s idea, we met in a film editing class in which he was the instructor. I have many personal diaries from back then that several people are encouraging me to publish.

I love the idea of Front Towards Enemy, that it’s one thing made up of four things (which are each, of course, made up of many things, i.e. photographs). How did that idea come about and what’s your rationale for it?

In 2011 I started covering the Mexican drug war. What I quickly understood was happening was how there seemed to be two sides trying to control the narrative of how we did and did not see the drug war. So I published a newspaper called Mira Mexico that the reader could re-edit to suit what they thought the narrative should be, in essence manipulating which photos were seen and in what order. I followed up with three more newspapers one on the prison on Guantanamo Bay titled Operational Security Review and the third on Washington DC titled Federal City as a centre of political power.

 Front Towards Enemy became an expansion of this idea of the reader being able to change the edit of the photographs. I think the thing that frustrated me most about covering any war is how disconnected everyone back home was from the war. Anytime the war came up in a conversation people who had never been where I had been in person were telling me what it was like and criticizing in some cases how I covered the war without having direct knowledge of what the facts were. With Front Towards Enemy I am breaking down the role of the gatekeepers such as photo editors and curators and handing it to the reader.

Your images are widely seen, your movie, Kandahar Journals, features in film festivals around the world. Do you think your work, and the work of other photographers who are doing, for lack of a better word, political photography, makes any difference? What do you hope your work achieves?

 Photojournalism is all about knowledge, transparency and accountability, what you do with it as a reader or viewer is what makes a difference. For me the work my colleagues and I do is about creating dialogue and helping people keep themselves informed about what is happening in the world.

I am not sure when it happened or who started this narrative where photography is supposed to change the world, it doesn’t. However informed and motivated people with a conscious can make a difference and photography is a tool to help those people see parts of the world or issues that are hard or impossible to see.

WHY ARE YOU SPEAKING TO ME?

In Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Bob Dylan (No Direction Home), one of the folk singers he interviews says that in the early days of the Greenwich Village folk scene the question one musician would ask another, when talking about some other musician, was, “Did he (sic) have anything to say?”. That struck a chord with me because when I look (and feel) at art that’s what I’m looking for: Do you have anything to say?

Another question I ask myself is: Why are you speaking to me? And that question, why?, is a minefield when it comes to the arts.

Do you do it for status? For money? Is it a career choice, one where you’ll subvert what’s really on your mind in order to hit the trendy sweet spot? Maybe (and here we come full circle) you have nothing much to say but have developed a platform to say it.

I hear the word “art” bandied about with almost total abandon, people often call the most banal, crafty busy-work “my art”.

We all know that these days reality seems to be what you want it to be or what you say it is. We decry the fact that for some (invariably the “others”) truth is not truth and “their” perspective and beliefs seem to be based on some totally foreign (to us) foundation. And once (if) we get past our emotional, knee-jerk reactions we wonder why.

I say it’s time to apply that same scrutiny to ourselves, to our motives and to why we say what we say.

PROOF

Got the proof of After the Fact this week. Looks bang-on to me.

It’s now on the press and I expect to take delivery by the end of this week.

Here’s some pix of the cover and the inside cover with the dust jacket removed . . .

It’s an edition of 200 and already more than 2/3 sold. (Thanks to all the folks who have supported this project.) Get your copy here.

FORM, FUCTION. FUNCTION, FORM

I’m pretty sure Paul, who is designing After the Fact, is going to send me the first final PDF today.

But it’s not like seeing this first final PDF will shed a whole new light on the thing. After all, the design of After the Fact is very minimal, pared down. So what I’ll be seeing today will be nuance and refinement, not revolution.

You see, the layout, the way the photos are displayed on the pages, the spreads and the turns has already been figured out and dummied-up, shown to all sorts of people and reconfigured and revised again and again. That conclusion was reached weeks ago. The design Paul is attaching to the book is in the type treatment. And there’s not much type to treat.

Anyway . . . for the last few weeks I’ve been questioning those layout and look-and-feel decisions. You see, there is no fancy binding here, no crazy layout, no fold-out pages or complicated architecture to the book, no clamshell case or slipcover. No, the layout and design are simple and straightforward.

There seems to be a trend these days in the photobook world to gussy your book up, to add some deluxe and/or complicated scheme. Sometimes that works really well, the complications do enhance to book. On the other hand, sometimes the flair constructed into photobooks seems superfluous. Not to mention that with some of them it looks like you’d need, like, four hands and a big table to lay the thing on just in order to look at it.

So where (and when) should form outrank function? Should you add complication just because you can? What’s the difference between being trendy and having style? Does the design trickery add to the books’ thesis, or subtract from it?

All these thoughts and questions are rattling through my brain as I get set to finalize After the Fact and put it on the press. And after all that agonizing, wondering if its form is too plain, I’ve arrived at the conclusion that what this work needs and wants is simplicity. The content of the photos, their look and feel, the order they are in and the story they tell should do the heavy lifting.

You can order a copy of After the Fact here.

PERMANENT

Coming to a conclusion, it seems to me, is one of the most difficult things in photography. To know when you’re done shooting, and to edit and sequence the images you have, to arrive at your point can be nerve-wracking.

Of course, if you put your edit online you can change your mind in a day or two, or in two months, no biggie . . . you just make the changes. With a photobook, on the other hand, once its printed there’s no going back,  it’s all locked down, permanent.

And that certainly sharpens your mind.

Now that enough money has been raised to turn After the Fact into a book I find myself in this place . . . finalizing my conclusion. Up to now it has just been a dummy. Image order, print quality, and a million design details were always in the back of my mind. Now I must move them forward, fret, second, third and fourth guess.

The zen dudes will tell you: “First thought, best thought”. In photography that most often, but not always, applies when you are there on the ground shooting. The edit/sequence process, though, requires a second and a third and a fourth and a hundredth thought. Shifting one image will cause a cascade of further changes, will skew meaning and flow, will alter the course of what’s come before and of what will follow.

So I’m having a hard, hard look at the “final” dummy of After the Fact (which I’m quite happy with) and intend to explore some nuances.

For instance, I remember when I was sequencing I was torn between these two images:

The top one is the one that’s in the dummy. The bottom one, I thought, too closely resembled an image which appears 3 or 4 pages later. But, seeing as there are repetitions and echos throughout the book, I’m now having a rethink.

Just like I’m having a final rethink about the whole thing. I’m nervous and excited and can hardly wait.

If you missed out on the Kickstarter you can still order the book here.

CHRISTINA RILEY: BORN

We all hold some idealized vision of what it means to be a mother and how we are supposed to regard that state. We’ve all been told that Motherhood is sacrosanct.

But nothing is holy unless you are a fundamentalist. And fundamentalism leaves no space for nuance, for alternate views. Things are always more complicated that any idealized version would have us believe.

With her second book, BORN, Christina Riley dares to question what it means to be a mother. Or, rather, what it means for her to be a mother.

BORN takes place during Christina’s first year of motherhood. It’s a record of her feelings of loss of self, and the contradictions she felt between what we’re told a mother is supposed to feel and what she was actually feeling.

I asked her some questions about making the photos and the costs and benefits of making work so personal.

She is doing a KickStarter to publish BORN. Here’s the link to that, and a great video where she lays it all out, so honest and true. I hope you will support this work.

Tell me a little about the genesis of, and the motivations behind, BORN.

When I became pregnant in 2013, it came as a little bit of a surprise. I had a lot going on in my life with music and photography… was there room for a baby? Some people are filled with joy and excitement upon finding out they are expecting, but I felt mostly anxious and unsure.

I knew from my past experiences, photographing myself in my life really helped me adapt and understand my situation better. It was able to give me an outside perspective that I could study and think about, distract me from the more difficult, confusing feelings going on in my head. So upon realizing I was going to do it – have a baby, I started right away photographing myself, my changing body and the way the world looked to me. The process was comforting; shooting, editing and sharing.

Right into labor I was taking pictures. Obsessed. And it continued on since my daughter’s birth, into her first years. I think being a very curious person attributes a lot to my motivation with photography. I was determined to document my strange experience through such a “normal” and “natural” thing, that really felt everything but.

Nothing can really prepare you for how you will feel or deal with the sudden change of life. I felt so alone, overwhelmed, sad, frustrated and scared, but at the same time, so much love. I never heard of how upsetting and confusing it could be. Everyone in my life always made it seem easy, beautiful and fulfilling. Feeling lost and alone really motivated me more to keep shooting, to keep searching for solid ground, for a new me. Once I realized I really had something to say, a window into a reality people don’t often advertise but commonly experience, I was motivated to share it and connect.

You talked about motivation and how you went about getting the photos. Can you connect those two things? What would cause you to think, “I need to shoot this”? What were the critical moments you mention? 

In general when I’m living my life, I have a tendency to think photographically. I sort of have this awareness that what I’m doing in the moment could make an interesting photograph that would communicate my feelings. I kind of see it from an outside perspective.  An example of a critical moment would be times where I felt like I was really losing it, at the edge of what I could handle. I think this awareness, or ability to see and document myself in this way spawned from my previous work, Back To Me.

Why do you think your work is so raw, so bare?

Throughout my life I’ve always worn my heart on my sleeve, which I think naturally carried into my personal work with photography. Why hide what is real and true?

After going to college, assisting then shooting professionally, I moved away from my close family and friends to California. I believe not having distractions or much support for a while really gave me the opportunity to experiment more with the medium as a tool of expression and therapy. Having to deal with bipolar disorder from a young age has naturally made my life emotionally tumultuous at times, therefore the rawness of my experience is impossible to avoid. By sharing myself / my life in an open and honest way, I’m able to understand myself and be understood, which is something I have struggled with forever. Photography really helps with that.

What kinds of feedback do you get from these projects? And does that feedback help you to further understand where you’re at, or do the comments you receive just confirm what you already know?

I always get curious about how the projects will be received. Some people who have viewed Born and my previous book, Back To Me, have mentioned how much they can relate to the work – that in a way, it’s reflective of their own experience in life. That type of comment is nice because it’s a reminder that I’m not alone in the emotions that at times make me feel guilty and isolated. Although feedback is important and motivating, it’s not the driving force for me.

BORN- KickStarter
Christina Riley