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.

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

VERA SALTZMAN

What happens to photo-school grads after they are handed their diplomas and shown the door? No one seems to know.

Sure, there are a few that find some kind of early success (the worst kind of success, if you ask me). Then there are others who carry on because they are consumed by the possibilities of photography and what it can add to their lives (and who, more often than not, will have to work a day job to be able to afford the luxury of photography).

But most, sick of the rough and tumble hustle of making a career in photography or frustrated by not being successful (however they define that word) seem to melt away. They pick a different, more easily defined job.

In this, the first of  what will be a few interviews with recent grads, Vera Saltzman (SPAO, 2012) talks about how she came to photography, her school experience and the path she’s followed since she graduated.

Lots to learn, even (especially) after you graduate . . .

What’s your background and how you did you end up being a photographer?

I was pretty late to the party when it comes to photography. I spent most of my life in the business world wishing I could be a photographer. When my partner and I decided to go on an adventure and moved to Nunavut from my home province of Nova Scotia, I bought a digital camera, enrolled in a distance education program, and started to learn. Photography was a way of getting to know the place where I lived and helped me to fit into these small Inuit communities. But I was still pretty shy about it all. When we moved to Ottawa I decided to leave my full-time employment to complete the two-year portfolio development program at the School of the Photographic Arts: Ottawa or SPAO as it is affectionately known. There I explored all things photographic including using film and alternative processes.  It was their motto of Vision Content Craft that really motivated me. After I graduated in 2012 we moved here to Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan where I continue to work at it.

 Tell me a little about your career after graduation. How did you proceed? What was your definition of success? And, related to that, what were your ambitions?
 

I really struggled with the move to Saskatchewan. Not only did this province feel very foreign to me, I had left behind a photography community I loved. But I hadn’t come this far to give up, and I kept working. I was pretty determined. I set up a tumblr site with a goal of posting something every week. Baby steps kept me focused on making work. And once again, I turned to photography to help me find my place in a place I didn’t know.

It took time to become part of the artistic community here in Saskatchewan. A local artist in Fort Qu’Appelle introduced me to a retired photography teacher in Regina. I met the owner of Film Rescue International, a world-renowned business in Indian Head that develops vintage and expired  film, and he taught me how to develop my own color film. Another photographer who came across  my tumblr site reached out to me and we’ve become a source of support for each other. It has taken a while but the circle is growing.

In 2006 I had my first solo exhibition “Cry of the Lake Dwellers” at Slate Galley in Regina, which I’m now represented by. And I also started to do some commercial work that allows me the freedom to do my personal work.

I make use of numerous genres including landscape, architecture, portraiture and self-portraiture. Though I now primarily work with film, I enjoy incorporating various techniques and cameras into my practice. I believe in taking advantage of all photography has to offer creatively to continue to expand and evolve my body of work.

I think success means continuing to grow, learn and produce meaningful work. The rewards can be few and far between, and you have to be internally motivated.

Can you talk a little about what you learned about developing a career in photo school, about how your expectations were met and not met? I take it from your answer to my first question that you had experience in the business world. How did what you learned there (in business) help you with building your photo career?

I learned so much! As you know SPAO is a small grassroots school where the students have the opportunity to make things happen. Not only did we learn the craft and history of photography, we came up with project ideas, developed them, wrote artist statements, assembled portfolios and then marketed it all doing everything from circulating exhibition posters, designing our website and artist promo cards, to using social media as a promotion tool and finally hanging shows, even catering food for the event and then networking with patrons, media, etc. I even wrote an artist grant application to win a tuition scholarship. I took advantage of every opportunity to “learn by doing.” Perhaps my previous experience opened my eyes to how it all would apply later on. Whether we like it or not there is a business side to creative work.

One thing I look back on from my time in the corporate world is a workshop I attended to determine my personality type and how it influences the way I like to work. For instance, I prefer to stay open to new information and options rather than having things definitively determined, so I need strategies to help me to pick a direction and follow through. When it comes to personal photography projects now, I usually approach them differently than the structured way we did in school of first picking an idea and then making the images. We didn’t have years to work on a project there, and it also seems much the same way in the art world – you’re expected to produce projects of a specific number of photos within a specific time frame. After I graduated I felt tremendous pressure to come up with a series in this way and, if you’re a person like myself who doesn’t like to close doors, this can be suffocating. I often think about that workshop and remind myself I can do this in my way. I keep making images, playing with processes and exploring the possibilities. At some point though I say “Ok, what do I have here?”  I need to step back and implement some of what I learned in school to help me focus or I’d never get anything done. Photographers like to discuss what is the “right” way to set about a project. Understanding what works for you personally is always the right way.

I don’t think having talent or training is enough either. One thing I treasure more than anything are the resources that I found in photography school: friends, teachers, other alumni, who I still turn to for support. School gave me a community I still value. I’m a big believer in the importance of a network of people supporting one another, no matter what career a person chooses.

You live in Regina. What’s it like living there and tell me a bit about the art/photo scene?

 Growing up on the east coast, I imagined Saskatchewan only as this straight monotonous Trans Canada highway stretching over flat, bald ass prairies. A means to an end – to get to Alberta. But there’s so much more.

 I actually live on a lake in rural Saskatchewan, an hour outside of Regina. I love dropping from the prairies, or “up top” as the locals call it, down into the Qu’Appelle Valley with its chain of lakes surrounded by smooth rolling hills. The amazing Canadian Olympian snowboarder Mark McMorris got his start here at the local ski hill. We live with harsh winters, wind chills over -40C, but also get more sunshine than any other place in Canada. My goal is to travel from the southern grasslands through the boreal forest to the sub-arctic north to better understand the province.

 Historically Saskatchewan is a strong supporter of the arts. For instance, the Saskatchewan Arts Board is the oldest public arts funder in North America. Since 1948, it has been encouraging and funding a wide variety of artistic endeavours. Only the Art Council in Great Britain has a longer history. And BlackFlash, a photography and new media in art magazine, has been published in Saskatoon for the last 34 years. Pretty impressive!

 Similar to Ottawa, there are camera clubs, commercial and freelance photographers, university fine arts programs, and artists/photographers working with photography to create their artistic vision but overall I’d say photography itself is still on the periphery of the art scene here. The legacy of abstract/landscape painting is pretty strong. And ceramics. One man who purchased a piece of mine noted it’s the first photography in his collection. It’s not an easy sell.

 I count myself lucky to have Slate Gallery in Regina representing my work. With their support I’ve had opportunities for exposure I likely wouldn’t have had working on my own anywhere. Not only do they see artistic value in photography, they encourage me in my practice.

Now on to your photos. Tell me a little about your first project in Saskatchewan. How did you choose it? What was your motivation? How long did you spend on it? Any other pertinent info.
 

Picking a project upfront has not been my process. It works well for some, but I honestly think it can be the kiss of death for others. I made lists of projects that are still sitting in a notebook. I beat myself up for being a shit photographer who couldn’t get her act together. It could have been the end of my photography career, but I kept making pictures and talking about photography with friends.

I’m not even sure I can identify a “first project.” It was more like I had all these images and then went back to reflect on them. I seemed to be drawn to certain things, always looking for home. This profound longing for the east coast and a desire to feel a sense of belonging on the Prairies appeared as a common thread. I felt like a transplant that hadn’t taken root. Fishing shacks reminded me of time spent with my father in Nova Scotia, grain elevators marked the landscape like prairie lighthouses, the importance of water in a landlocked province haunted me, and so on.

I try to not put too much weight on how long it takes me to do something. It takes as long as it takes. Perhaps a day, maybe a week, or even years. I spent a week making a handful of images using a simple homemade pinhole camera with some paper negatives called, “I walk the valley.” It speaks to the overwhelming sense of loneliness and sadness I felt when I moved to Saskatchewan, which was intensified by being slammed with menopause. And I was done with it. I had no more to say.

Other work may never end. The fishing shacks and grain elevators for instance are a kind of typology I keep adding to.  I worked on my most recent series “O Human Child” going on three years. Photographing the local iconography, landscapes, or the portraits of people of Saskatchewan helps me to foster attachment and feel like I belong here. I love what Robert Adams says about why people photograph –  “At our best and most fortunate we make pictures because of what stands in front of the camera, to honor what is greater and more interesting than we are. We never accomplish this perfectly, though in return we are given something perfect – a sense of inclusion.”

I may go back to my project list at some point so I won’t get rid of it. I’ll even keep adding to it, but it won’t be what I live and die by.

Vera Saltzman
Slate Gallery
SPAO