PPD Master Series: Benjamin Lowy, Eyewitness to History

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday December 9, 2015

Photographer Benjamin Lowy  has spent much of his career in one of the most exclusive and certainly most grim niches of photojournalism: He photographs wars. Unlike many war photographers who had long journalistic careers as a preamble to covering conflict, Lowy came to his career when he was just a year out of college. Then 23, he was embedded with the US Army’s 101st Airborne Division to photograph the Iraq war for Time magazine.

Lowy stumbled into photography. “I originally wanted be an illustrator, a comic book artist. But I wasn’t very good at it and I ended up getting into photography so that I could draw people better,” he says. “I would photograph people on sports teams and basically trace the photographs so that I could put people in the poses that I wanted. In comic books you really need to imply motion in your drawings and mine were always very stiff. That’s how I discovered photography.”

When he couldn’t find enough live models, he would go to bookstores and study fashion books and figure studies by photographers like Howard Schatz. “One day I pulled out James Nachtwey’s Inferno. I thought it was another fashion-photography book, and I just sat there in the bookstore and had my life change,” he says. “It was a ‘Eureka!’ moment for me. It just steadily grew from there. I took a year off from school and questioned what the hell I was going to do and started to find my way into photojournalism.”

How does one transition from art student to war photographer? “I think I was prepared for war photography. I knew that this was what I wanted to do was become a war photographer. It wasn’t just photojournalism, it was becoming a war photographer.” he says. “When I saw images of war, I knew that I should witness that.”

While Lowy has covered war and natural disasters — including the 2010 earthquake in Haiti and the effects of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 — he does not see himself as only a photojournalist. “While most of my career has been photojournalistic, I sometimes see outside of that convention and that very stiff box that you can put yourself in. While I prefer to document the world around me, I recognize that there are other things out there, too,” he says. “Just making images makes me happy. They don’t necessarily need to be photojournalistic.” Among the subjects he also photographs are sports, wildlife, travel and adventure. Lowy also currently works with Sony as a Sony Artisan.

For today’s PPD Master Series Sponsored by Sony, Lowy spoke to photographer and writer Jeff Wignall  about his immersion in war photography and the profound affect that seeing so much of the world’s dark side through his viewfinder has had on him personally. Please follow @sonyalpha at Instagram.

PPD: In 2003, only a year out of college, you ended up covering the war in Iraq. How did that happen?

BL: In December of 2000, after I had decided that photography was what I wanted to do, I had taken some time off from school and went to live with my girlfriend at the time in Paris, and I was trying to teach myself photography and photojournalism. I ended up going to Israel and the West Bank to photograph the Second Intifada in January or February of 2001 for about a month. That was my first real taste of photojournalism. I was shooting for a small photo agency that had been founded by Floris de Bonneville, who was one of the founders of Gamma. I had met him through another photo editor in Paris. He told me that he really needed a photographer who spoke Arabic and Hebrew to go cover the uprising. And I told him, "I can speak Arabic and Hebrew," though I couldn’t. And so there I was in Israel.

PPD: Where did things go from there?

BL: After I had this taste of being a photojournalist, I went back to Paris and did a couple of assignments, and then I went back to the United States. I decided that I had to graduate from school — Washington University in St. Louis — but they had no photojournalism major, so my photo professor had me do a project. I ended up moving into a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis and spent about five months photographing there. And this was right around when 9/11 happened. I stayed there and was photographing life inside this homeless shelter, and that became my graduate thesis.

Then in January of 2002 I took an internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It was kind of the worst place in the world for me — or maybe it was the best. I realized I never wanted to be a newspaper photographer; I hated it. I was photographing things like the “menu of the week,” and I felt it destroying my creativity. I was running from stupid assignment to stupid assignment that I didn’t learn anything from, and I didn’t feel like I was growing as a photographer in the ways that I felt I needed to grow. So as soon as that internship ended I decided to go back to Israel where I had had the first taste of doing what I really wanted to do. So I saved up money and then in June or July of 2002 I went back. I think everyone feels strongly about the first thing that they cover, and I just wanted to go back.

PPD: You got beaten up badly while you were shooting in Israel. How did that happen?

BL: When I first got back there I thought I’d try to get into the settlements in Hebron because no one ever documents them. It’s easy to photograph kids throwing rocks, but what about the other side? So I tried to do that, and I was photographing there for three weeks until at a funeral I did get beaten up quite badly by a group of people I was photographing. Twenty men dragged me into the street and beat the shit out of me. There is no way you can fight off that. I dislocated my shoulder, I broke my elbow, three ribs, fractured my skull and damaged my knee a little.

PPD: This didn’t discourage you from wanting to be a photographer?

BL: No, actually, it encouraged me. It created some psychic trauma that continues to this day.

PPD: How did you get the assignment to go to Iraq?

BL: I was shooting in Washington, D.C., working with an agency there. I knew what I wanted to do. I wanted to work with a bigger agency, but people kept telling me to go back to school, that I wasn’t good enough. Finally I went to see some people at the Corbis agency. I went in at the just right time. The American invasion of Iraq was coming, and they were trying to figure out who was going to go in on an embed with troops. And in I walked. David Laidler, who recently passed away, was the photo editor at the time. He decided to take a gamble on me. He said, “Do you want to go to Iraq?” And I said, “Yes!”

PPD: Was shooting war what you thought it would be?

BL: No, nothing is what I thought it would be, which I think is good. If you can go in without preconceived ideas, that’s great. To be honest, I don’t even think the president and the secretary of defense knew what the Iraq war was going to be like. I was an immature 23-year-old kid, and I hadn’t seen much of the world yet. My only education about photography came looking at James Nachtwey’s Inferno and different books that I found in bookstores. So I was looking for that dirty, bullet-ridden window for me to frame someone behind. I’m so glad that it wasn’t what I expected it to be, because I learned so much so quickly in those first few months—while doing my job, while being on deadline.

PPD: Were your photos being used regularly by Corbis?

BL: I ended up being put on assignment for almost six months for Time magazine. Nachtwey was supposed to embed with the 101st Airborne Division for Time, but he decided at the last minute to go unilateral — to be on his own, rather than embedding with the military. That left the 101st Airborne open, so that’s where I embedded. There weren’t any other freelancers where I was. On the night before the war started, there was an incident where we were stationed in Kuwait, at a place called Camp Pennsylvania. A U.S. soldier used grenades to attack other soldiers, and my shots from that incident were published around the world. After that, Time put me on assignment until I went home in September.

PPD: That must have been a heady experience, to be shooting for Time at such a young age.

BL: Yeah, I gained an ego the size of the Empire State Building, and I think some people that know me think I’ve never recovered.

             Please go here  to see a slideshow of Benjamin Lowy's photography

PPD: It seems like a strange combination, but you’ve also photographed a lot of sports. Is there a parallel between war and sports?

BL: I really do enjoy shooting sports and trying to create something unique out of events that most of us have seen before. I kind of look to sports as man’s attempt at conflict resolution. It’s like, let’s play this game and have Boston and New York fight it out on the field rather than having tribal warfare. It’s a stand-in for war in many ways, and I’m very interested in that. Luckily, I have a lot of editors and friends at ESPN and Sports Illustrated who give me the opportunity to shoot sports in my own way. I’ve done three Super Bowls now.

I also have a real interest in wrestling as the world’s oldest sport. I’ve photographed a lot of traditional wrestling techniques — oil wrestling in Turkey and Kushi in India. And I’ve photographed seven years of MMA cage fighting here in the U.S. I also photographed the World Wrestling Championships for the Olympic wrestling committee last year in Uzbekistan. I’ve done Sudanese wrestling as well.

PPD: You’ve also covered natural disasters, including the earthquake in Haiti and Hurricane Sandy here in the United States. Is there a difference between working close to home and in another country?

BL: Sometimes it’s easier to photograph empowering moments in places where you don’t speak the language or where you’re not a part of the community. In a place like Haiti, they are used to having journalists come down from richer nations and being photographed, whereas people in New York wouldn’t expect photographers to be in their faces constantly. Sometimes it’s also easier to photograph in places where you don’t understand what’s being said around you. It just depends on the type of person that you are.

PPD: You’re using Sony mirrorless cameras in your work now, correct? What cameras are you using?

BL: Right now I’m using the Sony a7R II and the RX1R.

PPD: Are you using Sony lenses?

BL: Yes, I’m using Sony lenses, but I’m also using the Canon 70-200mm and the Canon 24-70mm lenses on the Sony bodies. I recently shot wrestling in India with a Canon 24-70mm lens on the a7R II and a Sony lens on an a7R, which is another camera I use.

PPD: What are some of the advantages of working with mirrorless cameras over a traditional DSLR?

BL:  Reduced size and weight are big factors. I have two little kids right now, and I haven't done any war stuff in the past few years, since Libya, but I’ve been doing a lot of adventure shoots. This year, for example, I had to go climb a glacier in Iceland. I had four Sony camera bodies and six lenses in a little Think Tank backpack, and I was able to climb with that. If I had been carrying DSLRs, it would have to have been a really large backpack and I wouldn’t have been able to do the climb.

In March of this year I was tracking pumas for a story, and I was using two Canon 1D X bodies, and I had a Canon 600mm lens and a 200-400mm Canon lens, but I had to hire a porter to carry the gear, because there was no way that I could trek and carry all of that gear at the same time. The smaller size of the mirrorless cameras makes a huge difference.

PPD: How has the amount of gear that you travel with changed during your career?

BL: When I first started photography, I carried a ton of cameras and I wanted everyone to know that I was a photographer. Now I just want the smallest camera and I want everyone to think I’m just another tourist. I don’t want to stand out, I don’t want any attention. I don’t need anyone to know that I’m a photographer. I make better images if I just blend into the background. So using smaller equipment helps me blend in better.

PPD: What do you think about using an electronic viewfinder?

BL: It takes a while to get used to, but what I find interesting is that you actually see the moment that you photograph. With a DSLR, the mirror flips up when you press the shutter button and you see nothing in that instant, but with mirrorless cameras you get to see the ultimate moment.  

PPD: You mentioned having young kids now. Has photographing war and natural disasters given you a different perspective on humanity? Does it make you optimistic or pessimistic for their future?

BL: I think the world is a pretty shitty place, but ultimately most people are the same. It’s only when we get together in groups that we make the world shitty. Most people on their own are decent and good. It’s only when you put a whole bunch of people together that their inner inhibitions just can be stripped away. It’s like, you won’t litter, but if you see someone who starts throwing things on the ground and then someone else does and then someone else, you’ll start littering too. And that’s what happens during wars — people are okay, and then you start putting people together who might have an issue with someone else, and then all of those people line up on one side—then all of a sudden it’s okay to kill “that” person. It’s a group mentality. Nationalism or jingoism or patriotism or religious ideologies, all of those things only work in groups.

PPD: Is there a kind of post-traumatic stress that happens to journalists?

BL: Totally, one hundred percent. And I totally think that I have PTSD, for sure.

PPD: Does it make you not want to go back into conflict areas?

BL: It doesn’t have that affect on me. I miss doing stories of note in many ways. I really do miss that. The PTSD doesn’t make me want to do it any less. When the time is right, I’d like to go back to a conflict zone. Right now I’ve been away from home for two months, and it’s really bumming my oldest son out; it’s really affecting him at school, so I have to realize that I have responsibilities that are ultimately greater than my career as a photographer. Documentary and photojournalism topics are still really close to my heart, and I’m always going to be coming back to it, but I’m also interested in exploring other subjects, as well. This year I’ve done a lot of adventure and wildlife shooting and I have a great white shark shoot coming up and I’m probably going to be photographing snow leopards in India in January.

PPD: What is it that keeps you going, that keeps your energy to shoot strong?

BL: To me photography is an amazing opportunity to have all of these different experiences and to travel to all of these different countries and to see things that most people don’t get to see outside of a magazine. For those people, I’m the conduit to those things, and to me that’s awesome, that’s what I love.


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