Books: Louie Palu Deconstructs the Chaos of the War in Afghanistan

By David Schonauer   Monday May 21, 2018

Louie Palu  has captured the Afghanistan war as he experienced it:

In bits and pieces.

His new book, Front Towards Enemy, comes in a cardboard slipcase that encloses four separate components. There is a series of soldier portraits printed on stiff, oversized cards suitable for thumb-tacking to a wall. (The backs of the cards indicate where the tacks should There’s a staple-bound zine titled "The Fighting Season" featuring pictures Palu shot over five years covering the war, along with an essay by Rebecca Senf, chief curator at the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, as well as a newsprint publication.

And there is an accordion-fold set of images that unfurls as a stream-of-conscious series of memories: an Afghan soldier playing a flute at a combat outpost in Kandahar Province; rotor wash from a U.S. Army MEDEVAC helicopter blowing dust and a yellow smoke-grenade marker; a Canadian soldier standing perfectly still  after surviving a blast from an improves explosive device.

Examine the memories, and they are hard to refold in the proper order. It’s a deconstructed photo book that invites the reader to become an editor.

“The book is like the war — it’s this complex thing and you have to think about you open it how you put it back together,” Palu says. “The chaos of the book is a metaphor for the chaos of the war.”

Palu, a Canada-born documentary photographer and filmmaker who was a 2016-17 John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellow and a Harry Ransom Center Research Fellow in the Humanities at the University of Texas, is also the recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting Grant; his work has also been seen in a number of festivals, including the VISA Pour l’Image photojournalism festivals, and exhibitions, including one at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.

Ailne Smithson of the Lenscratch  blog has described Palu as “a rare combination of artist and war photographer, able to stand present for horrific human events and then synthesize those moments into something artful, poetic, and powerful.”

He describes himself in terms of the punk rock he grew up listening to. “I’m more in an indie space—if I were a band, I’d be more Sex Pistols than Rolling Stones,” he says.

Several years ago he decided it was time to create a book about his experiences covering the war in Afghanistan; he put together several traditional dummies but found no interest among publishers. This was after the economic meltdown of 2008 and “the collapse of the publishing world,” Palu notes. He also realized he but couldn’t tell the story he wanted to tell in a traditional book.

“With Afghanistan, I felt that there was no one photo essay that could explain what I saw,” Palu says.

Palu had already been experimenting with zines and newsprint publications, inspired by photographer Will Steacy’s 2014 book Deadline, which documented the struggles of the newspaper business in the internet age. Then publisher Jennifer Yoffy of Yoffy Press expressed interest in working on a different type of book with Palu. Eventually Palu began collaborating with Jordan Swartz, a designer who had worked with Yoffy on other titles.

“He’s a punk rock kid — he had this great aesthetic that’s sort of the opposite of the perfect design,” says Palu. For Yossy herself, the book became a “reflection of an era where print and the web have converged and images are seen as much as words are read.”

Along those lines, there’s also a hidden feature in the book — in the back of the zine there is a QR code that sends readers to a short film the Palu made about Afghanistan.

The danger with the photo book as deconstruction is that it the whole effort can lack any meaningful cohesion — the parts do not add up to something greater than the whole. That is not the case with Front Towards Enemy.

“I usually don't like to view unbound books,” blogged curator and educator Elizabeth Avedon  in March. “They generally seem cooked up by the book designer trying to make a design statement, regardless of its effect on the photography. However, in the case of Front Towards Enemy, the mastery of documentary photographer and filmmaker Louie Palu's powerful images bring a cohesive message to this 'deconsrtucted' book – and I am appreciating each and every individual portion.”

“I have friends who have lost hope or can’t get their work published, and they’re giving up, and I can say from my own experience that you can’t give up. You’ve just got to persist,” says Palu.

Photographer Louie Palu in Afghanistan


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