Four Burning Questions for Louie Palu, photojournalist

Louie Palu is an award-winning Canadian photojournalist. His work has appeared in numerous international publications and exhibitions – among them, The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek, and The Atlantic. Palu will be participating in the ‘Photojournalism: Then and Now’ symposium on Nov. 1 and 2.
Louie Palu, award-winning Canadian photojournalist. / Photo courtesy of Louie Palu.

Louie Palu is an award-winning Canadian photojournalist. His work has appeared in numerous international publications and exhibitions – among them, The New York Times, TIME, Newsweek and The Atlantic. In 2010 he was awarded an Alexia Grant to complete his study of Kandahar Afghanistan, an Hearst Photography Biennial Award, the Canadian Photojournalist of the Year and a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Grant. He is currently a Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow with the New America Foundation.

Palu will be participating in a panel discussion titled ‘Conflict[ed] Reporting: War and Photojournalism in the Digital Age’ on Nov. 2 at 4:30 p.m., at the McCord Museum. The panel will be part of the wider ‘Photojournalism: Then and Now’ symposium, co-sponsored by Media@McGill, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, and the McCord Museum, on Nov. 1 and 2. The event is free and open to the public. For more information go here.

You have covered the war in Afghanistan, which has unfolded during a decade of great innovation in digital communication technologies, leading to the reporting and consumption of news at a continuous rate. In your work as a photojournalist, how do you try to overcome the natural apathy of an audience to war that can be seen as a consequence of this deluge of media coverage?

I have covered the war in Afghanistan basing myself in Kandahar. Though there has been a lot of coverage of some wars, this has not necessarily translated into quality news coverage especially in the form of photographs. Secondly, I began my coverage in Afghanistan in 2006 and ramped it up in 2007 when many in the media and the government labeled Afghanistan the forgotten war, which it was. In 2007-08 I spent a lot of time on the front lines outside Kandahar City and rarely saw a journalist.

The next breakdown in media coverage was the fact that, overall, the media from the three main countries taking on the bulk of the fighting in Afghanistan at the time – consisting of Canada, the U.S. and the British – focused their coverage mostly on the areas their troops operated in. My goal all along was to do a long-term project on Kandahar, not solely the troops, and spending weeks or even months to make images on my own timeline, not a news desk’s deadline.

The prevalence of affordable smart phones, which have the ability to record and disseminate information instantly, has led to the emergence of citizen photojournalists who witness or participate in the conflict itself. From a professional standpoint, what do you see as the benefits of citizen photojournalism in the reporting of war and conflicts, and what are the challenges posed to professional photojournalists?

If someone participates in the conflict or an event they are covering, then they are not neutral witnesses and, by my definition, generally are not journalists. The camera has empowered many people to do many things, which I think is a great thing; however, that does not make anyone or everyone with a camera a journalist.

Take for example the photos taken in Abu Ghraib Prison of the abuse of Iraqi prisoners at the hands of the U.S. military. Are those photos journalism? They are not citizen journalism or professional journalism, they are evidence and are the most memorable images of that war, especially after first stories by journalists, and then an investigation by U.S. government, confirmed the abuse.

Almost all the images from Iraq by professional photojournalists have been forgotten by many in the public, with a few exceptions, including a photo by Getty Images’ photographer Chris Hondros from Tal Afar, which documented the killing of Iraqi civilians taken while he was embedded. Citizen journalists are not beholden to or have to follow any rules of ethical coverage which professionals are held to task on by their peers and the industry.

Embedded journalism, the practice of journalists being assigned to a military unit’s supervision to report on a war, became prevalent in both the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. This practice has been viewed by some as controversial, especially following a comment by the Marine Corp’s former head of media relations, Lt. Col. Rick Long, at the beginning of the Iraq War which stated that, “Frankly, [the military’s] job is to win the war. Part of that is information warfare. So we are going to attempt to dominate the information environment.” What has been your own experience of embedded journalism?

To describe my experience, I would define embedding as the practice of attaching myself to a military unit for a story on a specific issue or an extremely violent place I needed access to, not being supervised by them. The line you quote is from an officer within the U.S. military in Iraq, which was a long time ago; a lot has changed since then.

This brings me back to the Abu Ghraib photos and Wikileaks, which are both examples that the military cannot control the information from within. Many journalists have filed photographs and stories outside of what the military would prefer from an embed and have affected great change even within a sea of journalists who did pro-military stories. If you wanted to leave your embed you could – I did many times. I know many journalists who risked their lives every day to do it and still do. There are a lot of misconceptions about embedding and many journalists I saw in the field on their first war assignment never had the experience to know how to work around the rules in their favor.

It’s easy to criticize embeds, but try doing one and you’ll see very quickly from where I have been that reporting day after day with bodies around you and being shot at is no easy feat alone or on an embed.

There has been a growing debate regarding what some consider the inappropriate publication of graphic images by news channels. You have borne witness to numerous instances of violence and tragedy yourself, which has been exemplified in your work. Do you believe it is important to explicitly convey this violence when portraying conflict, and why?

I think the debate on this issue started and has been ongoing for a long time. There are many famous instances, one being Eddie Adam’s photo of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner in 1968. In my view more of us are talking about this issue because the Internet spreads so much information very quickly.

I am currently working in Mexico where tragically there is no shortage of dead bodies and no embeds either. At one point of my fieldwork I covered over 110 murders in one month. Of those I have maybe selected 3-4 images with dead bodies in them to publish as part of my essay of over 40 images before one of my editors gets the full project for review. It’s about teaching people something and not only just shocking them. It’s also about photographing the issues on the fringes of the story to explain the social or political reasons that is the root of the violence, which is just as relevant as the photos that are hard to look at.