Conflict zone photographer Louie Palu

Louie Palu is an award winning photographer who has covered stories worldwide including assignments in Pakistan, India, Mali, Libya and many more. He covered the war in Afghanistan from 2006-2010 and the Mexican drug war from 2011-2013. His work has been published and featured worldwide including on the BBC, Sunday Times Magazine, TIME, Newsweek, The New York Times and many others. His film ‘Kandahar Journals’ premiers November 2015.

What specific challenges do image makers face in conflict zones?

The biggest challenges I face in my case are being sensitive to the people in my photographs and my family not stressing out over me being harmed. I have to be personally very close to everything I photograph so physical injury and kidnapping from the very nature of warfare is a given for anyone like me. However, disease and gastro-intestinal illnesses from eating or drinking certain food or water can end your assignment or your life. Even just being in contact with someone in particular countries can make you ill. Physical fitness is key to surviving the many threats to your health. Make sure you are up to date on immunizations like meningitis and the rest of the threats. The list of challenges never ends. The most underestimated challenge is dealing with psychological injuries after your assignment.

What kind of conflict zone training do you have? Have you taken a Hostile Environment Training (HET aka HEAT, HEFAT) course?

I have taken 2 HET courses, I trained with the company Centurion in the UK and the Canadian military gave a course for journalists as well. That was followed by hands-on training and real experience in the field with soldiers, military medics and combat engineers for many years.

Your are an instructor in the Conflict Photography Workshops, tell us about that.

I am one of 4 instructors at the Conflict Photography Workshops started by Jason Howe. This is not a HET course but a photography workshop with a number of HET training lessons combined with the photography training. Conflict Photography Workshops are unique, in the fact they encompass not only the majority of the skills taught on more traditional HET courses but also and crucially how to actually do one’s job as a photojournalist safely and productively in those environments. I can say that I had great HET training but when it came to doing my job under fire for the first time or a bombing, I had to learn many more lessons on my own.

How do you prepare for an assignment?

First I have the ‘talk’ with my family about what I am about to do and set up a safety system in case I am injured or disappear via kidnapping. I set up people to notify my family if I am hurt or worse and a system to deal with it. I get a physical from my doctor, including updating my immunizations. I believe cardio (as in training and exercise) is a key tool in your survival philosophy. Being in good physical shape is key to working in a war zone and surviving injuries. Also, if someone is hurt you need to have the strength to potentially carry or drag someone to save their life; you hope your colleagues are thinking he same way. I run 20-25 miles a week, regardless of when I have an assignment. The rest is a check list of camera gear and clothing including my body armor. Of course we should all have the proper health insurance.

Describe your favourite gear and why.

Before I get into gear, what’s more important is I always print a 4×6” photograph of my family and put it in my Kevlar helmet (or pocket) to remind me what is the most important thing in my life and not to be stupid. On gear I really could use some lighter armor plates for my vest, but I guess my Kevlar vest is next. Then my cameras. I always carry a small audio recorder, as audio is really important for so many things online like multi media pieces and can also be used for notes in writing.

Have you ever faced an ethical challenge in the course of your work?

I face ethical challenges on a daily basis, however I have never had a serious issue, but I think what is important is belonging to a professional organization that outlines a code of ethics like the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA). This is a starting point and touches on all the fundamentals. I have a link to the code of ethics in the ‘about’ section of my website.

Describe your best image.

I really don’t have a ‘best’ image, they all have their value relative to the conversation or issue I am trying to engage the public in based mostly around human rights, war, poverty and justice. I guess if I had to pick one body of work, my work around victims of asbestos has had a lot of impact on policy makers in several governments in Canada, the U.S. and UK. Now there is a hostile environment where breathing in asbestos dust can kill you as easily as a bullet or a bomb.

Describe your favourite image.

I really don’t have a favourite image as I am mostly known for long term projects and bodies of work. Though I would say my 12-year project working in underground mines is special because it was my first body of work. Again, here is a hostile environment we don’t hear very much about, but working in underground mines you have explosives, rock falls, large machinery, radon gas and diesel fumes.

What keeps you shooting?

My parents were children born before the Second World War and hearing their personal stories of aerial bombardment, violence and human rights violations has always inspired me to understand what they experienced.

Tell us about your film.

Kandahar Journals is a feature documentary film and a first account of the war I witnessed and experienced from 2006-2010 using my personal journals as a narrative. We created the film to be uniquely experiential though the window of a photojournalist and to understand the impossibility of photography to convey the reality of war.

Thoughts on PTSD and conflict zone photographers.

This is the most misunderstood and little talked about injury from war amongst war photographers. Young photographers for the most part have little to no idea what long-term exposure to trauma is doing to their mind and soul. Having a good therapist set up for after covering violence is key to doing this over the long haul. It’s pretty basic in my mind, if you break your arm you go to the arm doctor, if you break your head you go to the head doctor. The problem is it’s easy to see a broken arm and very hard to see what’s going on in your mind. I would say there is a large population of photographers out there who have untreated PTSD.

A common misconception about conflict zone photographers is….

The most common misconception about war photographers is that there is a romantic image perpetuated by the media, Hollywood and a handful of photographers that we are all adrenaline junkies who are hard-partying men living the high life all over the world looking for a good time between assignments. Those individuals exist, but on the contrary there are many women in the business and this career is a very solitary job filled with shitty hotels, exhausting flights, broken relationships, boring airports and crappy food. Add in always dealing with some form of gastrointestinal issue and or challenging local weather or insects like mosquitoes, fleas and ticks. Not to mention people trying to kill you while doing your job or stepping on a land mine. I know many war photographers who exist and work opposite of the romantic stereotype and I wish there was more of a focus on them.

What advice do you have for prospective conflict zone photographers?

Well for the experienced ones, really they don’t need to hear from me, I am sure they have things that they could share or teach me. What I would share is just a community reminder to never lose track of how dangerous things are getting, it’s easy to lose track of things and get too close. The legendary quote from photographer Robert Capa that “If your photo is not good enough you are not close enough” in the light of romanticizing this type of work is stupid to follow because being close is sometimes bad, not where the photos are and actually can get you killed. Many important war photographs are not even taken in combat, take for example Margaret Bourke White’s images at the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. War photography can be many different things, not just bullets flying and explosions.

For more information on the Kandahar Journals, go to www.kandaharjournals.com. If interested in hosting unique screenings or outreach opportunities outside of festivals contact louie@louiepalu.com.

Louie Palu

Louie Palu