One to Watch: Louie Palu

By Hal Stucker

GARMSIR MARINES: U.S. Marine Joshua Wycka age 21, Forward Operating Base Apache North, Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Every day after patrol Palu photographed these Marines in a bunker using natural light.

Photographer Louie Palu doesn’t have a lot in this world. Besides his photo gear, his only other possessions consist of clothes, an Ikea desk, some books and a few items stashed in the basement of his mom’s house in Toronto, Canada. He currently doesn’t have a fixed address either. He rents a spare room from a friend in Washington, DC, when needed and spends most of his time on the road, living out of a suitcase.

Palu has lived like this, on and off, for much of his adult life, choosing a life whose privations in some ways mirror the hardships of his subjects. These range from the daily difficulties and dangers faced by gold miners in Northern Canada, to the plight of workers worldwide who’ve been poisoned by asbestos to the treatment of detainees held at the U.S. prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to his current project, a yearlong stint photographing along the U.S.-Mexico border.

He has also photographed extensively in and around Kandahar, Afghanistan, documenting how this conflict has affected everyday life there. Yet he doesn’t consider himself a war photographer or even, necessarily, a photojournalist. He refers to himself as a documentary photographer and says he concentrates on “the things that are the most difficult for us to talk about. The things that we really don’t want to look at or even think about. Things that are all about darkness.”

Palu cites Robert Frank’s The Americans and Mary Ellen Mark’s Falkland Road, an extended portrait of Indian prostitutes in Mumbai, as two examples of the way he approaches his craft. When he was just out of art school, Palu interned for Mark in New York City—helping organize images for her huge Falkland Road archive—an experience that “changed his life.”

“What influenced me was her drive,” he says. “She’s a true maverick, straddling the worlds of fine art and photojournalism. But what made the biggest impression was the bravery she showed in going out and working on stories that no one else gave a shit about. These aren’t the easiest topics to go out and shoot, let alone the easiest topics to get published and have people look at.”

After working for Mark for just over four months, living in a building he and friends nicknamed the Tarantula Arms, “where it was hand-to-hand combat
with the roaches,” Palu returned to Canada, in 1991. But there was a recession under way, and photographic work in Toronto was nonexistent. Taking whatever odd jobs he could get—primarily construction and bartending—he went into something of a funk. His father, a construction worker, took Louie aside and offered some advice, which proved to be just as life-changing as the experience with Mark.

“My father said, ‘Look, if you’re not going to get a real job yourself, then why don’t you photograph people who have real jobs?’ There was some dark sarcasm in there, but he truly meant what he was saying. My family is Italian-Canadian, and this comes from my father’s old-school sense of honor, that whatever you do, you reach as high as you can and make your best, most honest effort.”

His father mentioned a huge goldmining industry in Northern Ontario, with hundreds of miners doing hard, dangerous work every day. “My Dad said they’d probably never really had a photographer document their work, and he told me to call a geologist he knew up there,” Palu explains. “I was thinking I’d go up there and do a one-month portrait project.”

Thus began Palu’s first big project, a 12-year extended series photographing gold miners’ daily lives, which eventually became the book Cage Call. The mine was in Kirkland Lake, which Palu describes as “absolutely the middle of nowhere, about seven hours straight north of Toronto. The temperature was minus-15 Celsius. It was miserable.”

But it was also thrilling. “I didn’t care about anything except the fact that I was finally a documentary photographer working on what I felt was an important topic,” he explains. This was my subject and my story. I didn’t even think about getting anything published. I was just making pictures that were important to me.”

He financed the project by returning to Toronto every few weeks to work construction and in bars. “Anything I could do to make money, I did. And when I had enough to pay for film and food, I’d go back up north.” He often slept in his car to save the cost of a motel room, until some of the miners eventually let him bunk on a sofa or in their guest room.

The resulting black-and-white photographs provide an unflinching portrait of the miners’ lives—the harshness of the land, the danger of the work and the damage life as a miner can inflict on the human body. The tonal range of Palu’s images adds to their drama, with figures set against deep shadows or with the camera lens pointed directly into the bright spotlights that illuminate the mine shafts, rendering the figures and machinery as silhouettes.

The pictures also show the stark everyday lives of the miners and their families, with houses built in the shadow of a smelter’s huge smokestack, children playing in a school playground adjacent to a mine entrance, the faces of women who’ve lost fathers or husbands to mining accidents. His portraits of men who’ve lost arms, suffered severe head injuries or been paralyzed in accidents reveal his subjects’ dignity and strength in the face of harsh adversity.

It took several years before Palu felt he had a body of work he could begin showing, though the initial reception was less than enthusiastic. “Most people didn’t get it, and no one would hire me for an assignment. But I never let it deter me. I believed very strongly in what I was doing and knew that sooner or later, I’d find somebody who understood my work.”

Very slowly, he began to appear on the radars of photo editors and art directors in and around Toronto, though he still wasn’t getting enough work to actually make a living. Then, in 2001, he was hired as a full-time staff photographer for the Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail, where he had previously worked as a freelancer. The editors “wanted a photographer who wasn’t a photojournalist or standard news photographer and who could shoot differently for the paper,” he says.

Palu describes his next six years as “the final piece of the puzzle,” the experience he needed to finish maturing as a photographer. “I really knew nothing about editing until then,” he says. “Doing 300 assignments a year, working against deadline every day, really changed everything about how I photographed. It taught me how to very quickly sift out the things that were important from the things that weren’t.”

It was as a photographer for The Globe and Mail that Palu also first visited Afghanistan, in 2006. “As soon as I got to Afghanistan, it felt like, ‘Wow, I’ve been waiting my whole life to get here,’” he says. But after six years on the newspaper staff, Palu was also beginning to chafe at some of the limits and restrictions life as a credentialed press photographer imposed on him and his work. Shortly after that first trip to Afghanistan, he left the paper to go back out on his own.

“I really loved The Globe and Mail, I loved the people I worked with, and having a steady paycheck was terrific,” he says. But he
felt he was also getting caught up in his own ambition, like he was working more for recognition than for good photographs. According to Palu, he had reached a point where he was no longer “doing what I really wanted and needed to do. And that was to go back to Afghanistan and photograph. But I knew that to do the kind of work I’d gone into the business for in the first place, I absolutely had to go back on my own.”

It was also at this point that he began to seriously pare down his material existence. “I thought, ok, so I go to Afghanistan—I need food, a place to sleep, a camera bag and cameras. I’d put money away during my time at The Globe and Mail, but I still cashed out half my retirement savings. And then I started giving away my furniture. I shrunk everything down, realized that the things I owned weren’t that important. And from 2007 to 2010, I went back and forth to Afghanistan and stayed for as long as I wanted. Everywhere I looked when I got to Kandahar, there was a picture. And I knew I had to be there, I had to take photographs there. That it was a very important story.”

But the work took its toll. “It was daily combat when I went out. Every day was a firefight. It was physically exhausting, and then there’s all the horrible things you see and experience.” In 2010 he received a grant for one last six-month trip to Kandahar, during which he traveled with a medevac team that served both the military and civilians. “By the end of that trip, I’d experienced all the carnage and near-death experiences I could handle,” he says. “I had a lot of close calls with land mines and booby traps, bombs exploding within maybe 10 or 12 feet of me.” He also lost a friend—photographer and filmmaker Tim Hetherington, who was killed in Libya with photographer Chris Hondros. “That was a wakeup call. I know if I tried to go back to Kandahar now, I’d really be playing with fire, both physically and emotionally.

Instead he has gone to the U.S.-Mexico border, on a fellowship from the New America Foundation (NAF), a Washington, DC, think tank that specializes in issues involving U.S. domestic and foreign policy. Palu’s grant, the first fellowship that NAF has ever awarded to a photographer, will allow him to explore issues between the two countries in depth, including the economic and social interdependences that he and the foundation feel aren’t receiving much media attention.

“Louie’s application had a very cogent critique of the kind of ‘parachute’ style of reporting that U.S.-Mexico relations usually get,” said Andres Martinez, director of the fellows program at NAF. “Where the drug trade tends to monopolize the headlines, Louie is instead trying to train a wider lens on the whole symbiotic relationship between the two countries. The way he spent years focused on Kandahar was very impressive, and he’s bringing the same kind of appetite to this project, to try to show the broader picture, beyond the episodic and sensationalist reporting that we’re seeing too much of.”

So Palu is once again living on the road, with cameras and clothes and not a lot else. “When people ask me my address, I tell them ‘somewhere between where I am now and a backpack,’” he says, laughing. Yet all joking aside, Palu is feeling a growing temptation to put down roots and find a more permanent base of operations. He’s recently begun lecturing widely on his experiences at seminars and symposiums and is also mentoring a young Canadian photographer. “I really like teaching, and somewhere down the road I can see teaching at a college somewhere, at least part-time,” he says. “And I know that someday, I’m really going to enjoy having furniture.”


CAMERA: Nikon D3s

LENSES: AF NIKKOR 50mm f/1.4D AF-S Zoom-NIKKOR 17-35mm f/2.8D IF-ED

LIGHTING: Mostly available light, supplemented by Nikon SB 26 and SB 800 flash units

BAGS:Lowepro and Domke

AUDIO: Roland Edirol digital recorder

COMPUTER: MacBook Pro 13-inch laptop

SOFTWARE: Photo Mechanic for editing, Adobe Photoshop for processing



© Bruno Barbey/Magnum Photos
Obituary: Photojournalist Marc Riboud, 93


PDN August 2016: The Fine-Art Photography Issue



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