“I want to provoke you” said kickass world-renowned photographer Larry Towell, speaking to Professor Sara Matthews’ Global Studies class at Wilfrid Laurier University this morning. Alternately called artist, photographer, musician, activist through his career, he now prefers the term photojournalist.
My friend Suzanne Luke, who curates the Robert Langen Art Gallery at the university, mentioned that Larry was coming to speak and that I was welcome to join to hear his talk. Holy macaroni, am I ever glad I did.
Many people might be more familiar with Larry’s still photo work, but today he showed us this wickedly layered video blending video, stills, music, and the sounds of machine gun fire. All this from the various conflict photography that Larry has done over a career spanning decades and multiple continents. It was so powerful to see the shooters juxtaposed with the victims over mashed-up audio from both sides combined with songs Larry composed and with friends performed. In a similar media blend that photog Louie Palu described earlier this month, Larry started shooting video and recording audio in addition to shooting stills. He talked about his pursuit as not just conflict photography, but more optimistically as conflict resolution photography. He talked about the secret wars that journalists can’t access. He talked Blackwater and the lucrative business side of war. He talked about the conscious decision to go his own way to Afghanistan to be free from restrictions imposed on journalists embedded with military. He showed a video he shot on a blown up bus in Israel where soldiers were trying to remove him from a bus and he was standing his ground. You have to be smart and understand your surroundings to know what is safe to do, he said in response to an audience question. He had authorization to be there from the Israeli government and the site was quite public, so he was pretty sure the soldiers weren’t going to take him out behind the bus and shoot him. It isn’t always so predictable in other parts of the world: “I wouldn’t go to Syria right now.” He told a story of a time he had arranged to embed with the Taliban, but the fixer that had set it up had to flee the country under threats after a misunderstanding. Larry talked about his efforts to deglamorize violence from the popular Hollywood version. He recalled a quote observing we had as a civilization achieved all these scientific and technical advancements and not advanced at all in terms of our humanity at all.
Ok, this is a total braindump, but there was a metric tonne of wisdom packed into that hour today. I could barely absorb it all. It reaffirmed my deep belief that photography, applied in whatever domain, can positively influence people. Check out Larry’s show Nightwalk documenting a night raid on a suspected bomb maker’s house in Kunar province, Afghanistan. The show runs through to December 6. Deets here.
Got to shake the hand of the man, through an introduction by Suzanne. A real pleasure. Thanks Larry for information and inspiration. Just outstanding. And thanks to Suzanne and Prof. Matthews for putting this together.
A few more pics…