Artful Musing

THE ARTFUL BLOGGER: Louie Palu brings the photojournalist’s experience of war to the Canadian War Museum

By Paul Gessell

An Afghan soldier eats grapes from a field in Pashmul, Panjwa’i district. Farmers grow the grapes in fields filled with chest-high trenches that insurgents use to stage attacks on Afghan and international troops. © Louie Palu.

Globe-trotting Canadian photographer Louie Palu has produced gritty, powerful images of the war in Afghanistan by tagging along with Canadian, American, British, and Afghan soldiers.

His goal is to “stir dialogue.” It’s a goal that comes with a huge cost, even if you do survive the experience, says the Toronto-based Palu.

An exhibition of Palu’s Afghanistan work, entitled Kandahar: The Fighting Season, opens Nov. 1 at the Canadian War Museum and continues until next September. Some of Palu’s work is not for the weak of heart, but it has impressed curators at the National Gallery of Canada, which recently acquired four of Palu’s Afghanistan photos.

The Artful Blogger interviewed Palu in advance of the exhibition at the War Museum.

How did you become interested in photographing soldiers in Afghanistan?
Actually, I was not specifically interested in soldiers, but rather I was interested in photographing all aspects of the war including soldiers and especially the civilians caught in the middle. I also covered the war independently away from the military. If you want to report on something you need to see more than one side.

Do you have a sense of mission in your work? Is there some particular goal you are trying to achieve?
My goal is to create or stir dialogue on a social or political topic using photography.

What is your advice to a young, freelance photographer who wants to jump into a war zone?
You will never be the same person once you experience or witness war and you can never get back the person you were. It will hurt your mind, heart, and soul. If you are killed or wounded your family suffers as much as you do.

You have tagged along with both American and Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. Are they different in the way they perform as soldiers?
I was out with Afghan soldiers more than any other military and have also been out with British soldiers along with the U.S. and Canadian military. Fundamentally the western soldiers are all the same, the governments behind them are different. Afghan soldiers are still developing, as is their country. What it really comes down to is the U.S. has the world’s largest and most technologically advanced military and Canada, by comparison, has a very small military. Afghanistan has a larger military than Canada.

Do you think the average Canadian understands what soldiers experience in Afghanistan?
I don’t think the average person or most politicians in the world understand what anyone — including civilians and soldiers — experiences in war, let alone in an impoverished country like Afghanistan.

Some of your images of wounded or dead combatants are gruesome. How gruesome is too gruesome for you to photograph?
What some label as gruesome (not my choice of words) I label as the reality of war. Keep in mind you are barely seeing what in your words you call “gruesome” really is. I edit down the graphic images a lot before you see them. Killing and extreme violence is a part of war and we should not shy away from the realities that other people are living with every day. Considering what I have seen and photographed, I have balanced out my edits of photographs to show very little of the worst photographs I have of graphic imagery of the dead or wounded. I also included wounded and dead civilians, not only combatants. It’s all about learning. Some learning experiences can be painful. War is painful. Imagine soldiers who come home from a war and have seen, heard, and smelled the battlefield and the dead. They have a lot more than these photos in their head. I spent months in a small frontline trauma room and with a medivac unit (helicopter ambulance) bringing in wounded from the battlefield and, trust me, you are just seeing the tip of the iceberg of what I have photographed and seen.

Are there some aspects of the military experience in Afghanistan that you want to photograph but have never had the opportunity?
I never had a military experience, I had a photojournalist’s experience of war. I have witnessed, photographed, and experienced more than I ever wanted to and now I am changed forever.