Benjamin Lowy

FAQs

Canon or Nikon?

Canon for now.

- from Pop Photo interview- My gear has varied throughout the years, but I usually carry two workhorse DSLRs. Right now it's two Canon 5D Mark IIs. I have a 24-70 that I hardly ever use in my bag as a backup in case everything else blows up, but I use prime lenses. I have a 35mm, a 50mm and a 135mm. Occasionally I'll use a wide angle, like a 20mm or a 24mm, but it depends on the situation. In Haiti, I used a 20mm lens. Lately in Afghanistan, I was just using a 35mm and a 50mm. I also carry a film camera -- usually something that shoots 6x6. It's either a Mamiya 6 or a Holga, which I use to make these long panoramics. Lately I've been using my iPhone quite a bit. That's always around.

What iPhone app do you use?

Hipstamatic

When you started college in St. Louis, you were actually a design and illustration major. How did you make the transition to photography? - from Pop Photo interview

I started taking photo classes because I wanted to trace my friends. I wanted to trace forms because I wasn't very good at drawing them. I wound up taking studio classes about how to light. I would get friends and girlfriends and whoever to pose for me and I'd trace their figure. When I couldn't figure out how to go any further, I went to Library Limited, which is a book store in St. Louis. It's unfortunately no more, but they had an awesome photography section. I used to spend hours in there pulling out the big fashion photo books and tracing and sketching the figures. I'd pull out Howard Schatz's Nude Body Nude, or Herb Ritts books or whatever.

One day I pulled out Nachteway's Inferno because it was big and tall like the others and I didn't know it wasn't a fashion book. I was like "holy shit." It changed my life. I sat there for hours and I just looked at those pictures and it changed something inside of me. It was like, this is what I want to do with my life. I actually took a year off from school to teach myself photography.

How did your career start? - from Pop Photo interview

I ended up following a girlfriend to Paris and then promptly ran out of money in about a month. I had no cash and ended up hanging out with a lot of other photographers. I ended up going to see the premiere of Harrison's Flowers, which is a decent-ish movie about war photographers, and meeting a photo editor there. This was right around when the second intifada was starting in late 2000, early 2001. We were talking about war photography and he said they could really use people who could speak Arabic and Hebrew over there. I was like, "Of course I can speak Arabic and Hebrew!" I mean, I can't, but it didn't hurt to tell him that. He gave me 400 rolls of chrome and I went over there and started shooting with absolutely no knowledge of how to do this. I kind of New-York-talked my way into becoming a photographer.

I eventually came back to the States and went back to school. I wanted to graduate and start my career. I ended up switching out of the design and illustration major to basically art photography. My professor said basically, "I have nothing I can teach you because we don't teach documentary here. You fulfilled all your credits already, so just do a thesis and I'll let you graduate." So I spent five months living in a homeless shelter in downtown St. Louis, photographing life there.

I did one internship at the St. Louis Post Dispatch, which is a very sports-oriented newspaper and I learned that I never want to work for a newspaper. Most of what the intern did was like the menu item of the week or high school wrestling. So, it was very much not what I wanted to do.

I went back to the West Bank to shoot some stories. My first assignment when I got back was photographing the D.C. sniper case. Then some more serendipity happened. I said, I don't want to stay in D.C. -- I don't want to do the White House stuff. I tried my luck and came to New York. I went to every photo agency I could find because I knew the war in Iraq was going to happen. I walked into Corbis looking for an office job. I was looking for anything and they were the last agency on my list.

As luck would have it, they had a photographer that was going to embed with the US Military in Kuwait. It ended up being that it was Shaul Schwarz, who is Israeli and also works for Getty now. The Kuwaitis wouldn't let him get a visa, so a couple of days before the war started, Corbis needed a photographer to embed with the 101st Airborne. Everyone else was going from the north and had decided not to embed. I was like, "I'll do it."

Brian Storm was the president of Corbis at the time and he was like, "OK." That was it.

Why do you choose to do conflict photography? - from New Yorker Photobooth interview

It’s easier now to consider why I did things when I was younger. I don’t have much family in general. [My dad and I] always discussed the news when I was growing up. It was important to me. I first went to Iraq for the adventure of seeing history. Now that I have a wife and kids and have seen friends die, there are different reasons for why I do it. This is what I was meant to be. As soon as I found photojournalism, I found what I thought I was going to be awesome at. I picked up a camera and I felt complete as a human being. I was very driven. I got to where I wanted to go very quickly … maybe too quickly, because I wasn’t able to discover a lot along the way and hit bumps on the road of figuring out what to do with myself after I fulfilled my early goals.

Have you ever been injured and how did you bounce back?- from Pop Photo interview

When I went back to the West Bank to shoot some stories, I got beaten up very, very badly in the summer of 2002. I lost all my gear and broke pretty much all the major bones in my body. A group of about 20 men dragged me out into the street in a mob situation and beat me.

My mentor at the time was a Time magazine photo editor in Washington D.C., James Coburn. I was speaking to him from the hospital and I said, "I have to go home. All of my gear has been destroyed and I have a fractured skull." He was like, "Ben, if you leave now, you'll always be scared. You'll never, ever be able to photograph this kind of stuff again. I have a couple of cameras here in the office that I'm trying to sell on this new website called eBay -- I don't know if you've heard of it. One of them happens to be Joe McNally's old F3. I'm going to send it to you and I'm going to help pay to extend your ticket for another month. You're going to stay there for another month and work on a project." That's what I ended up doing.

How has seeing death and destruction affected you? - from New Yorker Photobooth interview-

I know I have P.T.S.D. It was bad for a long time but I’ve done a few things for it. When it gets bad I go see someone. I used to get really angry and go on the subway at night and get in fights with people. I got beat up, but I don’t know if that’s what I wanted. I felt guilty and empty. A close friend introduced me to cage fighting and I began photographing it. Maybe it wasn’t the best therapy, but it was cathartic. It really did help for a while … and, of course, going to see a therapist like everyone else. But being married and having two children teaches you patience. There were times I could feel the past bubble up in me, but I look at my sons’ faces and I can put those things aside.

What do you think the main problem is that people are having with iPhone photography in mainstream journalistic publications?- from Pop Photo interview

A lot of the criticism about the iPhone is that it's not real and that it creates a different look that doesn't exist in reality, but so does black and white film. That doesn't exist in reality, but no one has a problem with that. I think some people hold onto staid ideas because they're afraid of change. At the end of the day, our responsibility as photojournalists is to efficiently connect with our audience and communicate an idea. If you can do that by creating a new aesthetic that provokes people to take the proverbial step forward to consume the image, then your job is successful. What writers do with prose, photographers do with style. I want to tell the story of Libya and make it look different than other wire images or 35mm -- that rectangular shape that everyone has grown accustomed to. If I can do that and make it harder for John Q. Public to turn away from the image, then I've been successful and it doesn't matter what tool I use. Maybe next time I'll draw.

What does your family think about your work?

My wife is a photographer and a filmmaker and she understands the desire to do this type of work. We have a deal about what I can and cannot do while the kids are still young. My mother feels what a mother normally would feel, scared.

- from New Yorker Photobooth interview - I think deep down a lot of us who photograph conflicts are really selfish and self-centered. You can’t do this job unless you only care about what you’re doing and no one else in your life. I say that as a husband and a father. Here I am risking my life when I have a wife and two young children at home. There is a certain level of selfishness, and I have to accept it. I am not necessarily doing the most fatherly and responsible thing. But at the same time I’m putting the story of the people and places I’m photographing before my own personal story. I think there has to be some ego involved, definitely, and an inherent curiosity.

What advice would you give to a young photographer starting out in the industry? Self-assign projects. Always shoot and hone your skills. Your abilities get better the more you practice. Think of cohesive bodies of work and not single images. Shoot a subject that interests you not what you think others will be interested in. Exercise. Always be respectful of your subjects. Research customs and cultural idiosyncracies before arriving in a foreign environment.