Ben Lowy: Embracing Change

  • BEN LOWY: EMBRACING CHANGE

By Jim Colton

The current state of photojournalism has often been described as a Digital Revolution. I prefer to describe it without the letter “r.” To me, we are experiencing a Digital Evolution. Our industry is constantly changing and those who are grasping on to the ghosts of the past will only lose out on the fruits of the future. 

Over ten years ago, we transited from analog to digital photography and it rocked our world, even though there were many who resisted that change. Perhaps the same could have been said when color photography was first introduced and Black & White purists shunned the idea that we existed in a world of living color.

Ben LowyToday, we have an internet canvas that is being painted with digital brushes of all kinds. Supplementing the print form of newspapers and magazines are web sites and apps with a voracious appetite for images. 

One artist who has deftly used his digital brush to paint his world is Ben Lowy. Lowy has been an ardent supporter and user of the iPhone for journalistic as well as artistic purposes since its inception. 

His travels have taken him to the war-torn countries of Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.  He has covered domestic stories like Hurricane Sandy (His Instagram photo of a storm churned wave was used as the cover of Time magazine) and the BP Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf. And in all of those places his iPhone was always included in his camera bag’s arsenal. His work has been awarded every major photography prize from organizations such as World Press Photo to the International Center of Photography where he was presented with the Infinity Award for Photojournalism in 2012. He has even had an appearance on the Daily Show with John Stewart!

I have had the pleasure of conducting workshops with Ben and in addition to being a very passionate and talented photojournalist; he’s also a fascinating and often hilarious human being. This week, Lowy discusses several new projects including “Being a dad,” and  everything from drawing cadavers in a St. Louis morgue to walking over bodies in Libya…all while using every tool available to him, including the iPhone.

Jim Colton: Can you tell us a little about how you got started in your photography based career?  Were there early influences or mentors along your path that had a significant impact on you?

Ben Lowy: I went to Washington University in St. Louis for illustration but wound up not being very good. I had several work /study jobs there including driving the “drunk shuttle” on campus picking up intoxicated people. One of my jobs was actually working in the morgue at Washington University’s Medical School drawing cadavers. And I was surprisingly OK with that which maybe says a lot about who I am or the profession I chose to go in to. I got a really good knowledge of muscle systems…especially in the neck…so I became really good at the sternocleidomastoid muscle mass….I can illustrate that up the Wazoo!

The problem was I wanted to imply motion and I was only drawing dead bodies so I ended up turning to photography so I could photograph people on a cycling team I was on so I could trace their bodies because I wanted to illustrate comic books. 

I took a year off from college and traveled to Israel. Time magazine’s photo editor in Washington DC, James Colburn became a mentor to me and helped me along tremendously. I got beat up in the West Bank in the summer of 2002 and lost all my gear. Colburn happened to be selling all of Joe McNally’s old Nikon F2’s and F3’s on this new site called “EBay.” He sent them to me so I could finish my project and have something to show when I came back.

When I returned to St. Louis, I moved into a homeless shelter and lived and photographed there for five months which became my senior thesis. I couldn’t do any of my old work/study jobs so I called the doctor I used to work for in the cadaver office and he told me there were medical experiments I could submit myself to and that I could make a living if I did it every time I was free. So for the last semester of my senior year, I was a guinea pig; drink a substance, run in a circle for an hour, get an EKG or an MRI, etc…but they paid like $200 a pop! That was probably the best job out of them all.

One day I walked into Library Limited which was a book store in St. Louis owned by Borders which isn’t around anymore. So I started pulling out all these fashion photography books to look at how people were modeled…including books by Herb Ritts. This is where I first discovered the work of Howard Schatz with his book, “Nude Body Nude.”

Once I started looking at photography books in general, there were many that inspired me; whether it was the compositional elements of David Allen Harvey and Alex Webb or the work in the book “Albanians” by Joachim Ladefoged; those were works that influenced my development. I was only picking out the big books and I picked one out called “Inferno” because I thought it was a fashion book. After sitting and looking at it for three hours, I had my life changed by Jim Nachtwey’s work.

JC: Your travels have taken you to many dangerous places. How does all that play out on the home front? I understand you are married to a photographer (Marvi Lacar). Does that help? What’s that dynamic like? 

BL: Michael Brown who was one of the journalists injured in the attack that killed Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya, is my youngest son’s Godfather. My wife went into labor an hour after Tim’s memorial service. So there are definitely some loaded issues there.

The reason I met my wife is because of photography. If it were anything different, we wouldn’t have met and our relationship wouldn’t have progressed in the same way. So when they were killed, she asked me to hold off a little bit. She understands that this is what I want to do but she also understands that we now have kids…so it’s a line that I have to balance.

I’m about to leave for Sudan for three weeks and that seems to be OK.  So she has an understanding and appreciation for what I do and where my passions lie. She even edited my Iraq/Perspectives book and has also written a lot of my grant proposals for me. She’s a very good writer. But having kids and understanding what my responsibilities are to my children now, is part of my maturity both as a human being and as a photographer. 

Being a war photographer is being selfish in many ways if it’s just about my career…so do I recognize that or can I come to grips with that is definitely part of it? During the Fall of Tripoli, I convinced my wife that I needed to go back. This was after Tim and Chris’ deaths…and I ended up going with Ron Haviv and Yuri Kozyrev and we shared a car.  And on the day that Tripoli fell we were running up these apartment stairs with some rebels and the guy in front of me got his head shot off. I photographed him falling to the ground and dying and watched his blood cascade down the stairs. And I sat on the pictures….no one was going to publish them, they were too graphic. So I moved them much later on after I had left Libya for an assignment in Afghanistan.

I felt they were important; capturing the moment someone sacrificed their life for whatever their belief was. I wasn’t thinking about my kids when I took the photographs. My wife saw those images about three weeks later…and she threatened to leave me over those images….like I cheated on her…with war.  I promised her I wouldn’t throw myself into a shit storm…which is exactly what I had done.  So we wound up with like a $4,000 phone bill from us talking on the phone about it while I tried to convince her not to leave me over these images.

JC:  Your career path has taken you through some interesting technological times in our industry, from analog to digital, from print medium to web based display. You’ve embraced this new technology with more fervor than most photojournalists and you’re an ardent supporter of iPhone photography. Is this our future? Is “conventional” photography dead or dying?

BL: No…but what’s conventional photography?  If you asked purists 50 years ago, they would have said it was black & white. If you asked Ansel Adams, it would be 8x10…what’s this Leica bullshit? Conventional photography is the “norm” of what the industry is using. 

I think when iPhone photography came out…it was unique and I used that innovation…which is the key to surviving in ANY business. And what’s really interesting about iPhonography is that there is a way to connect with the audience that wasn’t there before. Many traditional photojournalists are apathetic and hard to get them to think outside the bubble of their own reality.  So for me it’s about creating a unique aesthetic about every project…whether it was my Iraq/Perspectives stuff or whether it was the detailed images of my oil work from the Gulf oil spill. 

It’s all about creating a different look to encourage the audience to look closer. They’re already being inundated with it on Yahoo News or whatever web site they look at.  So for me the iPhone was unique because it referenced a tool that everyone has in their back pocket. Maybe it was a slight psychological bridge but it was enough to encourage people to look at the images a little bit more.  

I think it has evolved since then….because now it’s more about it being another tool you can have in your camera bag and you can use it when it’s right. The reason I was using it early on, especially in Afghanistan and Libya, was because that I could photograph with it and transmit it directly from my phone to my blog.  

Now you can use Eye-Fi cards in your SLR or your rangefinder and have it go straight to your phone and straight on line. I have even used it with my Fuji X100s and have it go right to my phone and I can load those images directly to my client’s ftp….or to their Instagram account. I did that with ESPN for the Floyd Mayweather fight and updated it as the fight was going on. And If I’m doing street photography and I’m wandering around the streets of Afghanistan and I want to remain a little less “visible,” then yeah, the iPhone is the right thing to use. 

Embracing all these tools is not the death of anything. Last year there were more pictures taken than in all of history combined and half of them were taken with an iPhone! Photography isn’t dead….I think making a living from photography might not be great...but…this is the golden age of journalism…there’s more information and access to information than ever before. But it’s not the golden age to be a journalist.

JC:  What do you say to the many “purists” who shy away from formats like Instagram? You once described the transition as being similar to William Eggleston’s use of color photography. Can you expand on that?

BL: People who hold on to old ways…whether it be old ways of painting, writing or communicating, medicine, being a lawyer, etc…old ways don’t work. Yes it’s an art form, but it’s also a business…so people who embrace change and who are doing things differently will succeed…that’s the key!

JC:  Your Instagram photo of waves caused by Hurricane Sandy made the cover of Time magazine the week of the event. I recall there being a lot of negative press regarding the use of that image. Can you tell us how that came about? Were you assigned to shoot that story using your iPhone or was it something that you sent along with your traditional coverage?

BL: I was assigned by Time magazine’s Director of Photography Kira Pollack, along with four other photographers, to shoot that story using an iPhone. Time saw the writing on the wall. If Twitter had its moment with Arab Spring, then this natural disaster was Instagram’s moment to shine. So I went out there with just my iPhone…and there’s a picture that a friend of mine took of me going into the waves with this guy...and I didn’t have my DSLR with me for good reason…I got soaked through and through…but my iPhone was fine….even though it was in a Ziplock bag!

JC:  Were you surprised when they used it on the cover?

BL: Well, they called and we talked about  it…and they wanted to make sure it was big enough to hold up…but we were constantly talking as I was actively on assignment for them….I didn’t think they would use that image…but I am happy that they did..

JC:  The editorial market for photojournalists is becoming smaller and smaller and assignments seem to be harder to get. Are you branching out into other areas like commercial and advertising work? Where does one begin to look for work in those areas? How do you market yourself?

BL: If you know….tell me! Because, I don’t know! I would love to do more commercial and  advertising work…but I don’t know how to market myself well with that crowd yet as I’ve been concentrating on our little niche photoJ world. 

I have been very busy the last few months so that takes up a lot of my time. Most of 2012 and part of 2013 were so horrible that I thought I’d have to declare bankruptcy…it was that bad. But I have to say that the last few months have really picked up and that there has been work. I don’t think anyone has been getting international work that’s living in New York. I may have only gotten two international gigs in the last year and a half. 

JC:  Has the geographic imperative taken over? Is it more likely that you’re only going to get domestics assignments as opposed to overseas?

BL: It’s definitely an issue…it used to not be...and to be honest I’m not sure that it’s that smart of an idea because really, the cost to get someone  from Paris to somewhere in Africa is pretty much the same as getting there from New York.

JC:  You also produce a lot of multimedia and video of your work. Has that become a prerequisite skill set for today’s still photographer? What equipment do you use besides your iPhone?

BL: You definitely need it…especially for like a marketing tool. I’m not hugely into video in terms of my appreciation for it…I think it’s cool. I don’t want to make it my career to do video...I’m really in love with the still image…but it is a skill that you should know and have and use to sell your stuff. I ‘ve done several commercials and worked on movies but if you want to be successful in marketing yourself in the creative image making business you need to be good at all of it. As for gear, I have a Canon 5D Mark III and a Fuji X100s. I’ve managed to basically put everything into one little bag! 

JC:  What’s on the horizon for Ben Lowy? Are there any projects that you are currently working on?

BL: I’m going to the Sudan to do a project for an NGO that is doing a story on conflict resolution through sports, which is a project I’ve been doing, on fighting around the world. There is also a “Violence in America,” project that I’m researching and formulating. And my most important project…being a Dad!

JC:  You recently posted a photo on Facebook of a homeless man who turned out to be an ex Getty Images shooter. Can you tell us a little about that and if there are any updates?

BL: His name is Scott Sutton and he was affiliated with Archive Images which was bought out by Image Stock which in turn was then bought out by Getty Images. He was originally a darkroom tech and he also photographed in places like Kosovo. He ended up suffering a lot of losses….his wife died, people close to him died…he got laid off, lost everything and ended up on the street. I was randomly walking on the street in Manhattan the other day and came across him and we struck up a conversation where I found all this out. 

Jay Davies, who is my editor at Getty Images, and I went to the Coalition of the Homeless downtown near Wall Street with Scott so he could apply for a PO Box address and Medicaid and food stamps. We waited all day on long lines and he was very antsy. But he is extremely erudite. He uses the money from panhandling to purchase books as he’s a voracious reader. So he’s sitting there with old clothes that I gave him but he has a brand new George Packers book on the decline of America! 

Sometimes I feel like the work that I’ve done hasn’t really changed anything. This is just me…this is my own personal thing. I’m not going to speak for other journalists who have covered things all over the world. I’ve covered Libya, but I don’t really know if I’ve made a difference….or helped some of the people that I’ve photographed in places like Afghanistan or Iraq. I mean, what impact have my images made…besides perhaps educating people? And here, I personally have a chance of helping someone. 

We’re going to take it one step at a time. We don’t want to scare him off. I know he wants a camera, which we can probably do. Many people have volunteered to help…even the Chair at RIT has called and asked what they could do. Everyone wants to do something…which is great. So now we are looking at ways to try and help him.

JC:  Lastly, any final thoughts you’d like to share with our readers? Any words of encouragement or advice?

BL: It’s a really tough time in the industry. But, there is so much opportunity out there for providing information….and innovation is the key! We need to figure out what’s next on the horizon and find a new way to communicate and push the envelope with what we can do. 

There are so many people out there shooting and doing work that you need to find a way, not just with your story but how you present your story. With photojournalism, sometimes we forget the photography part. We get so wrapped up with the journalism part that we forget that we’re also supposed to be artists.  

We need to make pictures that transcend the general apathy that a lot of people have and try to connect with the viewer. Sometimes that just takes a really awesome photograph that makes people say “WOW!”

LINKS

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