May 12, 2014 6:35PM

Interview: Photographer Ben Lowy On What Goes Through Your Head Before You Die

"I can't die until I see this stupid Iron Man movie."

New York photojournalist Ben Lowy is a passionate guy. It's a wonder because, considering some of the shit he's seen, he'd be well within his right to be exhumed of all humanity. His first professional assignment was covering the D.C. Sniper case for TIME and has since been to Iraq, Afghanistan, Haiti and beyond capturing images of war that have reaped a haul of awards, including the International Center of Photography Infinity Award for Photojournalism in 2012. His point of difference? That he's one of the first professional photojournalists to have shot award winning pictures on an iPhone. His choice of tools is something that's clearly a point of contention, but as Ben told us: "It doesn't matter, because at the end of the day the picture is what counts." We spoke to Ben in the lead up to his appearance at Head On Photo Festival and Semi-Permanent Sydney about his thoughts on iPhone photography critics, the power of images, and that time he thought he was going to die.

Suz Tucker: Hi Ben. You've had such an interesting career for a couple of very different reasons. One is the subject matter of your work - which is invariably confronting, powerful or provocative - and your personal experiences capturing these moments in very dangerous situations; the other is a matter of tools and how you have really been a trailblazer for legitimising iPhone imagery in the world of photography. In your Head On Workshops and Semi-Permanent talk do you plan on focusing more on subject matter or technique? – Or neither?
Ben Lowy: I think my talks will deal with photographs and situations and how it lead me down a specific path into using specific techniques in conjunction with subject matter to tell a story in an effective way. In this day and age there are so many images, so many stories and places where people can get images and stories from, that I need to incorporate different innovative techniques to tell narrative with images, and you can't have one without the other anymore. Obviously a story and subject matter is the most important part but the technique is becoming the avenue upon which I am able to connect with an audience much more effectively.

Can you remember the first time you decided you might want to be a photographer?
It was around the third year of University. I was a failing illustrator and was tracing photographs of models to make better drawings when I came across a photo journalism book in a book store that changed my life. I sat there and looked at James Nachtwey – "Inferno" for hours [James Nachtwey's brilliant compendium of brutal images takent from recent conflicts including Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya] and ended up deciding that I had to take time off from school and figure out if this was the way I wanted to go. It was really intense "eureka" moment that within three hours changed the entire path that I had anticipated my life going on.

One of the images by James Nachtwey, published in Inferno

Tell us a little bit about your work on the sniper case in D.C in 2002? What was it like covering such an emotionally traumatic event as one of your first assignments?
The DC Sniper case was kind of my first assignment coming out of school in the US working for a magazine, it was my first assignment for Time Magazine, it was my first image that had been printed in a major magazine. It was interesting because it wasn't a specific story. I was just running from shooting to shooting, basically covering spot news where you couldn't anticipate what was going to happen, you could only respond. The only thing left to shoot in these scenarios was police standing around looking at a dead body covered in a tarp. There was nothing hopeful in that coverage.

If I go back and look at my images they are pictures of memorials and the people and things they left behind, and mostly there are images from gas stations. I don't know if I would call that emotionally traumatic, but it was not what I anticipated I would be covering when I started as a photographer.

On assignments like the sniper case or any of your coverage of conflicts, how do you hold yourself at arm's length from the emotion and the politics to keep objectivity in reportage? How do you define your role as a photojournalist?
My role as a photojournalist is that of an objective story teller; obviously I have an opinion and obviously I have empathy but the camera is an amazing barrier. Both physically - as it holds you off from the subject that you're photographing because you have this huge black thing that you're holding in front of your face - but also psychologically once you look through the view finder you are disconnected in many ways.

Even though there might be a mother mourning her dead child, once you put that camera in front of your face you are looking at your view finder and you're seeing your shutter. "This is my aperture"... "This is how I am composing" - and it takes you a little bit out of the emotional side of the situation, and in a way it's a crutch because it does help you do your job without some of the other elements that would stymie a person, emotionally.

I think that does help when you're trying to cover something I put a lot of stock and a lot of work into how I compose images because that is definitely a way that I feel that I reach people through my work. Sometimes when I am covering events that I don't believe in, or people whose politics I don't agree with I have to say to myself my job is not to tell people my opinion but is to show people a version of the truth that is happening in front of me, and I do that through my soul which inevitably my opinion does influence.

"Untitled" by Ben Lowy, shot in Libya

You were fresh out of university when you decided to photograph the war in Iraq. Why and how did you decide that this was something that you wanted to document? Because you were literally walking into a life threatening situation…
I knew after I decided to take a year off from school that I was going to be a conflict photographer. I had covered conflict in intervening years before I had graduated from university. I had dedicated my life to that point, to saying I was going to be a conflict photographer, this was something I wanted to do, I thought it was important.

I was a bit of an idealist in that I wanted to document man's humanity to other men, and I wanted to create this record for people to look at. I thought this was the right thing to do, that this was my calling. I cant say that there was a logical reason behind it, more that it was a visual reaction to being exposed to this job and reality. When I found out that people did that for a living, that this to me was some kind of calling. That went off in my head and I realised this was what I was meant to do, this is what I in my soul and heart was telling me.

I always had this belief deep down that there are some things people are meant to do, there are some people who are meant to be athletes or some people are meant to be actors and they shine. There are people who shine when they enter a profession; this is what they were meant to do for some reason. And I felt that being a war photographer was what I was meant to do, this was my niche.

How many times have you been in a situation where you genuinely thought: "okay this is it. Tell my mum I love her…" What the hell goes through your head in those moments?
[Where I'm from] we don’t call them mums, I call them mom. There have been more than several situations I've been in where I feared for my life, where I made a phone call to tell people that I loved them.

Personally everyone has this idea that there are no Atheists in foxholes and that couldn't be further from the truth, at least with me. I think the one instance that I thought I was going to die [was] in 2007. I literally said to myself: "I can't die until I see this stupid Iron Man movie." I had just seen the trailer for the first Iron Man movie that morning and I waited for ten minutes using my satellite dish to download it in Iraq. The weirdest things go through your head in moments like that. You know people say their whole life flashes before their eyes, it's not so much your whole life... sometimes you think about the most banal things, rather than things that stress you out the most.

"Untitled" by Ben Lowy from his i-street exhibition as part of Head On

What do you think of criticism about smartphone photography and purists who dismiss it? Will you be offering any insights in your workshops at the Apple Store on this? Why do you think some people are so resistant to embracing new technology and forms of capturing moments?
I think purists who don’t like iPhone photography because you shot it with an iPhone rather than a big $10,000 camera are idiots and I won't even talk to them about that. A camera is a camera. It's a tool that you have in your camera bag and you pull out different tools when you need them. I need to remain kind of anonymous walking around Afghanistan because I [look like] their version of Jason Bourne or James Bond - I'm the six-foot-tall bald white guy. So if having a small iPhone helped me take pictures rather than a big Canon, Nikon or whatever, if that helps me then yeah I use it.

It doesn't matter, because at the end of the day the picture is what counts. Who cares what you made it with? You're taking a picture that tells a story.

If people are saying that there are filters [like Instagram] and that it's not real, you know what? Black and white photography isn't real either. No one sees in black and white! Does that make them less real? You look at Henri Cartier-Bresson images, Elliott Erwood images, and pictures of Vietnam that Eddie Adams or David Kennerly took. They are in black and white. No one saw in black and white, but does that make them any less real?

What about Weegee's (Arthur Fellig's) image of crime scenes in New York? They were taken with a flash - a flash isn't "real". What you just decided to bring the sun with you? I think people are resistant to things that they haven't done themselves, that they were late to the game on, or people that are too old to embrace it.

People that say: "Oh it's not good enough, I need to shoot Tri-X black and white film because that's what a real photographer is!" You know what? A real photographer is someone who makes pictures that appeal to an audience. Pictures that answer questions and ask questions that tell a story. That's what a photographer is. It doesn't matter what you use, and I think dancing around that questions hurts photography.

"Untitled" by Ben Lowy from his i-street exhibition as part of Head On

What will we be seeing in your next project? Are you currently working on something at the moment?
I am, and I am kind of keeping it under the wraps but it's a lot about violence in America. It's kind of this idea that has been plaguing my country for a long time. I have been trying to articulate that visually. It's something I have been working on for the last year in my spare time - which isn't much because I have two little kids and a mortgage to pay for.

A photo can be a powerful thing. Do you remember when you last saw an image that really floored you? And can you tell me a little about the shot?
I think the image of the couple embracing after the textile factory collapsed in India was incredibly powerful. It's [of] a couple, a man and a woman who died in this textile factory collapse, but you can see their bodies amongst the debris and that they were holding each other and at the last minute they decided to embrace as they both knew they were going to die.

It's sort of this universal idea about love - because you see love in an embrace like that. Whether or not it exists, you see it. There are these universal things; constructs that we all understand regardless of culture, and sometimes, within the ugliness of human existence, we find space for beauty. Even in the horrible death that these two people experienced, their last moments were in this embrace that was ultimately beautiful. It's kind of interesting because I think photography is the only medium that can really capture something really beautiful out of something so horrible.

Ben Lowy is a guest of Head On Photo Festival and will also be a speaker at Semi-Permanent Sydney (General Admission tickets available now). His exhibition "I-Street" at Paddington Reservoir gardens runs from 17 May – 8 June and entry is free. Ben will be giving a free talk at the Apple Store on George St, Sydney, Monday 19th May at 6pm.