Louie Palu, photographer (born 29 September 1968, in Toronto, ON). The 2008 Canadian Photojournalist of the Year, winner of the 2011 National Magazine Award, a New America Foundation fellow and Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant recipient, Louie Palu is one of the most important documentarians of the United States’ and Canada’s war in Afghanistan, and of the perils of Mexico’s drug trade. His exhibition Kandahar: The Fighting Season was exhibited at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa.
Early Life and Education
Louie Palu was born to Italian parents from the Veneto region of northeastern Italy who immigrated to Toronto in the mid-1960s. His father, Giuseppe, was a stonemason, and his mother, Fiorina, was a seamstress. Art was a constant in the Palu household despite his family’s modest circumstances. He credits his hard-working parents with both his education in art and a lifelong interest in labour.
“In my house,” says Palu, “it was as normal to be talking about art as the weather outside. My parents would insist on going to see art shows and showed me the paintings of Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo and Picasso.”
Palu attended the Ontario College of Art and Design University, graduating in 1991. Fresh out of OCAD, he started to photograph Toronto’s homeless — a project that is still ongoing.
“All of my work is tied to my parents,” says Palu — the photographs of the homeless, the later documenting of miners, the work from Afghanistan and then Mexico. “As a child I would hear stories from their youth of partisan fighting, of Germans being hanged, of my grandfather getting arrested by Germans, and of my parents growing up in poverty. I can safely say that I have never been interested in a story because it is ‘journalistically’ important. It’s all about figuring out who I am in this world and what that means in terms of my family.”
Palu shot the material for Cage Call, a series of photographs of the mining life and men at work in the underground shafts of some 20 mines in and around Cobalt, Timmins and Virginiatown, in Northern Ontario, between 1991 and 2003. Remounted as recently as 2012 at the Art Gallery of Sudbury, Cage Call won Canadian plaudits but also received attention from the United States, where the young photographer’s decision to work in black and white as well as his attraction to the unlikely subject of labour were surprises that piqued the interest of curators. A volatile dynamic in the photographs reveals them to be more than historical work and drew comparisons with iconic American documentary photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange. Alison Nordström, Senior Curator of Photographs at New York’s George Eastman House, describes Palu as “a romantic and a humanist. His are not photographs that simply document a subject, they’re intended to tug at your heart.”
Palu’s work in the mines led to a staff job at the Globe and Mail in the summer of 2001, a position he still held when, four years later, he decided that he needed to get himself to Afghanistan. The logical extension of his interest in labour was to be witness to soldiers’ “heavy lifting.” Palu recalls seeing the July 2005 press conference in which Canadian Armed Forces General Rick Hillier described the Taliban as “detestable murderers and scumbags” and “thinking about how as a kid I’d watched movies about Vietnam and read the books, and that the dialogue with the arts really helped the United States sort itself.”
Palu’s work in Kabul, Helmand, Farah and Kandahar started as an embedded photographer at first, and then not, but needing to be if he was to see combat and to be able to keep the Afghans who worked with him alive. “If you want to cover the violence and the firefights, then you can’t go unembedded,” says Palu. More to the point, “you would get your translator killed.”
Palu was, however, unembedded when, in 2006 in Kandahar City, he covered his first terrorist suicide bombing. “There was a head, there was an arm, there was a face and for days I could smell the burned flesh in my nose,” says Palu. “When I got back to Toronto, I remember getting off the plane and going directly to the Globe and Mail to drop off my stuff and leaving the office and seeing that I still had my combat boots on. Then I drank until I passed out.”
The year 2006 was Canada’s first year of double-digit casualties — 36 soldiers and the diplomat Glyn Berry, too — and the bloody turning point for the Canadian Forces. Canadian soldiers did not lose a battle, but fought hard and took losses, and Palu was an immediate witness to several of them, ultimately logging over 150 medical evacuation (medevac) helicopter sorties and hundreds of foot patrols often culminating in firefights, and as many combat operations.
Fifteen of the first battles Palu covered were during Operation Medusa, fought in Pashmul — a conglomeration of small villages southwest of Kandahar — in September 2006. For Canadian Forces, says Palu, “Pashmul is one of those names of places that is not forgotten.”
In February 2007, convinced that he would not be able to reconcile his artistic ambitions with his duties to page and to deadline, Palu quit his Globe and Mail staff position. In August and September 2008, he embedded himself with US marines in the province of Helmand, and the technique of a subject “looking out” that he had first developed in the Cage Call series asserted itself again. His work with the Marines culminated in a remarkable series of quiet, haunting shots of the soldiers’ faces included in The Fighting Season. Haggard and dirty, the Marines stare in a point-blank, taciturn fashion so close to his lens that it is impossible not to participate in the relationship with his subjects that has become a hallmark of his work. One of the photographs, "U.S. Marine GySgt. Carlos 'OJ' Orjuela, Age 31, Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan," was selected from more than a million photographs by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for its landmark exhibition, WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and Its Aftermath.
A particularly memorable photograph from Kandahar: The Fighting Season is "Eating Grapes in Pashmul During a Patrol in Zhari District." It is a close frontal shot in black and white of a soldier with the Afghan National Army raising a bunch of grapes to his mustachioed, helmeted face and eating them in the cover of the roadside bush. His eyes are large and harrowed.
The New America Foundation awarded Palu a fellowship and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting awarded him a grant. His work from Afghanistan has been displayed in a host of exhibition spaces in cities including Houston, New York, Philadelphia and Seattle. It is possible that Palu continues to be more recognized in the United States than he is in Canada, though Kandahar: The Fighting Season was exhibited for 11 months at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa in 2012–13.
In the face of Canada winding down its combat role, Palu left Afghanistan (the Canadian Armed Forces’ combat mission in Kandahar ended in July 2011, though troops remained in the country in a training role for another three years) — but not for safer places. Palu’s most recent work, Mira Mexico, exhibited in 2013 at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, at the Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto, and as a series of concept newspapers, has taken him along the border of Mexico and the Unites States, territory that Palu does not hesitate to describe as more dangerous than Afghanistan was.
In 2011 — after the seventh time he figured his life was done for when a bomb went off under the airborne medevac helicopter he was in — Palu made his first trip to Mexico. “I really felt that I had hit my limit psychologically,” says Palu. “I had no gas left. I was sleeping with the lights on.”
Work relating to the Mexican drug wars, which claimed an estimated 80,000 lives between 2006 and 2014, would appear an odd palliative, but, says Palu, “organized crime and the drug trade have entered into and out of my mind as potential subjects for years. For a while I’d been thinking about the heroin trade in Afghanistan but I wasn’t about to go back and it dawned on me that Latin America, the drug war, organized crime and the cartels — subjects that I was very interested in — all came together in Mexico.”
Since 2011, Louie Palu has been working with filmmaker Devin Gallagher on Kandahar Journals, a Kickstarter-funded movie of his experiences in Afghanistan. Palu, who lives in Washington, DC, also regularly returns to Toronto and uses the time to continue with his first and longest-running project photographing Toronto’s homeless, sometimes sleeping outside in -40°C winter conditions. Palu walks at a fair pace, looks into stairwells and down alleys, and explains that “the immediate and raw” is what he wants. (“If it stops you, that’s a picture.”) He makes a point of not hiding from his subjects and says he finds the notion of the photographer as a “fly on the wall” ridiculous.
Awards and Honours
Louie Palu is the recipient of numerous awards including the Hasselblad Masters Award for Editorial Photography (2008), the Canadian Photographer of the Year from the News Photographers Association of Canada (2008), and the National Magazine Award for a cover of Report on Business Magazine (2011), as well as prestigious grants such as the Alexia Foundation Photography Grant for World Peace and Cultural Understanding (2010), the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellowship from the New America Foundation in Washington, DC (2011), and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting Grant, Washington, DC (2012).