Pictures from Ben Lowy’s Iraq | Perspectives I and II have been widely shown in recent years, both online and in exhibitions. This is unsurprising: they are by any account unusual pictures depicting the U.S. presence in Iraq, describing both the experience of soldiers from something like a first person perspective, and the everyday life of Iraqi residents as they navigate a troubled landscape by day and are subject to raids by night. They also comment thoughtfully on photojournalistic practice and embedded journalism, representing the war in Iraq in a manner that more traditional conflict photography - at which Lowy also excels - tends not to.
© Ben Lowy
The publication of Iraq | Perspectives recognises Lowy as the winner of the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography competition, judged this year by William Eggleston. The printing is excellent and most of the 96 pictures run full bleed. Lowy’s use of light and colour comes through more effectively here than in online presentations of the same images. The book brings yet another dimension to these pictures, placing them in a visual narrative that gives the work even more power. “These pictures were practically asking to be in a book together,” noted Eggleston.
© Ben Lowy
Perspectives I is comprised of pictures that Lowy made of urban landscapes in Iraq through the windows of humvees while embedded with the 101st Airborne between 2005 and 2008. The world outside of the window appears at once mundane and alien, and no less threatening for being unknowable. The pictures speak to the distance between American soldiers and the inhabitants of the city/battlefield through which they move, a terrain transformed by war. Women and men go about their business. There are soldiers, police and civilians, fields and wrecked cars, concrete barriers, children and students, animals. A woman with a carton of eggs is one of several subjects looking back at the humvee window; Lowy notes that he does not know whether or not the people outside see him.
© Ben Lowy
The pictures in Perspectives II describe nighttime searches conducted by American soldiers, the photographs made through night vision equipment. Where the window pictures are systematically framed, these images are systematically abstracted from ordinary vision, a vignetted limbo space. Again we ride on Lowy’s shoulder alongside the soldiers but the largely routine if sometimes surreal business of everyday life has been supplanted by fear and the exercise of power. The surprisingly vivid color and evocative light of the daytime scenes has been replaced by a hazy green monochrome that reveals detached American soldiers, rousted Iraqi families and bound and blindfolded captives.
© Ben Lowy
The book brings both groups of pictures together in a captionless stream of images. The narrative roughly describes the passage of time from day into afternoon and emptying out into purple twilight as seen through windows, then continues with the night vision pictures, beginning with empty streets and soldiers assembling, and moving into photographs of raids and prisoners. Unlike the regularly spaced window photographs, these later pictures tumble into an uneasy rhythm, printed at varying sizes. Are the prisoners and families huddled on the floor the same people who Lowy photographed through the window in the day? How did these views come to be the perspectives of both soldiers and journalists?
In an interview with The Center for Documentary Studies’ Alexa Dilworth, Lowy describes having lost his clothes in Iraq and speaking to his mother on the phone:
- She said, “Ben, why don’t you go to the mall?” This makes my mom look bad because most people are saying, “A mall. In Iraq.” But she’s like, “Ben, I have no idea where Iraqis go shopping, how they go shopping. Are there clothing stores there? Is it the third world, is it the first world? Are there streets; are they paved? I don't know because the photographs you send are always of raids or of hospitals after bombings or of blood or victims or soldiers. I don’t see regular everyday life.” And I was like, “You know what? You’re right! And it’s because I can’t walk out on the street. It is too dangerous.
Hers are good questions, and the representation of everyday life in Iraq does indeed change our understanding of how this war is enacted. Geert van Kesteren's Baghdad Calling comes to mind. Van Kesteren, also with limited access to the private lives of Iraqi civilians, presents Iraqis’ personal cell phone pictures that he acquired through networks of contacts. How often has the major news media described the daily lives of Iraqis, or even raised the notion, the possibility?
© Ben Lowy
Where van Kesteren reveals another archive, one to which Western audiences have no access, Lowy makes the point that while life does indeed go on in Iraq, he can only see it from the safety of his vehicle. By making a virtue of the constraint, he gives us pictures that describe the absence of contact between him and those he photographs, the world outside as interesting as it is inaccessible.
© Ben Lowy
And even as these pictures succeed in accomplishing much of what we want photojournalism to do - reporting, witnessing, eliciting emotion leveraged against knowledge and information - these pictures are also compelling in their capacity to disrupt photojournalistic conventions. Rather than showing us an event of importance or a telling moment, Lowy places us in the scene itself; he sees what the soldiers see and through his images we are all linked together - American soldier, Iraqi resident, photojournalist and audience - in an uncomfortable, precarious, unlikely chain.
© Ben Lowy
Like Broomberg and Chanarin’s "The Day Nobody Died", in which the artists document the transportation of a roll of photographic paper that they exposed - without camera - as embedded photographers in Afghanistan, this project suggests and critiques the parameters that define how embedded photojournalism is performed. But Lowy’s work, unlike Broomberg and Chanarin’s inquiry into the limits of photojournalism, manages also to allow for a personal if ambiguous connection between the viewer and the other actors who explicitly or implicitly are represented in the picture. The questions that Lowy raises do not inhibit his ability to comment effectively on the scenes that he witnesses.
© Ben Lowy
The mediation inscribed in the image - the window frame, the night vision haze - positions us in relation to the scene. By representing the act of perception, by addressing the experience of observation as much as the observation of experiences, Lowy’s subject is both what the soldier sees and how the soldier sees. The pictures contain the clues and tools that encourage the audience to consider photojournalism as practice. Lowy’s frames do what all photography does, but they do it exceptionally well: they simultaneously invite us to look, and hold us in place.
Iraq | Perspectives
Cloth, 120 pages, 10 x 12 inches, 96 color photographs
Duke University Press and CDS Books of the Center for Documentary Studies