This past weekend, I had the pleasure of attending a talk by Canadian photojournalist Larry Towell at the Stephen Bulger Gallery. Over the course of his career, Towell has focused on issues of unrest, "landlessness," and how they affect identity for the people of conflict zones around the world. One's land is integral to one's identity. Many of his subjects have been forced from their rural homes wounded, with nothing and displaced into new, unfamiliar cities. Towell's career covering these conflicts has taken him to Central America, the United States, Mexico and Palestine and has resulted in thirteen books and hundreds of exhibitions and publications around the world. In 1993, he became the first Canadian member of Magnum Photos.
Magnum Photos approached Towell in 2008 offering a project covering the conflict in Afghanistan and embedding with the British military. Having never been in country, Towell decided to go there on his own, free from the restrictions that can be imposed on journalists when embedded with military forces in this way. Between 2008 and 2011, Towell made several trips to Afghanistan looking into the effects of war there. His approach was not just from military and political perspectives, but included social and cultural insights that humanized a conflict that has more often been depicted with statistics and propaganda. The resulting body of work includes videos, still photographs that have been exhibited worldwide, and a limited edition book.
During this weekend's presentation, Towell shared three videos from Afghanistan compiling still photographs, video footage and audio samples from the field. Towell is also an accomplished poet and talented folk musician. So, some original compositions, written and performed by him were layered over the imagery. The first video was a stream of black and white stills of Afghan victims of conflict, many of them amputees, often overlapped with night-vision footage and field recordings from his self-embedded time with American soldiers. The second was a continuous video from a Kandahar Medevac attempting in vain to save the life of a wounded soldier. The last piece was of night-vision footage during preparations for a raid by the American troops. We listened to them roll call the names and joke around prior to the mission. Each video was an intimate and moving view into a conflict through the people it affects.
After screening the videos, Towell discussed his interest in pursuing the subject of conflict resolution as opposed to conflict itself. He touched upon the often overlooked war on the media and the effects of restricting or silencing journalists. Propaganda and censorship are winning this war over human rights reportage in many places around the world today.
The discussion ended with a book signing by Towell of his latest publication, Afghanistan. The book contains over 350 images from his trips to Afghanistan, including his handwritten notes and collages.