Heads up: Some readers may find some of the images in the gallery disturbing.
Louie Palu is an internationally acclaimed photojournalist and filmmaker. He's been named Canadian Photojournalist of the Year, and his work has been featured everywhere from The Globe and Mail to The New Yorker. Louie was a guest on the show in 2010, and he talked with George about the experience of shooting with Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan.
He now has an exhibit of photos from Mexico on at the Kinsman Robinson Galleries in Toronto, and he spoke with Strombo.com about his life and work.
Susan Sontag once wrote “wherever people feel safe (...) they will be indifferent.” What do you hope the impact of your photos will be?
That’s a great question. My goal is to stir dialogue amongst people, maybe to throw them off balance a little using peaceful means, as in photographs. I mean in the end everyone lives in their own little world. I think many people carry their own personal pain that is relative to their lives here, which seems like indifference. I am not sure who feels safe these days. Though I can’t disagree that there is a lot of complacency in Canada and the U.S. I feel grateful when I come home, I don’t have to worry about being assassinated. Though when I worked on my project on asbestos in Sarnia, Ontario, it was a big wake-up call that you could get cancer in your home by an almost invisible dust. In the end I guess photographs don’t change anything — voters and the will of the people do. Photographs are there to empower you if you seek them out and use them to educate yourself.
What do people not know about what’s happening in Mexico?
When we speak of “most people”, let’s say from what I find, most Canadians and Americans have no idea of the slaughter going on in Mexico. Up to 60,000 Mexicans including up to 100 journalists have been murdered or gone missing in the drug war there. The violence continues to this day. The final chapter in the narrative of that violence is the illegal drugs people consume here in our cities in Canada and the U.S. A lot of the illegal drug consumption (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, marijuana) here is directly related to the killing going on in Mexico. Directly or indirectly organized crime uses these drugs to operate, trade with and make money. Also, because everyone asks, the television show Breaking Bad is a fiction. Though an entertaining show, the real drug trade and organized crime are not, and what happens in the real world of drugs and organized crime is revolting. I have always had a hard time with the romanticizing in TV and film of organized crime figures.
You often photograph subjects who have gone through intense physical and emotional trauma. How do you gain their trust?
I approach each environment and person of interest to my work slowly. I also do my research to try to understand their world and life, even in a small way. I also devote a lot of time to them, which can become months and or even years. For example, one project on mining communities in Ontario I worked on lasted 12 years. You have to show commitment for them to trust you, be as transparent and honest as possible and demonstrate that what you are doing is genuine.
What is your relationship with your fixers in Afghanistan and Mexico?
My fixers, for those of you who don’t know what a fixer is, are my local guides, translators and drivers in the foreign places I work in. My relationship must be strong with them in many aspects. Firstly, they trust that I won’t get them killed and I trust that they won’t sell me out to kidnappers or get me killed. Mutual respect and trust is paramount. I have been lucky that I have had some great individuals to work with. The most important decision I make everyday when I work with a fixer is that I don’t get them killed or push them to do something that they don’t want to do due to danger. If you are abducted, most times your fixer is killed first and you are sold off by kidnappers. I have become close friends with two of my fixers. I had a fixer in Mexico who was high on cocaine most mornings, but he worked out fine.
Have you ever taken a photo you felt didn't tell the right story?
In my 23 years as a professional photographer, I have taken thousands of photographs. I am a very thorough editor, and follow a pretty strict set of ethical guidelines set out by my peers and colleagues. I have never had a problem in the taking of photographs. I think what your question is asking is not about the taking of the photographs but more about has my work been published and used out of context. There are news outlets that at times use photos as an illustration to support the text in a written story. It has happened with some of my photographs, but I have never had a serious issue in my career.
When I covered Medevac units in 2010 in Kandahar, I saw a lot of carnage. At times I chose to not photograph the scene in front of me or not release certain photographs due to how extreme the injuries were. Brains, intestines, amputations — it was very rough in the back of the helicopter. My goal is to educate people, not shock them. I use my best judgment relative to the situation and story I am working on. I have in-depth discussions with who is publishing my work to make sure the story is clear.
Does your relationship to your subjects change when you shoot in Canada, as you did in your Cage Call series looking at northern mining?
My relationship to everyone remains the same no matter what country I am in. Though when working in violent areas one has to be careful about how friendly one becomes with combatants. In the end, the strength of any journalist’s work rests with them being impartial, but still understanding what is right and what is wrong. The story should always be in the public’s interest.
How has your upbringing as a child of Italian immigrants informed your choice of subject matter?
My parents and the experiences they taught me are the foundation of everything that I have done. As a child I grew up hearing stories from the Second World War, terrible stories. I grew up around a community of working class immigrants who came to Canada with nothing. My mom was a seamstress and worked at a sewing machine while pregnant with me. As an Italian/Canadian child, I always heard about organized crime. Rumours were always whispered throughout our community about who was in the mafia, but no one dared speak about it. These experiences molded me into what I am.
Louie Palu: Mira Mexico is on display at the Kinsman Robinson Galleries at 108 Cumberland St., Toronto, until October 12.