You Will Change: Magnum Photographer Larry Towell Has Advice for Young Photojournalists
"I think the work speaks for itself, I think it will always speak for itself. If the intent is right, it will find an audience—maybe small, I don't know if that's bad. And you never know if you're involved in a struggle, social or political. You never...
If you're not monitoring power, you're not doing your job.
We asked one of our favourite photographers, Aaron Vincent Elkaim (featured in the Canadian VICE Photo Issue), to interview award-winning photographer, Magnum Photos member, and co-curator of VICE's Annual Photo Show Larry Towell. This is what happened.
To a young Canadian photojournalist like myself, Larry Towell has always been sort of a legend. He was the first Canadian member of the prestigious Magnum Photos, an agency that rings through the halls of history. His work is about land, landlessness, and identity and he has covered stories of injustice and displacement around the world, from El Salvador to Palestine and beyond, often spending years developing his projects. He has published 13 books and lives on a farm in southern Ontario, which was the focus of a personal book project titled The World From My Front Porch documenting his life, family and the land that has defined his own identity. The farm, with its built-in darkroom, is a legend in itself.
If you know who Larry Towell is, you also probably know what he looks like. He always wears a signature straw hat and suspenders, and he fits the archetype of the peaceful country man who respects tradition and shies away from technology, not so unlike the Mennonites he photographed for 10 years. When I went to interview Towell, I was as much interested in him as I was about his work and his wisdom. As we conversed I found an inspiring humility. Towell doesn't like talking about himself—his work is his focus, and he feels a strong duty to the people and the stories he tells. It's clear that he doesn't want his own story to get in the way of his life's work and purpose. In a time when social media and celebrity culture have nurtured the ego to the point of being grotesque, humility such as his has become a rare quality. It's part of another time.
Aaron Vincent Elkaim: So how did you get into photography?
Larry Towell: When I was young, I studied visual arts. As a visual arts student you're told that you're special and that you have something to say by virtue of being an artist, and I learned that it's not true. When I went to Central America for the first time in the early '80s, there was a war going on and I realized as an artist I had nothing to say whatsoever because I hadn't even lived long enough to know anything. What I did discover was that I wanted to see what other people had to say and interpret their lives, record their stories, because their stories were far beyond mine both in terms of interest and meaning. This was at the time that the US was covertly funding the Contra in Nicaragua, the people had successfully overthrown the American backed dictatorship. The old National Guard of the Somoza Dictatorship had fled to Honduras where the CIA began to train them to try to overthrow the revolution in Nicaragua.
So I interviewed the family members and victims of the Contra in Nicaragua, which were mostly civilians... that started my trip. I met people who had their legs blown off by land mines provided by the US. We're talking about an impoverished country with a population smaller than Toronto fighting the largest superpower on earth, and I thought that was the story... and it was. It started from there. The work became a book called Somozas Last Stand, [published by] a small Canadian press. That led me to work in Guatemala where the CIA had overthrown the democratically-elected Arbenz Government in 1954. Since then, 100,000 Mayan Indians have been killed, something that wasn't even in our news. 40,000 people had disappeared, and people are still being exhumed from their shallow graves to this day. So I began to interview the relatives and I thought this is where I want to be this is what I want to hear—these are the stories that matter.
What kind of work were you producing and how were you getting it out there?
At the time I was doing writing, poetry—very bad poetry—and taking pictures. I was trying to survive, I had a wife and child, I was teaching folk music at night school. I wasn't publishing very much, a little bit here and there and that's why I called Magnum. I didn't know much about them, but I knew they were an agency and I hoped they could sell my pictures. So I sent them my work and they took me in. That's when I decided to be a photographer.
How important was Magnum in your development as a photographer?
Very important. Magnum was a community, I realized when I got in what Magnum was. I don't think they realized I wasn't a committed photographer yet. It provided a target, and it provided a huge challenge. Once I found out who Robert Capa was and Cartier Bresson, Susan Meiselas, Joseph Koudelka, Eugene Richards, I was like, who the freak am I? So I went to work as a photographer. And I continued to work in Central America, then Palestine and around the world in areas of conflict.
The main thing was to be challenged. In those days, there was no Facebook and Instagram—there was just you and your camera and the person you were with who was your subject. You weren't appealing to this audience out there, fans and all this bullshit that contemporary photographers unfortunately have to put up with. Some of them do very well at it, unfortunately.
So I learned to work alone—in those days it was a solitary profession. I fed my work through Magnum, but I also learned a lot from the photographers. I would shuffle my work and show it to different photographers and eventually it helped my editing process and my photography. In the arts in general, we are only as good as the people who come before us. We may think we're natural born but it's not true, it's all a lie. We learn as we go along and we owe a lot to the people who come before us.
Tell me about your photographic process. Do you often work on multiple projects at once?
Right now I'm working on four books or so. I try to work on a least two or three simultaneously. When I was in El Salvador, I was about midway through my Mennonite project and I was just beginning Palestine. That way I could take a trip for three weeks, edit, go back to where I came from or go somewhere else. As I'm editing and forming a train of thought, when I go back I know what I want to do, I know what I need, I know what to go for—I'm not just stabbing in the dark with individual pictures. And, of course, if you just work on one thing you burn out, you lose interest. So if I move from project to project, it's fresh again, because the environment is changing and the story is evolving when you're gone.
You've worked on some stories that must be quite emotionally difficult. How does your work affect you as an individual?
I don't know? My wife tells me I have PTSD, but I know I don't... just kidding. Everybody asks that question, how does it affect you? A photojournalist's job is to monitor power. That doesn't mean you have to do it, but if you're not then you're not doing your job. I don't see it as The Bang Bang Club, but more asking: what's really going on here?
I just did this project on Afghanistan, photographing between 2008-2011, some of the time imbedded, and the problem is, you can never photograph what's going on. What's going on is in Washington, or other places in the world. Not what they are showing you, that's not what's going on, that's just the ramifications, you really cannot photograph power in certain situations. So I was trying to analyze what was going on outside of the range of the camera and I pursued that rather than, "Where is the next shot going to come from and how can I get there?" and I think that is what our job should be.
I heard you say that you try to work within the story, that you try to become part of it so you can truly understand it. Getting so close, that must affect you?
First of all, I can say I was always very honoured to be with the people I was with. If you're standing in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City with barefoot Mayan Indians whose relatives have been killed, and they are being photographed by the paramilitary and they know when they get back to their villages they could be killed, that's an honour. It's just an honour to be with those people. And I find very often that the subjects are very inspirational people. I think it's a healthy thing.
What drives your work?
These stories aren't getting out. Especially with the collapse of the media. So I think it's important to go and show people things that a) they don't know about; and b) they don't want to see; and c) are too challenging. As opposed to say social networks in this day and age when everything is about yourself—the degrading of photography as far as I'm concerned. It's aloof and non-professional. It's a different world now.
Do you find it difficult to publish with integrity in the modern age.
I think it's easier to maintain your integrity with mainstream media than with today's social networking environment. 'Cause at least the mainstream media is content oriented. Whereas pop-culture media and social media is often celebrity.
I think the work speaks for itself, I think it will always speak for itself. If the intent is right, it will find an audience—maybe small, I don't know if that's bad. And you never know if you're involved in a struggle, social or political. You never know what effect you're going to have. It's sort of like the gears of a clock, one little gear pushing against another little gear pushing against another little gear and eventually the whole clock starts to work but you may be pushing one little gear, and part of the whole process and not even realizing it. So you just don't know. You can't change the world but you can be part of the process for change, and sometimes you don't even know it.
I really agree with this philosophy because otherwise, how do you maintain your belief in what you do? You can't expect to see the ramifications of the work you do in terms of change, but that change might happen in any number of ways that you're associated with, but might never actually realize.
First of all, you will see change immediately, but the change will be you. You will change. That's the first step. Beyond that, the bad guys will never tell you that you affected them. Sometimes change takes generations. The main thing is to be on the right side, and if you're not on the right side... then you're probably going to make a lot of money. But If you believe you have to change the world with your work, which is a very pretentious belief, then if you don't change the world then you failed. But that's the only way to look at it. The only thing that makes sense, so you have to be governed by an inner clock, an integrity. I think that's what we should be doing. We lose it sometimes—I know lots of photographers who come in as journalists and go out as corporate advertising photographers making rather than $400 a day $15,000 a day. I know lots of those people.
Can you find a balance between the two?
Depends. Some people can, some people can't. I don't think I could. I do know people who walk the line in both worlds and I know people who don't. I can't speak for everybody. But I don't do corporate work as a matter of personal policy.
I know you play around quite a bit with multimedia, can you tell me about that a bit.
Play around is the word I guess. When the digital recorder was invented, I started carrying it and recording sound, because I'm a musician and I do audio recordings and music, and when video cameras became hi-definition and small, I started shooting video while i was recording sound. [I do that] almost all the time now. I'm actually hoping to make a film from the many many hours of footage I have from just my travels that I've never used for anything. Usually I write songs, and get some musicians together and make a record, which creates part of the soundtrack for multimedia pieces I've done.
I use it to challenge myself, I use it to reinvest myself. And it has certain capabilities, but a still photographer isn't necessarily going to be a good videographer, and a still photographer isn't necessarily a good songwriter either. But the music is something I've done all my life so it's not new to me. It was just displaced for a while. And multimedia, I think only because it's possible to do so nowadays that I do it, and everybody does it for that reason. But is it good or not? I don't know. Is it good enough? I don't know. It's more of a personal fulfilment and challenge. But at schools and universities, you meet students who are studying still photography and they are learning video editing simultaneously. It's part of the language today and there is so much of it, I don't know where it's going to find a home. So many pictures out there, so much video out there, it's non-stop. And people haven't really found their audience, that's the problem. Finding your audience so you know who you're talking to at least.
As an emerging photographer, the reality today is that you must fund your own book. No publisher is going to take that risk on someone who is unproven. What are your thoughts on paying for your own book publishing/printing?
You shouldn't, it's vanity press. Although if you raise money together, with the help of the publisher, that is a different story... then it's a partnership. But don't pay with your own money, that's vanity press and it has always been around. Self publishing is also a little different, if you have an audience you can generate revenue by selling the books yourself.
How important is it to get the first book out?
It's very important for you morale, but the content won't be very good. The first book is always bad. At the time, you think it's great. My first books, I won't even show them to anybody. I've got boxes of them downstairs. I won't even take them out.
It's a process. Each one gets better, you get better at it, you become a better designer, you become a better photographer, or you become a better storyteller, become a better craftsman at your own work.
You have to be self motivated and you have to be able to take a lot of rejection. You have to be able to enjoy rejection until rejection becomes so wonderful that you just can't wait to get another rejection so that you can get back to the grindstone so you can get more rejection.
Anything else you would like to add Larry, any final words of wisdom?
I wish I had some wisdom... I guess the main thing is, you've got to get out of bed in the morning, you've got to get on a plane. Somehow, you have to find how to get somewhere and you have to be with the people you're with. That's all you can do. And not everybody is going to survive, let's face it. There are two things everyone is in the world: one of them is a photographer and one of them is a poet.