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Five years in Afghanistan

Phil Coomes | 16:04 UK time, Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Afghan and Canadian soldiers under fire

Canadian photographer Louie Palu has been photographing the conflict in Afghanistan for the past five years. During that time his work from the frontline has been widely published and has won him numerous awards, including Canadian photojournalist of the year. Now, however, his focus is shifting to editing the work into a comprehensive record of the country's latest conflict, and with that comes a chance to see his pictures of a quieter Afghanistan.

Louie made his first trip to Kandahar in 2006 while on assignment for The Globe and Mail, a national newspaper in Canada, and since then has undertaken five additional trips working independently between 2007 and 2010, in total spending approximately 18 months in the field.

The final year of his time in Afghanistan was funded by the Alexia Foundation who awarded Louie their annual photography grant to continue his work in Kandahar.

Here Louie talks about the project and offers his perspective on working in a conflict zone.

Louie Palu:

"When I first went to Kandahar in 2006 I was on an assignment covering Canadian troops on a combat mission. No matter how much I read about or researched it, nothing can ever replace witnessing and gathering information first hand.
"This was the first war I covered and by the end of my first trip I was deeply affected by a suicide bombing and really had more questions than answers about what I had seen.
"On my arrival back to my home in Canada I immediately knew that I wanted to cover Kandahar as a long-term project and not just on another news cycle. I planned to spend extended amounts of time in the field and it was clear to me that I had to decide what I was going to photograph, not an assignment desk back in the west. Nor did I want to be taking pictures for a writer who only spent two weeks in the field.
"I returned in 2007 on my own to find that few media outlets other than a handful of Canadian journalists were covering Kandahar. The amount of fighting there in 2007 was high and it intensified throughout 2008.
"I think what was interesting in those early years was the media coverage by each nation. The British media primarily covered UK troops in Helmand province, the US media US troops in the north east, mainly in the Korengal valley, and Kandahar was covered by Canadians. So the effect of this is that for those back home they tended to see the war through one region, for that reason I made a trip out to each of those other areas to understand them before continuing with my Kandahar project.
"The majority of media coverage was from short tours and many journalists made limited trips into the field away from the main base at Kandahar Airfield. As a photographer you have no choice but to report up close and personal on the front lines. I can't blame my colleagues for not going out, it is brutally dangerous in the area's I worked in.
"But I wanted to see what the fruit stands and markets were like, the daily rituals, in addition to the fighting and NATO troops, which are only a part of the story.
"Over time I got to know Kandahar so well and was able to work without any other media around or the military. I worked with an Afghan colleague and mastered a local look and I had grown my beard very long, which opened many doors.
"But I have of course worked extensively as an embed with US, UK and Canadian troops. Many of the villages I wanted to visit and photograph are in the most violent areas of the country and could only be seen if I was with the military. This did not impede me in anyway.
"As a photographer there usually can be no sneaking around, as once the camera is out everyone knows that you don't belong. However this year when I started working in Kandahar City I began employing a super wide "toy" panoramic camera, which allowed me to photograph many scenes from the hip with my camera wrapped in a scarf or under my arm.
"Cameras are uncommon in the villages as well. I needed to capture images in a manner that could be fast. Using the camera freely was too dangerous in many of the areas I wanted to visit and I had to also consider my fixers safety as well as my own if we were identified in public.
"Many times when I worked away from the military I saw incredible scenes that could be great pictures, but I had to hold back due to safety. Any time I did something non-Afghan or was seen with my camera I would draw attention to myself and my Afghan colleague. Most Afghans in the small villages were interested in the function of what a camera could do as a machine and many did not know what a journalist, let alone a photographer was, nor did they care.
"I'm now faced with a year or two of editing. My archive of images, video, writing and diaries is extensive and I want to get it all out there for people to see and learn from.
"My previous project was on the mining communities in northern Canada and I spent 15 years on that but war is far too exhausting to remain out there for that long. I have now spent four or five years on and off, the odds were going to catch up with me and I think I used up all nine of my lives twice, I don't want to push it."

A slideshow of Louie's black and white panoramic pictures can be seen on the BBC site.

Soldier in his bunk

Outside a mosque


Executed man

All photographs are copyright of Louie Palu.

You can see more of his work on his website and further details of the Alexia Foundation can be found here.


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