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The Photography of Louie Palu

Last week, I attended a talk by photographer Louie Palu at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ. The talk was titled “Image Control in the Age of Terror”and covered the entire history of Palu’s photographic work, from documenting miners north of Toronto where he grew up in a lower working class Italian home to his stints in Afghanistan, Guantanamo Bay, and into the heart of the Mexican Drug Wars. Palu’s talk intended to question how images are manipulated, censored and controlled in the media. But he expanded the subject to demonstrate how the photographic medium can be used as a tool for political activism by promoting dialogue and change and how it can be used to help show the “truth” in the Post-USA PATRIOT Act Age of mass censorship, control and surveillance. He took it even further by showing connections between Palu’s subjects and exploring the interconnectivity of capital and war, from mines to drugs and Afghanistan to Guantanamo.

Palu is not just an artist. He is a photojournalist, and his work documents the real human casualties of war and all that war entails – the bullets, the money, the bodies, the faces. What Palu made very clear in his talk is that all war and the mechanisms of capital that support it are intertwined. The miners Palu documented in his early series “Cage Call: Life and Death in the Hard Rock Mining Belt” serve as mules sent into the Earth’s core to extract the metals from which ammunition is made. They comprise the labor force that keeps guns and the bullets that feed them rolling off the presses to hit the battlefields. The copper they extract feeds the communication grid which is the main source for connecting global capital, surveillance and the apparatus of the war machine. Overworked and put at risk, miners spend their lives on the labor front line. Each year hundreds are killed or injured in the mines (e.g. cave-ins and explosions).

Miners and soldiers are casualties of the same system which also brought us the multi-billion dollar drug business and the Mexican drug cartels documented in Palu’s “Mira Mexico” series and the war in Afghanistan which Palu documented in three series of photos including “Afghanistan: The Fighting Season.” In the end, the all wars are about money and power, and they all leave a trail of human casualties in their destructive wake.

Palu comes from a long tradition of photojournalism that depicts the economically bereft as well as casualties of violence. Depression era photographers like Dorothea Lange, Eugene Smith’s crime scene photos, and Robert Frank’s The Americans – these are all photojournalists who impacted Palu’s vision. Both Smith and Frank were two of his biggest influences. While Smith’s crime photos showed real everyday violence in the streets of America, Frank showed the violence of economic cannibalism. It’s all interconnected, and that comes through in Palu’s work.

Palu’s work has heart, soul, punch and a strong dose of reality. His vision didn’t come from a vacuum or the academic void of art history and political theory. Rather, in the reality of his childhood, Palu experienced the subjects he would eventually spend much of his adult life documenting. He grew up in the midst of the mafia in an Italian American neighborhood in Toronto. His mother was a seamstress, and his father was a day laborer. The mafia held a reign of terror over his neighborhood, and it was not out of the ordinary for Palu to see dead bodies in the street. His family also indoctrinated him with the legacy of violence within Italian political factions. He understood the inherent violence of money from the frontlines, and that authenticity and personal insight resonates in his work and the respect he gives to his subjects.

When he told his father that he was going to attend art school, Palu’s dad replied with: “Why don’t you get a real job?” After Palu graduated art school, his father said, “Now you can get a real job.” When Palu announced he was going to be a photographer, his father suggested that his son travel to the mines where he was working and photograph “People with real jobs.” And so Palu’s career documenting the casualties of labor, capitalism, class and war began with his series on miners. He spent years on that project. He often was shooting in the depths of the mines where it was completely dark.

His descent into the mines is a perfect metaphor for how Palu approaches his work. He immerses himself completely in his subjects. He is not interested in merely capturing surface images for rapid dissemination. Rather he makes the life of his subjects his life. As a general rule he spends long durations of time with his work, getting to know the people, their environment, and the dire facts of their daily lives and deaths. He doesn’t go in and out with an elite team, snap a few photos, and exhibit them in galleries for a high profit. The mine project took him years to complete. He did multiple tours in Afghanistan living with and following soldiers on the frontlines. Though journalist visits of Guantanamo are highly controlled, Palu has visited the prison more than any other photographer, methodically collecting hundreds of images over a number of years. All photographers passing through Guantanamo are obliged to relinquish their memory cards to security for screening and deleting. Palu projected pages and pages and pages of jpeg numbers of the hundreds of his photos that have been confiscated and deleted at Guantanamo over the years. So his existing photos and the ones that have been wiped from the record are both testaments to the same system of war, imprisonment, censorship and surveillance.

Palu also spent years photographing the Mexican drug wars. This was particularly interesting to me since I live on the Arizona/Mexican border where dumped bodies and crimes scenes are found in the desert on a weekly basis, and the Border Fence can be easily seen cutting across the arid landscape. As Palu stated, the drugs come through Tucson and then are distributed in Phoenix which serves as the central hub of drug distribution in America because Phoenix reaches to all directions in the country. Palu said that you can tell how glutted the market is with drugs by the price on the street. I know in Tucson you can buy a bag of heroin for five bucks. That same bag would have cost me twenty in the 1970s. But that’s not because no one is getting rich. The drug trade is a multi-billion dollar business. Palu’s theory is that pot smuggling is the Trojan Horse that occupies the Feds so the cocaine and heroin (where the real huge dollars are made) can sneak in the back door. In other words, he gives a shit about understanding the connection between people, product, profit and violence. (My thoughts – maybe the US trend toward legalizing pot is a ploy to make it easier for the US government to control the narcotics trade where the real big money is rolling.)

In his warzone locations (Mexico and Afghanistan), Palu was committed to spending time getting to know the people he was shooting with his camera even as bullets flew around him, and bodies were dropping on the streets. He put himself at risk to photograph those at risk. A white man on the frontlines, whether in Mexico or Afghanistan, could be gunned down, hung or beheaded in a heartbeat. But somehow Palu made it work. He had plenty of stories to go along with the photos. In some instances, he spent over a year getting to know an individual before he photographed him. That is the case with Luis Avila Archulata. He spent forty years of his life illegally crossing the Mexican border in Arizona, working as a mule for gangs, only to be deported over and over again. Luis finally asked Palu to take his photo, and the resulting image is a photograph of tremendous compassion and respect.

In other words, Palu is not an atrocity and poverty tourist. He came from the middle of the shit, and he dedicates the time necessary to not exploit his subjects, whether dead or alive. To avoid aestheticizing war and to help erase the barrier between gallery and reality, Palu opened his talk with video footage from the frontlines in Afghanistan because he wanted us to know what war sounds like. He explained that what we don’t hear in photography is the sound of war. War is loud. So Palu showed us firsthand footage of ground battle in Afghanistan with bullets flying in all directions. Then he cut to footage of a young man whose foot and bottom half of his leg had been blown off when he stepped on a landmine. Exposed bone. Flapping skin. Dripping blood. There was no escaping the ugly reality of war, and the reality that we do not see in the media. These are the images and sounds with which Palu introduced his work.

There are two places where Palu prefers to show his photos. In journalism, he prefers to take the middle ground over the far left or the far right. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, Time Magazine and the likes. He says he reads far left and far right journalism because it is important to know what’s going on, but he believes that his photos will have the most impact in the middle ground, the place where he can affect real change, open eyes and inspire discussion by those who otherwise might not think about the real human impact of war. Sticking to the fringes often means preaching to the choir and not promoting dialogue. I will never forget this old lefty woman I heard talking on the radio many years ago who said the greatest activism you can perform is talking in line at the grocery store. Infiltrating the middle ground can be radical activism. Palu is getting his images shown where they can make a difference. People standing in line at the grocery store suddenly look at the newsstand, stop, open their eyes, swallow what they are seeing and hopefully respond to it. The journals almost always choose to show Palu’s images in color. Palu, on the other hand, traditionally produces black and white prints, not for the art value, but he says to depict how “war turns people to stone.”

The other place Palu frequently shows his work is on the streets. He creates public galleries out of newspapers he makes from his photographs. He cuts out the images and pastes them to the walls of buildings where everyone and anyone can have access to the work. They serve as testimonies, memorials, and witness all at once.

Palu spent some time showing how images appear in media. Frequently a photo depicting a war atrocity will be sandwiched between ads for cars and cellphone service, showing the non-discriminate use of images to promote the mechanisms of capital. Women and children dead in the street? That’s okay. Buy a new car and make a phone call. But let’s not forget how we get the oil to fuel that car or the copper to keep that phone alive . . .

Palu doesn’t spend a lot of time proselytizing or politically grandstanding on his soapbox. He has used his craft to show a reality that media has censored from our view. He is an artist, a journalist and a witness. Through his work we are asked to witness with him and to no longer turn a blind eye even when we are looking at blinded eyes.

One woman in the audience questioned whether Palu’s work promotes war. Palu was very direct. He talked about the months he spent in a VA burn unit and the photos he took there. He showed us men whose faces and entire heads had been burned to nothing but scar tissue. He spoke of the piles of dead bodies he has documented. He said, “Do you think anyone seeing the photos from the burn unit really wants to rush down to the Marine Corps recruiting center?”

A professor in the audience asked about Susan Sontag. Palu noted that Susan Sontag has written interesting and important work. Then he said that it has little to do with reality. He said (paraphrased), “When I’m standing in the middle of the street in Afghanistan and there is a severed head in the gutter, I’m not thinking about Susan Sontag. Do you know what I think about when I think about war? The smell. War stinks. All that death, it stinks.” It’s easy to philosophize about photography and the role of the spectator for the ivory tower, but it is not the same as putting your own life at risk to give the lives of others a chance to be recognized even if they are dead by the time they get the recognition, even when they become statistics, more casualties within an entire interconnected system of war and capital.

I have frequently taken issue with photographers who turn human suffering into art and then make a “killing” on the work. What happens when atrocity becomes commodity? I asked Palu that question. He said he wouldn’t mind making some extra bucks off his photos, but I did not walk away from the Palu talk with a sense that profit is his motivation. He says he makes the standard 200 bucks per photo to appear in a journal. He’s not getting rich. He has received grant funding and has sold some of his photos, but mostly he scrapes enough together to keep going. He is a man of compassion and passion who is using his vision to document a side of the 21st century that has largely been left at the sidelines.

Check out all of Louis Palu’s photos on his website. It is well worth the time.

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Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently completed a book of her artwork on Dead Rock Stars which will was featured in a solo show at Beyond Baroque in Venice, CA. She is also completing a book of herDirt Yards at Night photography project. Her first art book Mapping the Inside Out is available upon request. She can be reached at knicolini@gmail.com.

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