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Cover Artist Benjamin Lowy
Brooklyn, New York
In 2003, Benjamin Lowy was embedded with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division to cover the Iraq War. He has since covered conflicts in Libya, Haiti, Darfur and Afghanistan, among other locations. Currently represented by Reportage by Getty Images, Lowy’s images are featured by major publications worldwide.

© Ben Lowy

© Ben Lowy

His most recent honors include the 2012 ICP Infinity Award for Photojournalism and a Magnum Foundation Emergency Grant to produce the reportage “iLibya: Libya’s Growing Pains,” shot with his iPhone.

In 2011, William Eggleston selected Lowy’s work for the Center for Documentary Studies/Honickman First Book Prize in Photography, now published as Iraq/Perspectives.

Lowy’s unorthodox street scenes from inside a moving Humvee and somber vignettes through military-issue night vision goggles offer a different framework for considering conflict. “Benjamin’s work is an opportunity to see as an American soldier sees when in Iraq — nobody’s ever shown that,” Eggleston explains.

ASMP: Why did you initially join ASMP and how long have you been an ASMP member?

Ben Lowy: I initially joined when I started doing more commercial work, such as TV commercials, and I needed some extra liability coverage and better business information in dealing with much larger productions. I’ve been a member for about a year or so.

ASMP: When and under what conditions did you make your first memorable photograph?

BL: Man, how far back should I go? Memorable to me or memorable to others? I want to say that back in college I made an image. I don’t even know where that negative is anymore — but I remember taking it, I remember seeing the light for the first time — really seeing it. I remember actively exerting control over how I was capturing what I saw in front of me, not just making a snapshot. It was a simple image though, the blur of a man walking past a snow covered chain-link fence in a park near my apartment in St. Louis.

ASMP: What led you to first pursue the medium of photography?

BL: I was a failed comic book illustrator. I began my interest in photography as a way to trace the human figure and capture what I wasn’t able to draw accurately enough.

ASMP: Did you have significant photographic mentors early in your career?

BL: I think to succeed you need mentors. People who help show you the way. And in turn, we need to help the next generation too. Passing it forward. But first and foremost was Jim Colburn, a former photo editor at Time Magazine in DC. Mark Seager helped me figure out what I was doing in my first war zone and Lynsey Addario showed me a lot in those early days in Iraq. Doug Menuez has really helped me figure out the business side of photography.

ASMP: Your first trip to Iraq was planned on short notice. Please briefly describe your first impressions of the environment and the war you were covering, as well as how your impressions and the situations you were covering changed over the time you spent there.

BL: I was pretty naive when I first went to Iraq. I was 23 and right out of school. I think that colored my impressions of the war initially. It was so hopeful at the beginning. Regardless of the political outcomes of the Weapons of Mass Destruction and the war, those first few months after the ground war ended were spent exploring a country that had been cut off for so long. After the UN bombing in late August 2003, everything changed. It all started going downhill. But even up until April 2004, the insurgency wasn’t religiously motivated, it was more Baathist and political. But there was a dangerous shift in 2004 and Iraq became the quagmire it is today. I lost three fixers that I had worked with over the years. Good men who were killed for a variety of reasons, but nonetheless this wouldn’t have happened without the war.

I would have to say that like all young people I was an idealist initially, and now after 10 years, I’m a cynical realist.

ASMP: As an experienced conflict photographer, how much and what kind of advance research and planning do you do before going to a new or unfamiliar conflict location?

BL: I read. A lot. You can never knock reading. I usually start with something cliché, like a Lonely Planet guide, just to get a sense of place and the available logistical resources. I read current conditions online. I reach out to people who may already have boots on the ground. I do quite a bit of logistical planning, these days more than I used to. I figure out as much as I can about transportation, about the reliability of transportation and medical facilities. About where I’ll be staying — how safe is the location and how many exits. These days, journalists find themselves as viable terrorist targets and we need to plan ahead, not take a lackadaisical approach like we do to street photography.

ASMP: Are there specific resources or networks you depend on for identifying trustworthy sources such as fixers in conflict areas when you’re not embedded with the military?

BL: The friend and journalist network. Personal recommendations are best.

ASMP: Are there specific methods you use to determine if an unfamiliar source is trustworthy? Have you developed particular response mechanisms or strategies for dealing with situations in which you feel threatened?

BL: Well, getting to know someone and where they stand on specific issues is usually a good sign. I’m not interrogating potential fixers and don’t want to seem overtly hostile. It’s definitely a gentle process. As for situations where I feel threatened — I walk away, usually slowly and in a circuitous route. But there is no “right” way. There is the way that works for the situation you find yourself in. And that comes from street smarts and experience.

ASMP: Your conflict work deals with intense and dangerous subject matter and subjects you to harsh conditions. Do you have any words of advice for others about coping, both physically and emotionally, in the face of such situations?

BL: Everyone needs to find his or her own mechanisms for dealing with trauma. I have a process I go through after every trip. But the truth of the matter is that we are all damaged by what we witness. Therapy works for some people, but whatever brings a certain level of catharsis and closure is important. Drinking and ignoring the pain only puts off dealing with it.

ASMP: How much and what kind of gear do you travel with when working in a conflict area? What kind of resources do you use for things like file storage and keeping batteries charged?

BL: I travel pretty light on the gear side. It’s important not to take every single lens you own. Two bodies, maybe a third packed in a different bag for just-in-case, four lenses, lots of cards, lots of batteries, power inverters, and a lot of hard drives. I do carry lots of hard drives and make at least three backups and pack them in different places — even in the hotel.

ASMP: What kind of camera settings do you use for the images shot through night vision goggles? Are you using high ISO? Since you need to work with manual focus when shooting these images do you have any tips for focusing in extremely low light conditions?

BL: The cameras were set at the highest ISO on the 5D Mark 1. Thankfully night vision in general is pretty grainy, so no loss there. As for focusing — good luck! A small laser pointer helped, but I couldn’t use it all the time for security reasons. Guessing and checking was the practice of the day.

ASMP: You now photograph mostly with an iPhone. Are there any particular accessories, software or other items that you find particularly useful for shooting and processing your iPhone images?

BL: Accessory-wise I use the mophie battery cases and the ollo clip lens attachment. I also use a glif tripod adaptor and small tripods for long exposure shots. As for software, I’m still using Hipstamatic, Snapseed, and Alt photo.

ASMP: You and your imagery have a big following in social media. When did you first start using social media as a platform for your work? What kind of strategies or methods did you initially employ to grow your audience?

BL: I started using Tumblr about four years ago, and it sort of took on a life of its own. If you go back and look at the archive of images I posted, they were more artsy snapshots rather than photojournalist work. It was just an escape for me, a blog that I didn’t want to abandon, like all the other blogs before it. So I kept on putting images up there. Now I’m spread over four different platforms and reach 255K people. I find it important to feed the machine, and that helps me with the discipline of image making, something important for the freelancer these days. Hashtags are a great way to reach a wider audience, as are the occasional links and promotional material, but I do so sparingly. I still believe that people are turned off by ads — regardless of how cool — appearing on their feeds.

ASMP: Do you find that your image making and/or photographic style have changed as a result social media and the iPhone?

BL: With an iPhone I am composing with both eyes open and looking at a screen at least twelve inches from my face. I can still use my peripheral vision. That is an extremely different experience from shooting with an SLR or rangefinder. And while the ease of use and quick focus and exposure on the iPhone is a street photographer’s dream, I find it much more difficult to be able to control layering in my images.

As for social media’s impact — well, sometimes, on those days when I’m home writing invoices or editing images from a gig, I will push myself to find the time to make a picture. And forcing creativity isn’t always a good idea. Sometimes great work needs to percolate.

ASMP: You are now specifically hired for jobs that entail growing a client’s social media networks as part of the photo assignment. Are there any methods you use to factor this kind of business goal into negotiating an assignment fee?

BL: Not yet. It’s still an evolving business model. Some clients don’t care, others want it as a freebee — much like they wanted video for free when the Canon 5D Mark II came out. It’s more of an evolving conversation that will take some time.

ASMP: You have been very active in using the Instagram platform to disseminate your work. Please talk about your reaction to, or opinions about, Instagram claiming the right to monetize images posted to their platform without notification or payment to photographers. How has this development impacted your work and business?

BL: When the new Terms of Service came out last December, I actually pulled out of Instagram for a brief spell — long enough to talk to my colleagues as well as representatives of Instagram itself. At the end of the day, both sides of this argument need to realize a few things:

  1. Instagram gave us a free platform. We are using it to make money and publicize our work. Why shouldn’t they make money from it too?
  2. The days of exclusive images and embargoes is long over. Once these images appear on the Web, they are up there forever for everyone. My mom violates my copyright all the time — printing my images off the Web to hang on her fridge. smiley face
  3. These organizations will scare off professionals with rights grabs out of left field. If that keeps on happening these platforms will be left to the foodies and cat-lovers of the world.

We need to reach a compromise and evolve our current business models to include these changes within the publishing world. For the most part, we all are still working with the same assignment/stock sales models that were in use 25 years ago.

ASMP: Do you have recommendations for other social media platforms (especially lesser known platforms) to which you post work that have more photographer friendly terms?

BL: Yes, but the problem is they are lesser known and serve little purpose for disseminating work to a greater audience. Eyeem is a great photo-friendly platform, although it suffers from a text character issue that impedes long form captions. But because you have to use its own proprietary app, it slows down my own workflow.

ASMP: You are represented by Reportage by Getty. Please briefly describe this relationship and how it has evolved, particularly in respect to social media, and whether social media has played an important part in the relationship.

BL: I’ve been with Reportage for two-and-a-half years. It’s been an interesting time. A lot of assignment work has disappeared, mainly as a result of the stagnating economy. My initial turn to social media was rebuffed, and Getty initially put a clause into our contracts forbidding the use of social media platforms, lest they violate clients’ exclusivity. That has obviously changed quite a bit, to now encourage posting carefully while still keeping clients needs in the forefront.

ASMP: What are your plans for the future? Are you currently researching or seeking to explore any new/different subjects?

BL: I’m a new father, and providing for my family is #1 on my to-do list. With that in mind, and in line with my work over the past ten years, I am always trying to find new paths and creative avenues to explore. But I don’t usually know what I’m doing until I do it. Then I’ll post it online. smiley face