Award-winning photographer brings images of Afghanistan to life

Photojournalist Larry Towell has spent much of his career working in conflict zones around the world. But he found working in Afghanistan, the subject of his latest exhibition at Museum London, different for a number of reasons.

“It’s very hard to move around that country because of what they call the security situation,” Towell said. “That means war has expanded to every part of the country.”

When Towell first arrived in Afghanistan in 2008, he was able to travel around the country. But with the expansion of the war, embedding with the military was the only safe way to travel. Unfortunately, while catching a ride with the military may have solved Towell’s travel problems, it did not take him to the places – or more importantly, the people – he was most interested in seeing.

“A lot of photojournalists are embedding with the military, which is probably the safest thing to do,” Towell said. “But then you’re just doing propaganda.”

Although he did spend part of every trip to Afghanistan embedded with the military, the bulk of his time was spent working mostly with the Afghan people. In this way, Towell was able to document, without restrictions, the legacy of 30 years of war on the country and its people.

The results of Towell’s work in Afghanistan are on display as part of an exhibition running at Museum London through April 1. Danger and Aftermath, a salon-style installation, will be the first public exhibition of the Towell’s Afghanistan series. The photo series is scheduled to be published in book-form in 2013.

Towell’s work captures the turmoil caused in Afghanistan by longstanding war, corruption and displacement. The photos also examine the peril of landmines and the growing crisis of addiction, which afflicts more than 60,000 Afghan children alone. Large-scale prints and panoramas create an almost immersive experience, with the content – victims of war, ruins, detainees and insurgents – having even greater impact.

On Feb. 26, The Public Humanities @ Western, in partnership with Museum London and the Centre for Social Concern, will host Towell for the Scholarship of Engagement Lecture Series. Towell will take part in a conversation with Western University professor Sharon Sliwinski. Their discussion will focus on working in conflict zones, the gap between photographic evidence and photographic meaning, and the difficulties of telling a story in pictures.

For Towell, the story he has been trying to tell for most of his career is the plight of voiceless people who struggle to survive in some of the most unstable societies on the planet.

As a visual arts student at York University, Towell was taught it is the artist’s voice that is central. But when he got out into the world he discovered that to be a misleading concept.

“When you see someone lying in bed with their legs blown off by a landmine, you realize what’s important to say is what he has to say,” Towell said. “That becomes your art, your work.”

Towell’s work has taken him to Nicaragua and El Salvador to cover the U.S.-backed wars that ravaged those countries throughout the 1980s. He has also documented the plight of the Mother’s of the Disappeared in Guatemala and published two books on the Israeli-Palestine conflict.

“I’m always affected by the people I meet who stand up and put their bodies on the line,” Towell said. “It’s always been those kinds of people who have influenced me, and it’s quite an honor to be able to meet with people like that and listen to their voice.”

Towell has listened and shared their stories with the world through photographs. There are, however, still many stories left to tell.

In March, he will travel to Iraq; it will be his first trip to that country. “The Americans just pulled out, so all the journalists have left,” Towell said. “I find it’s always a good time to go and explore something after the journalists leave.”

In Conversation: Larry Towell speaks with Sharon Sliwinski
When: 1 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26
Where: Museum London, 421 Ridout St. N.