A visionary photojournalist ahead of his time: Q&A with Larry Towell, Canada’s first member of Magnum Photos
He rarely touches Twitter or Facebook, doesn’t own a cell phone and shoots mostly on film. And yet, midway through his seventh decade, he remains one of the best and busiest multimedia photojournalists in the world. Larry Towell, the first Canadian member of the world’s most prestigious photo agency, Magnum Photos, recently took the time to tell J-Source how he got started, what he’s working on now and why he’ll never stop.
He rarely touches Twitter or Facebook, doesn’t own a cell phone and shoots mostly on film. And yet, midway through his seventh decade, Larry Towell remains one of the best and busiest photojournalists in the world. Towell, the first Canadian member of the world’s most prestigious photo agency, Magnum Photos, recently took the time to tell photojournalism editor Mark Taylor how he got started, what he's working on now, and why he’ll never stop.
J-Source: How’s your day going?
Larry Towell: Pretty good. I’m just looking at work. Do you know Jerome Sessini? He’s our newest Magnum nominee. He’s just uploaded work. He’s been travelling in Mexico with vigilantes re-taking towns from the drug cartels. It’s quite amazing. There are a number of photographers who are working in Mexico with the drug wars, but he has a way of getting extremely close to the situation. I met him in the Middle East 10 or 15 years ago when he was just starting out. He hung around with me and, lo and behold, last summer he applied to Magnum and he got in. I’m just looking at his work here and it’s great. He just has a way of getting very close to the action. He has a way of working with people.
J-Source: Is that something you look for?
LT: If a person is shooting hard news, conflict, civil disasters, upheavals, those sorts of things, I look for a connection between the photographer and the subject so it’s not just a sense that the photographer is being voyeuristic. But also an ability to photograph things as they unfold, the desire to want to document history in the making. But it depends on the story. That’s not just what photojournalism is about. It’s documenting people and what they’re going through. For me, more than anything, I think a photojournalist’s core has to be moral. If it’s not, I think it’s going to become pretty clear.
J-Source: Let’s start at the beginning. What was your very first interaction with photography?
LT: I never really paid much attention to photography when I was young. I didn’t want to be a photographer. It wasn’t my ambition. I studied visual arts. Photography was part of the visual arts program but it was certainly not photojournalism. It was art photography. I never cared about photography. It’s people I care about.
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J-Source: When did you get serious about photography?
LT: When I got out of university I realized that I didn’t want to be an artist. So I did some volunteer work in India and that started me asking questions about the balance of power in the world and the distribution of wealth. Then, during the Reagan years, I went to Central America on a human rights fact-finding mission. Then photography became serious because I was dealing with human lives and photography gave me the excuse to be there and it allowed me to interact with the type of people I wanted to interact with—people I found inspirational. People standing up, trying to make their voices heard, screaming against dictatorships.
J-Source: At this point you were a writer doing oral histories right?
LT: For my first books, yes. I carried around tape recorders and I started interviewing people and photographing a little bit. I was writing poetry. I wanted to be a creative writer. I was struggling with language. In those years there wasn’t anybody to look up to for me. There weren’t any Canadian photojournalists. So I never even thought of that really. Canada was more of a culture of literature. And it was much easier to get a book published or do a project in creative writing than it was in photography. Poets and writers were being funded by the government. But photography was not. Photography was very stagnant in Canada. When I went to Central America I realized there was a horrible war going on and a media disinformation campaign going on and I wanted to be a part of the process of presenting some language that demonstrated that a lot of what we were hearing were lies.
J-Source: So at that point your photography experience was just art school?
LT: Yes, art school. Good teachers, but I wasn’t encouraged to go out into the world. I was encouraged to make art in my studio. I realized that was a very shallow existence, at least for me. By examining human rights and interviewing people—campesinos, labour unions, students, people like that—who were being repressed and being killed, and killed by death squads, and meeting relatives of the disappeared. My first contact with that world was stimulating to say the least. Photography gave me the excuse to be there and I started photographing.
J-Source: So you come home and send a portfolio to Magnum. Can you tell me that story?
LT: I didn’t know about Magnum.I wasn’t very aware of photography but I’d heard of them. I didn’t know any of them and I didn’t know their work. So I was figuring out what to do with my work and I called information in New York and they told me Magnum’s phone number. I phoned them up and asked if they were interested in seeing my pictures. The secretary said to send in a carousel of work. I didn’t know it but the photographers were having their annual meeting then and the photographers at Magnum looked at it. It was my early work from Central America and they invited me to come and join.
J-Source: So at that point in your life how many roles of film had you shot?
LT: Not much. I was writing more. Film was expensive and I was pretty poor. My first trip to India I shot 40 rolls in three months. Then when I went to Nicaragua and Central America, I doubt that I’d have been shooting a roll a day.
J-Source: How long were you there?
LT: I went there three or four times. My first trip I was there for three months.
J-Source: So not a lot. That’s incredible.
LT: Yes but that was the days of film. My grandmother was a better photographer than my mother was and better than my daughter, or even me. They shot film very selectively so the pictures counted. Today, with digital photography, it’s just like shooting a machine gun in the air and you miss just about everything. If you’re not concentrating, you’re going to get a different picture.
J-Source: Do you think it helped that you hadn’t been exposed to a lot of photography?
LT: I wasn’t trying to copy anybody. I was just shooting what was in front of me. I was a visual artist and I had a natural instinct to create symmetry and balance visually.
J-Source: Your world must have changed quite a bit after you got into Magnum. What did your folks think of all this?
LT: They didn’t care. They didn’t pay any attention to me and they had their own problems. My parents were very working class. The idea of travelling was very foreign to them. My dad never went anywhere and neither did my mom. They raised eight children and were quite poor and we lived on a little farm. My dad was an auto body repairman. He had a grade-school education. So the fact that I went to university was something. But in the 1970s that was normal because there were government grants for students and because of my parents’ income, a lot of the student assistance I got— half of it—was grants. They didn’t know what university was really. They didn’t care. When I came back from India I lived on a raft for over two years. And never once did my dad ever say, “What are you going to do for a living?” Never asked me. They just let me go.
J-Source: Who at Magnum helped or taught you the most?
LT: Well, this is what I used to do. I would go on a trip, shoot film, process the film, make work prints and then I would bring them to New York. So I got to know those photographers, Gene Richards, Alex Webb, Susan Meiselas. I would show my pictures to them and they would edit with me, say, “I like this one, don’t like that one.” Then I’d shuffle the pictures up and I’d give the same stack to another photographer and I would ask them to sort them—which ones do you like, which ones don’t you like? I would say that the collective process of editing, which is a very important process, helped formulate my visual language. There were certain photographers I became more close to. Josef Koudelka has always been someone I respect greatly. He’s an incredibly dedicated photographer. Completely non-commercial. Really a man of his own vision. He’s an enigma. He was quite supportive and still is. He still helps me sometimes edit my books. Doing that helped improve my photography a lot. Meeting everyone and getting to know people as friends helps. If I wouldn’t have gotten into Magnum back then I probably wouldn’t even be a photographer today. Because it was the association that drove me and turned me from a poet to a journalist.
J-Source: You’ve covered natural and man-made disasters, conflicts and social issues. And yet you’ve said photographing your children has been the most difficult. (Towell lives on and share crops a small farm in southwestern Ontario). Can you explain?
LT: No, I don’t want to explain it. I travel but I stay home a lot for a photojournalist—because I have kids and that means something to me. I’m still married to the same person that I started out with many decades ago. I tend to work on long-term projects and I work slowly because of that.
J-Source: You’ve said you shoot for history’s sake, that you shouldn’t produce work that gets stale in a day. How does one do that?
LT: If I was racing against the 24-hour deadline I wouldn’t be doing what I do. I don’t even try to cover current events for the sake of the news. It’s dead in a day and you just spend your life running on a treadmill. Independent photographers can’t do that. If we’re freelance, you shouldn’t be even trying. Let the people who’ve got full-time jobs and get their paycheque do that and as long as they get the picture they’re going to be happy. But what’s it going to be worth in 10 or 20 years? So I try and shoot with a perspective of time that is a little more long-term. Part of the problem is we live in a world where everyone expects immediate results. I’m just not like that.
J-Source: Many daily newspapers are now asking their photographers to gather sound and video while taking pictures, which is something you’ve been doing for years. What are your thoughts on multimedia?
LT: Yes. I’ve been doing that long before it was popular. But I’m a musician, you know. So sound has always been important to me, and I’ve always collected sound. I have a library of sound. My first projects were people talking and people’s testimonies. I started carrying a video camera and tapes. When the first (audio) DAT recorder was invented, I bought one and it revolutionized my ability to collect sound in the field. A pair of headphones brings you into another world. I’ve always been a mixed media personality and I bring them together in different forms. But yeah, I did it before it was a fad and now it’s in demand and anybody working as a still photographer also has to be multimedia.
J-Source: Do you like what you’re seeing?
LT: I’m not paying a whole lot of attention. There’s an awful lot of it. Yeah, sure, there’s some very interesting work going on out there. I mentioned Jerome Sessini. His little film about Syria got some sort of World Press Award last year. Boy, it brings you right there. There’s nothing fancy about it. Movement and sound just bring a different dimension to what you do but it definitely changes the nature of what you do and sometimes the nature of how you photograph. One positive thing about the digital revolution is that it has allowed everyone to be a portable recording studio in the field. But the question is, what do you do with it when you have it? How can you really make it work? And what is it worth because there’s so much of it?
J-Source: What are you working on right now?
LT: I just sent the artwork to Aperture and they’re publishing my work on Afghanistan, photographed between 2008 and 2011. It’s going to be a pretty unusual book. I made it with all fibre prints and colour prints taped to the page and written on with a pencil. So it’s going to look like a work book, more like an object than an ordinary photo book. In my life I have a number of projects going on simultaneously. Some are on the front burner, some are on the back burner. Right now I’m working on an Idle No More project and another project in Toronto. I’m working on a film and working on some family things. I’m always working on a lot of stuff. But Afghanistan is on the front burner. I’m finishing up writing the text. It’s mostly experiential. But it’s also analysis of this disastrous war, through my eyes, which I’m sure I’ll be drawn and quartered for. It comes out this fall.
J-Source: Is there anything you’d like to cover that you haven’t yet?
LT: I just want to be able to continue to work until I die. I’m 60 years old. People around me are dropping like flies and those who aren’t, they are talking about retiring. It never even enters my mind. Dying does enter my mind but certainly not retiring. I just want to continue to do what I do until I die. Just keep my ear to the ground and try and have an opinion and the only way you can have an informed opinion is going and looking. Given all that's happening in the Ukraine I might just drop things and go. I think I would relate to that story, but I’ve never been there. I’m fleshing it out right now. I have a little window of opportunity. I’m also meeting with a filmmaker and I think in the next year or two I'm going to make a film using the audio and video material I've collected in the field from Afghanistan, Haiti, Rwanda and other places of conflict and social turmoil. It's currently just gathering dust waiting to do something.
J-Source: Anything you’d like to add?
LT: As I said, when I started there wasn’t anybody doing what I’m doing in Canada. Fortunately for me, Magnum took me on and beat me about until I became a photojournalist. Today I look around and there’s some really good work. There are good Canadian photographers out there now—Don Weber. Louie Palu. Lana Slezic, Rita Leistner—lots of Canadians that are sticking their neck out and I find that very encouraging. And I think that list is growing. Even though it is in many ways very difficult to be a freelance photographer, it’s the best career a person can have.
This interview was edited and condensed.
See Towell’s photography here.
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Tamara Baluja is an award-winning journalist with CBC Vancouver and the 2018 Michener-Deacon fellow for journalism education. She was the associate editor for J-Source from 2013-2014.