Dangerous exposure: Photojournalist Louie Palu on working in conflict zones

By Jane Hawkes, Covering Violence and Trauma Editor

By Jane Hawkes, Covering Violence and Trauma Editor

Louie Palu is an award-winning Canadian photojournalist and filmmaker who has covered stories internationally for over 23 years. His work has been featured by the BBC, CBC, Al Jazeera, PBS Newshour, Time Magazine, The Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, The Atlantic and The New York Times to name a few. He is best known for his in-depth coverage of the war in Afghanistan, the Mexican drug war and Guantanamo Bay. J-Source asked him about his experiences covering violence and trauma and a personal  documentary film in the works. 

Louie Palu (second from the left) seen with Afghan Police after covering fighting in the Arghandab Valley in 2010.

J-Source: Do you make a conscious choice to cover stories involving violence and trauma? 

Louie Palu: I have always made a conscious decision to cover social-political issues involving human rights, war and injustice. Sadly, those issues usually involve violence and trauma. Much of my interest in those issues comes from growing up the son of poor Italian immigrant workers who experienced the horrors of the Second World War. The street I grew up on was a community made up of immigrants who were traumatized by war. Hearing these personal accounts throughout my childhood made all my personal and professional goals revolve around storytelling and documenting injustice. 

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J-Source: When you’re covering stories like Afghanistan or the drug war in Mexico, how have you kept yourself safe? 

LP: My first priority on every assignment is to make sure I do not put anyone at risk who lives where I am working. My fixers and my subjects can be affected by the way I conduct myself, propose fieldwork or report on a subject. We have to think about who might be affected by my actions and include ourselves as an overall safety plan. I always do a lot of research before any assignment. I also seek out and take all the advice I can get from other professionals or locals on the ground, who work or live in the region where I am about to work. In addition, I stay in really good physical and mental shape. I also plan out a potential crisis in my mind and imagine how I will manage each crisis I might face. However, I never fool myself that I am beyond danger, because even the most experienced conflict photographers have been wounded, killed and kidnapped. I carry a photograph of my family in my helmet and remind myself every day to not do anything stupid. Your family pays the biggest price if you are killed. I am not trying to be the smartest guy in the room, but I have seen colleagues blow off the risks and dangers and pay for it. It’s hard to avoid land mines (including IEDs) and kidnappers if you don’t have a clear strategy to mitigate risk. I also never ever post on social media where I am and what I am up to. I feel like that can be a big mistake. I never know who is watching me and I don’t want to help them kidnap or harm me.

J-Source: Did you have any special training to work in these environments? 

LP: Yes, I trained with Centurion, a private British company that is made up of ex-special forces from the military and offers courses to train anyone who will be working in hostile environments. I also took a similar course offered by the Canadian military (it’s no longer offered). However, where I really learned was on the job spending all those years between 2006 and 2010 with Canadian, American, British and Afghan soldiers in the field around Kandahar. I learned first aid on real casualties, how to look for IEDs and booby traps and how to work under fire. For about three years, all I covered was frontline combat. I look back and think I was very fortunate to not have been killed. Again, a word of caution. Training is essential, but no course can save you from stepping on a land mine. I learned that you need to have a strategy for every day you go out to work to deal with a crisis. You can’t just get trained and show up for your assignment in the field and think your training will kick in. 

J-Source: Have you seen the dangers facing journalists change over the past few years

LP: I certainly have seen changes, especially in light of journalists whose first combat experience was being embedded with western troops. Some of those journalists tended to feel a relative safeness because they were embedded with a military force. In contrast, if you are covering a small force of rebels or insurgents fighting an established government that has artillery and air strikes, you are on the opposite side of the powerful force and the group you are with has a much higher chance of being hit with you included. You have to ask hard questions of yourself. If you are with a rebel group, where do you go for help when you are wounded or kidnapped? Some rebel groups want to kill or kidnap journalists as much as the government forces they are fighting. You need a variety of strategies to survive every day of work. When I worked independently from the military in Afghanistan, I used three cell phones to communicate with my contacts on the ground, breaking up text messages over three phones so no one could piece together one message of what I was up to. When I worked in Mexico, I went deep into cartel-held areas. There was no one to go to for help if I needed it because sometimes the Mexican police, army and the government work with or for the cartel. Some journalists do work for the cartels as well and report on what you are doing to the cartel. I was followed and threatened on more than one occasion. I used an elaborate system to mask my work and movements (the details of which I can’t share). Once you agree to cover this subject matter, you must accept you could be kidnapped, hurt or killed and you need to have that talk with your family. If you don’t have that talk with your family, then you should not cover that story.

J-Source: How have these stories affected you on a personal level, and how do you protect your own mental health?

LP: These stories constantly reaffirm my commitment to journalism and my belief in justice, monitoring power and stirring dialogue on key issues that involve violence and trauma. In terms of my mental health, nothing can prepare you for covering your first suicide bombing surrounded by body parts with the fresh smell of burned flesh and a head sitting in the middle of a field. We must never think we are so strong that we can come out of covering over 120 murders in a month—as I did in Mexico—and not be scarred. Therapy is a great thing and we should never be afraid of the stigma that comes with issues of mental health or reaching out for help. Exercise, good diet and a healthy lifestyle play a big role in maintaining our mental health in this line of work. The first sign of trouble is people drinking too much after an assignment as a coping mechanism. That is always a dead end. I usually have a period of no drinking after an intense assignment. I think in our business we don’t talk as much about our own mental health as much as we should. I have also participated in animal therapy with dogs and horses to help regain my mental and emotional footing.

J-Source: Your latest project, Kandahar Journals, is a documentary film that chronicles your time covering the war in Afghanistan. Tell us about your approach in revisiting this period. 

LP: I am really excited about Kandahar Journals. It’s my firsthand account of how the war in Kandahar unraveled between 2006 and 2010. I have partnered with co-director Devin Gallagher and writer Murray Brewster. We developed a team to create a unique window to the war. We spent the past three years developing pieces from all my video, photographs and some subsequent interviews into several possible story narratives. We finally settled on my written journals as the fundamental narrative and laid them on top of both my video journals and the historical backdrop of events in Kandahar for what we hope will be our final story structure. We just successfully completed our first round of fundraising and are talking to potential broadcasters who can help with the film's completion costs. We are excited by the interest in the project. In addition, veteran filmmakers Jennifer Baichwal and Nick de Pencier have become mentors to us on the film. The approach to achieving this was very organic and we were not afraid to experiment with unconventional approaches to filmmaking. Working with Brewster and his depth of knowledge and experience has been amazing. We agreed early on that a straight news approach and the perspective of a western soldier’s experiences in Afghanistan had been done already. So we have worked hard to create a film that will add a new voice and perspective of the war. You can follow the film's production on the Facebook page titled Kandahar Journals.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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