FEATURE — Spring 2004


Picturing the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

As an "embedded photographer" during Operation Iraqi Freedom, young alumnus Ben Lowy chronicled the assault on the 101st Airborne.
by Stephen Schenkenberg In fall 2003, Benjamin Lowy, B.F.A. '01, spent time in New York City before his next assignment abroad.





As three grenades exploded at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait on March 23, 2003, embedded photographer Benjamin Lowy, B.F.A. '01, needed to see the results for himself. Amid the scurries after explosion one, he attached his gas mask. But his imperfect eyesight dictated more. He slipped his glasses on under his mask just as the second grenade exploded. A moment later he went for his contacts, placing them at the same moment of the third explosion—the jolt nearly causing him to damage an eye with his finger.

(Top) April 8, 2003—Iraqi women wait for food products to be distributed by U.S. forces at a distribution point in central An Najaf. (Bottom) March 29, 2003—An infantry soldier is on watch from his position outside Najef.

Unharmed but with full vision, Lowy picked up his camera and prepared to do his job. The images, published exclusively by Time, allowed millions of us to see the middle of that night through his eyes: A bloody-legged soldier is being carried out of the frame on a stretcher, the carriers' feet make trails in the sand. A soldier's hand drops off his stretcher on the rocks, as the man caring for him eyes two detained suspects. A silhouetted soldier, with a burst of circular light behind him, keeps a rifle-raised watch on a detainee. In the images are military browns and greens, a "US" over a shoulder that dashes toward the camera, the rush-blur of chaos and hurt, and shadows casting ground ghosts that make up new figures—the most striking, perhaps, a gas-masked soldier running into the frame, his shadow taking the form of a praying figure, his rifle barrel the folded praying hand that touches ground.

These remarkable images are but one night's work for Lowy during the six-and-a-half months he photographed Operation Iraqi Freedom for the photo agency Corbis. The 24-year-old understands well the role's danger, and its importance. "That's what really attracted me to photography," he says. "Of all the different media, I think photography can take something very ugly and not only represent it in an aesthetic way, but try to inform people about it. ... I think human nature will never change, but by recording the inhumanity that we do to each other, I (and others) can at least allow people to think about it."

Building a vision

(Above) March 23, 2003—Two Middle Eastern men were held as suspects after the grenade attack on the 101st Airborne; a U.S. soldier was later charged with the assualt. (Bottom) April 8, 2003—An Iraqi civilian receives humanitarian aid in central An Najaf.

Lowy's choices before the war positioned him well to serve as a recorder of inhumanity. As a photography major at Washington University, he took a year off between his junior and senior years to travel to Paris, then to Israel/West Bank, already showing an interest in the wider world. When he returned to campus, he completed his thesis with a photographic series on the residents of the "flophouse" of the Mark Twain Hotel in downtown St. Louis. For four months, Lowy lived with the residents—ex-cons, former addicts, and others near the poverty line; his black-and-white photographs in the series, displayed at a subsequent exhibit, show an intimate view of the underbelly of St. Louis.

With college complete, Lowy interned at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch for four months, then returned to the Middle East with neither an assignment nor funds other than his own credit card. "I lost all my equipment while I was there," Lowy says. "I was beaten by a mob of Jewish settlers in Hebron, and I was in the hospital for a while." His equipment destroyed, Lowy borrowed an old mechanical camera from a friend and continued shooting, producing work that would be instrumental in procuring future assignments.

He returned to the United States in fall 2002, as the country was about to be engrossed by the sniper attacks in Washington, D.C. Time magazine hired him to cover the case for three weeks. It was a high-profile paid assignment—his first—and it led to a few other assignments. But with the "Hill" out of session, work was slow, so he had to search for other opportunities.

And Lowy looked to where many creative types eventually look: New York City. On a February day, he applied for two jobs, one at Corbis—he was seeking only a desk job, to help reduce his debts—and the other at Starbucks. Corbis called two days later to ask if he would become embedded on behalf of the agency in Iraq with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne. Less than a week later, Lowy reported to a military base in Kentucky. After obtaining his chemical and biological gear, as well as some training, and getting smallpox and anthrax vaccines, he left for Kuwait.

"Of all the different media, I think photography can take something very ugly and not only represent it in an aesthetic way, but try to inform people about it ..."

The war certainly offered him its share of despair, including three days spent huddled and shivering while he protected his equipment from rain and hail, but it also offered him the opportunity to do some significant work. Carrying two Nikon D1x bodies at all times, he took more than 30,000 digital photographs while he was there, files he uplinked to the Corbis editors, who then sold them to publications such as Time and The New Yorker.

(Above) March 23, 2003—Soldiers at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait carry a comrade wounded after grenades were tossed into a command tent. (Bottom) April 8, 2003—Two Iraqi Bedouin children watch U.S. soldiers with the 101st Airborne division distribute food products.

"It's interesting," he says when asked what it was like to witness the conflict, "but during the war, I didn't focus on what it was like. I focused on what I was doing each day, trying to get my pictures out." He continues, "While I was there, I was 'one' with my camera, just trying to record what I saw in front of me."

What Lowy saw—whether the aftermath of those March grenade blasts or the looting of Baghdad suburbs—is something millions of us have now seen. It was a remarkable position, but one that, he admits, few people understood his willingness to accept. "But it was my decision in the end to go," he says, "and I had to trust that this was the right thing for me."

Lowy returned to New York in October 2003, with a major launch to his career. He has subsequently gone to Southeast Asia for a National Geographic Adventure assignment, to Bangkok covering the sex industry, and back to Iraq, where he is currently covering the economics of rebuilding a country for Fortune magazine.

"I'm open," he says. "It doesn't matter where I go, as long as I'm doing work that I think is important, and that can communicate something to people."

Stephen Schenkenberg is a free-lance writer based in St. Louis.