2011 Winners - Runner-up: Louie Palu
Award-winning Canadian photojournalist Louie Palu has been documenting war and its toils for many years, but his images from Kandahar are hardly photographs of conflict. Amidst the chaos of war, Palu’s images speak a quiet, subtler language. They convey the bitter complexity with a subdued vocabulary that is nonetheless intensely evocative, and emotionally wrenching.
Over time, Palu familiarized himself with the geography of Kandahar, birthplace of Afghanistan and the Taliban, as well as with the various groups implicated in the conflict: members of Western troops—Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, for the most part; Afghan soldiers, fighting in order to make a living; civilians who have no choice but to be caught in the crossfire; and medics who fly in on unarmed helicopters to pick up the pieces.
Palu borrows from reportage, but his photos don’t narrate a linear account. His scenes and portraits instead represent larger ideas, not only of the people implicated but also of the war itself—complex, painful, intensely human. Through his carefully framed portraits, we are privy to the quiet moments, with special attention directed to the eyes: the eerie, one-eyed glare of a wounded soldier bathed in electric-blue light; the sleepy, wandering gaze of three young wounded brothers; the obscured sight of the blindfolded civilian on his knees, bound by the hands, his knees buried in the dirt. Palu’s photographs seem to highlight the solitary nature of war.
As a photographer who draws inspiration from painting, Palu also turns his lens to the Kandahari landscape. His photograph of a helicopter’s shadow, part of a larger series, yields a nearly figurative image of blurry lines and strong colors. He cites the painters Frederick Varley, Paul Nash, and J.M.W. Turner as influences, and the latter is particularly palpable in his photograph of a helicopter landing zone: it reminds us of a delicately rendered watercolor, ethereal in its cloudy beauty. His more abstract depictions of the land highlight one of Palu’s unique strengths—his ability to show armed conflict in a dignified light.
Louie Palu is a documentary photographer whose work has appeared in numerous publications, festivals and exhibitions internationally. He has been awarded numerous accolades including a National Magazine Award, Hearst Photography Biennial, Photojournalist of the Year, Hasselblad Master Award, Alexia Foundation Documentary Photography Grant and is currently working on a 2011 Bernard Schwartz Fellowship for a study of the U.S./Mexico border.