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Features / October 4, 2013

Louie Palu: The Art of War

In the headshot photograph, Louie Palu appears rough and weather-beaten, thick dark hair pushed to the side of handsome Italian features—more than a touch of the Azzurri about the man. The background is a sandy wall, and the jacket is open to the heat. The photograph is of a man at work, and the campus is Afghanistan, where Palu spent the better part of five years on his way to becoming Canada’s foremost documentarian of the longest war in which this country has participated.

Palu estimates that he accompanied more than 150 medical evacuation (medevac) helicopter sorties; hundreds of foot patrols, often culminating in firefights; and as many combat operations (missions “designed with a combat element” rather than simply ending that way), though he relies on his soldier and pilot friends “better with numbers” to tell him with more certainty. What Palu does remember is that there were at least seven “obvious” occasions when he reckoned he was done for: “when something happened that means you’re not in control anymore; you can’t get out and you can’t hide and for that moment you have absolutely no idea what is going on.”

Palu, however, is not the self-aggrandizing sort. In person, none of this history is emanated in any immediately palpable way, though at a performance we attended together of Afghanada writer Hannah Moscovitch’s This Is War, a play set in Afghanistan and informed by the 44-year-old photographer’s recent body of work in the region, Palu blocked his ears with his fingers to keep out the low rumble of ordnance and walkie-talkie simulacra piped in to the theatre while audience members took their seats.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” said Palu. “It’s the combination of the gunfire and the chatter that gets to me.”

“Would you rather wait outside?”

“Naw. I won’t go nuts or anything.” And he did not. Palu, an irrepressible and generous sort, approved of the play and its portrait of four agitated soldiers and their stress disorders. Backstage, he congratulated Moscovitch and the cast as I slipped away. Afterward, Palu emailed to say he “didn’t get to give a proper goodbye,” which is to say he did not end our time together as he would normally, his arms wrapped around his companion in a big hug.

There are worse forms of post-traumatic stress disorder, I thought at the time, if any portion of his insistence on such affection with relative strangers is even attributable to that—for it is every bit as likely that Palu’s winning congeniality is no more than the habit of a first-generation Italian-Canadian upbringing in which relations with family were paramount.

Palu’s father, Giuseppe Palu, was a stonemason from the village of Settimo, in Italy’s Veneto region, who immigrated to Canada in 1966 with his wife, Fiorina, a seamstress from nearby Taibon. Hard work was their ticket out. The pair settled in Toronto, the Second World War and hard times a generation and an ocean away when Louie was a child, but the stuff of constant family remembrance. “All my work is tied to my parents,” Palu says, referring to his early documentation of miners in Northern Ontario, to work from Afghanistan and Mexico, and to recent photographs of Toronto’s homeless. “I would hear stories of partisans fighting in my parents’ area, of partisans being hanged in the square, of my grandfather getting arrested by Germans, and of how my ma’s family was so poor they used to carry bales of hay though the mountain passes on their heads.

“I can safely say that I have never been interested in a story because it is ‘journalistically’ important. It’s all been about figuring out who I am in this world and what that means in terms of my family.”

Palu graduated from the Ontario College of Art in 1991 and shot the material for his first major collection, Cage Call, between then and 2003. Just 23 when he started it, Palu says the massive work—a series of photographs of the mining life and men at work in the underground shafts of some 20 mines in and around Cobalt, Timmins and Sudbury, in northern Ontario—amounted to “12 years of me exploring my roots as an Italian and a newcomer to a country that I did not understand until after the project. You could say I had to go several hundred feet into the darkness to find who I and my family were.”

Beyond national notice, Cage Call won the young Canadian photographer American attention, too—attention that has been ongoing. The New America Foundation has awarded Palu a fellowship and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting has given him a grant. His work from Afghanistan has been displayed in a host of exhibitions in Houston, New York, Philadelphia and Portland. Palu’s exhibition “Kandahar – The Fighting Season” recently concluded an 11-month display at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, but it can certainly be argued that his work continues to be more recognized in the United States than here.

Originally, the young photographer’s working in black and white and his attraction to the subject of labour were the surprises that interested curators, among them Alison Nordström, curator-at-large at New York’s George Eastman House. “I was struck,” says Nordström, “that someone as young as Louie was doing something in the tradition of Roy Stryker’s Farm Security Administration”—the photography program set up during the Great Depression to create sympathy for rural workers, which included Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks among its alumni. “His are not photographs that simply document a subject; they’re intended to tug at your heart.”

“What I so admire about Palu’s photographs,” says Andrew Burtch, the resident post-1945 historian at the War Museum, “is that they go beyond the everyday into thought and uncertainty. Palu has a really catholic approach to greater truths and he creates images that are also beautiful.”

Nordström describes Palu as “very much a romantic and a humanist,” the volatile dynamic of his photographs in evidence again when, in September 2012, some of Cage Call was mounted as “Cage Call: Life and Death in the Hard Rock Mining Belt” at the Art Gallery of Sudbury. Controversy erupted. Mine Mill union president Richard Paquin publicly complained that in “a lot of the pictures you see people missing things—missing an arm, one of them’s missing a foot.” A local skilled-trades instructor said that the pictures would discourage kids from taking jobs in mines.

“The commentary from the union was: ‘Jeez, that makes us look bad, because the mines are dark and the faces are greasy and too much emphasis is being placed on the victims of accidents,’” recalls Charlie Angus, the New Democratic Party’s Member of Parliament for Timmins–James Bay and also an author and collaborator on the Cage Call series. “Two weeks later, I was sitting at a table in Timmins with the families of miners who had been recently killed. Palu showed it as it was. He was documenting for a long time and has incredible respect for the people he photographs—people in very difficult conditions, and whom no one else is generally interested in. When I first met Louie, he was taking photographs of the miners as they came out of the cage. The companies didn’t trust him, and I thought, I’m looking at the next Yousuf Karsh.”

“The 1980s was an ugly period for labour,” says Palu, “though the whole idea of public affairs as a job of message control by corporations worrying about what photographs were showing or not showing had only just started. Now everybody is more aware, and not just corporations are ultra-sensitive to the spread of images and how easily they can be viewed throughout the world. My photographs showed something in a truthful light—the union guys would say a negative light—and the reaction was ‘How dare you take a picture of a guy without an arm?’ How I showed the underground life was for them characterized as ‘historical.’ But why is history bad? And why shouldn’t we be showing it?”

The temper Palu’s photographs aroused a decade after their first showing reveals just how unsettling the conversation promoted by his subjects—a number of them, as is his wont, staring into the camera lens directly—is in today’s resource-driven economy. “The image from the mining series that is most strongly placed in my mind,” says Nordström, “is not the famous one of a miner standing in a shaft of light, but of a group of maybe five or six men waiting for an elevator to take them to the surface. Mostly, what you see is a line of bodies and men in hard hats except that one of the men is looking up and catching the eye of the photographer. He’s very young—he looks like an angel—and from a formal standpoint what is effective is that this white face shines out from the darkness of the mine, but the human element is that you stand next to the photographer as witness. This idea of witness is very important to everything that Palu has done.”

Palu’s work in the mines led to a staff job at the Globe and Mail in the summer of 2001, a position he still held when, four years later, he decided he had to get himself to Afghanistan. Palu realized that the logical extension of his interest in labour was to be witness to what the war’s proponents were calling, to such advantage at the time, the “heavy lifting” of the Canadian Forces. “I remember seeing the [July 2005] press conference in which General Rick Hillier talked about the Taliban as ‘detestable murderers and scumbags,’ and thinking about how as a kid I’d watched the movies about Vietnam and read the books, and that the dialogue with the arts really helped the US sort itself. I remember wondering, ‘Wow, will I ever cover a war?’ When I pitched the Globe to cover it, at first they weren’t sure. Then I wrote an essay about Canada at war in Korea at the Battle of Kapyong and how important it would have been to cover it, and then they sent me.”

And so the trips to Kabul, Helmand, Farah and Kandahar started—Palu first unembedded and then embedded, but needing to be if he were to see combat and be able to keep the Afghans who worked with him alive. “If you want to cover the violence and the firefights, then you can’t go unembedded,” says Palu. More to the point, “you would get your translator killed.”

And Palu was unembedded when, in 2006 in Kandahar, he covered his first terrorist attack by suicide bombers on civilians. “There was a head, there were arms, there were legs, and for days I could smell the burned flesh in my nose,” says Palu. “When I got back to Toronto, I remember getting off the plane and going directly to the Globe and Mail to drop off my stuff and leaving the office and seeing that I still had my combat boots on. Then I drank until I passed out. I was knocked out on the street outside the Bovine on Queen Street and friends picked me up and drove me home to bed.”

That year was a bloody turning point for the Canadian Forces. It was Canada’s first year of double-digit fatalities: 36 soldiers and the diplomat Glyn Berry. The Canadian soldiers fought hard, did not lose a battle and took losses—15 of them during Operation Medusa in Pashmul and its aftermath, just southwest of Kandahar. “Pashmul will be one of those names of places that is not forgotten,” says Palu, quietly enough that I sense the scar is also his.


In February 2007, Palu quit his staff position at the Globe and Mail. Several years later, as we strolled toward his dealers at Toronto’s Kinsman Robinson Galleries, where the War Museum’s selection of his photographs was being prepared, Palu explained that he had no longer been able to reconcile his artistic ambitions with his press duties. “Photojournalism was limiting for me. I started to ask myself, Why don’t we see insurgents? Why don’t we see dead bodies? Not having a newspaper editor always tell me what to do has become the most important aspect of my work.”

Despite modest circumstances, art had been a constant in the Palu family’s house, where “it was as normal to be talking about art as the weather outside. My parents showed me the paintings of Caravaggio, Raphael, Titian, Leonardo and Picasso—there is no question that Afghanistan was what I was meant to do. Everything I had ever learned or thought about art and photography came of use there.” He describes the early work from Afghanistan as “dealing with the entire history of war photography” and cites Robert Capa, Don McCullin, Larry Burrows and Chris Killip as influences, as well as Ben Shahn, Lewis Hine, Francisco Goya, Frederick Varley and Jeff Wall. We discuss Wall’s Dead Troops Talk (A vision after an ambush of a Red Army patrol, near Moqor, Afghanistan, winter 1986) (1992). Wall’s brilliant piece, says Palu, brought to mind Palu’s own “fear of the ambush, of dead people coming alive, of the mind having to distinguish between the imagined.” Palu says that the fear was brought on by his time in the medevacs, when he would start to “lose the line between fiction and reality.” I remind Palu that in the diary he kept there, he wrote, “Yesterday I wondered if I would ever start seeing ghosts in the back of the helicopter.”

One of several striking photographs included in the War Museum’s “Kandahar – The Fighting Season” exhibition was Eating grapes in Pashmul during a patrol in Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan (2008). It is a close frontal shot in black and white of a soldier with the Afghan National Army raising a bunch of grapes to his mustachioed, helmeted face and eating them in the cover of the roadside bush. His eyes are large and harrowed.

“I have photographs in which the subject is looking out at you, and others where the viewer is looking in, and Eating grapes is one of those. It’s in black and white because I want to give you time to see the image without shocking you,” says Palu. In another, Standing in dust from improvised explosive device blast, Nakhonay, Panwa’i District, Kandahar, Afghanistan (2010), a soldier with a gun in his hands stands still, with his head dipped toward the ground, as brightly coloured dust swirls around him in the aftermath of an improvised explosive device’s detonation; such immobility is standard practice after an IED has been triggered, lest there be more wires and booby traps in the vicinity. The stationary soldier and the movement of the dust around him are strangely contrary, and expressive—the man in the fighter alone and at a loss in the world. It is the exact embodiment of that still and terrifying moment when, in Palu’s words, “you’re not in control anymore; you can’t get out and you can’t hide and for that moment you have absolutely no idea what is going on.”

In another of his photographs, Front line trauma room after bombing, Zhari District, Kandahar, Afghanistan (2007), a swirl of blood marks the floor by the boots of three medics at the foot of a hospital bed. “A land mine or IED had exploded in a guy’s face,” says Palu, “and the amount of blood was phenomenal. His face was blown off but he’s still alive, a man with no face, and there was so much detritus it had to be pushed aside and the floor looked like a Jackson Pollock painting and said a lot more than a photograph of his face would have done. I have those photos. Any war photographer has a box of them, prints that will never get seen.”

In August and September of 2008, Palu embedded himself with US Marines in the province of Helmand, and the technique of the subject “looking out” that he had first developed in the Cage Call series became dominant. His work with the Marines culminated in a remarkable series of quiet, haunting shots of soldiers’ faces, included in “Kandahar – The Fighting Season.” Haggard and dirty, the Marines stare at the camera, in blank, taciturn fashion, so close to the lens that it is impossible not to participate in a relationship with them—an effect that has become a hallmark of Palu’s work. (One of the photographs, U.S. Marine Gysgt. Carlos “OJ” Orjuela, age 31, Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan, from 2008, is among the 480 objects selected from more than a million photographs by the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston for its landmark exhibition “WAR/PHOTOGRAPHY: Images of Armed Conflict and its Aftermath.”)

“My work is about dialogue,” says Palu. “These are the men and women that governments rely upon to implement their complex policies, especially when it comes to killing people.” Palu looks at one photograph from this series, U.S. Marine Lcpl. Damon “Commie” Connell, age 20, Garmsir, Helmand, Afghanistan (2008), for a moment. “It was the soldiers’ choice to have helmets on, but there are deliberately no weapons in the photos. I mean, the gear gets you where? The soldiers don’t live in Afghanistan, the Taliban do. The soldiers need all that gear just to be there.”


“Most photojournalists stop before they reach 50,” says Nordström. “Sometimes it’s because they die. Sometimes it’s because they marry and have children and their lives seem worth more than they did before. We are lucky that Louie is able to bring his work back to us, but as someone who cares like a friend and worries like a mother.”

Not without cause. With Canada ending its combat role, Palu left Afghanistan, though not immediately for safer places. He followed his time there by making new work along the border of Mexico and the United States—territory that even he does not hesitate to describe as more dangerous. During a third-year University of Toronto class on Canadian pluralism, Palu explains, “a lot of my work, even from Mexico, is not only about what you’re seeing but also about what you’re not.” It is clear how much he enjoys students, and his intention to empower them. He begins by distributing copies of an ad hoc newspaper of several of his photographs, Mira Mexico, that he has produced as a teaching tool. Palu went to Mexico in 2011 after the seventh “obvious” time he figured his life was done for (a bomb had gone off under the airborne medevac helicopter he was in). “I really felt that I had hit my limit psychologically. I had no gas left. I was sleeping with the lights on.” Palu explains that “organized crime and the drug trade had entered into and out of my mind as potential subjects for many years. For a while I’d been thinking about the heroin in Afghanistan, but I wasn’t about to go back. I needed to go somewhere the media was not going, and it dawned on me that Latin America, the drug war, organized crime and the cartels—subjects that I was very interested in—all came together in Mexico.”

Palu speaks of his work along the United States’ border with the country as “a conversation with the dead.” He remarks to the U of T class that he witnessed more dead bodies in a month in Mexico than he did in his five years in Kandahar. “The vocabulary of Mexico is the vocabulary of war—of internally displaced people, prisoners, torture and death,” he tells them.

Palu divides the class into groups of seven or eight students and asks them to take apart the Mira Mexico newspapers, each comprising eight collated tabloid-sized sheets of paper with photographs on front and back. He encourages the students to select which of the 16 images they prefer, and in which order, and to post the pages with sticky tape to the walls of the class, curated as they wish. “I’m talking to you today not about Mexico, but about what photographs tell you of a place,” he says. “How they influence the ways in which you think about a place, how they shape our view of what goes on in the world.”

The notion of artistic freedom, of the liberty that came after forfeiting a payroll job on the Globe and Mail news desk, is a recurring element in his talk. “It’s about being on your own. You don’t want to be part of the pack.” One group in the class has assembled a grim tour of the Mexican dead, crumpled bills cast upon the chest of one gang victim, and another has used a slightly different selection of photographs to create a fairly convincing argument for the economic progress that has been made in the country. A third, in art-school style, has mounted a montage in which hands held aloft provide the narrative—of voters acclaiming a female mayor, of an addict with a syringe in one, of children holding theirs up in prayer. The hands demand to be noticed. The arrangement works. “We’re taking away the gatekeepers!” declares Palu, jubilantly.


The next night I am standing by the 7-Eleven at the corner of Bay and Richmond. It is dark and the last of the financiers are heading home, or into the cozy welcome of the bistro next door. I am waiting for Palu, who is taking advantage of time in Toronto to add to an ongoing project of his, in which he photographs the homeless of the city’s financial district. It is late January and it is very, very cold: -25 without the wind chill factor. After a few minutes, I find myself taking a tip from these overlooked inhabitants of the downtown core and standing over the street grate and its blast of warm subway air. Palu arrives, and in our layers and toques the two of us look dodgy enough to convince a couple of the businessmen to cross the street, just in case.

“I’ve always got three to five projects on the go,” says Palu, “though not all of them become something.” He is using a Mamiya VI medium-format film camera rather than digital, which can shoot up to nine continuous frames a second, as Afghanistan required. “This camera is a real pain in the arse,” says Palu, as he stops to change a roll of film in the bitter cold. “But it slows me down and makes me think.”

The homeless project hearkens back to first instincts. “I’m not an activist,” says Palu, “but this is a class issue that’s been going on over the building of houses. The people have been kicked out. They don’t want to be in shelters; they’re violent places. I’ve talked to homeless people who’ve had their shoes stolen there. A lot are mentally ill. Then think about the money that’s made in these few blocks from Queen to Front and Victoria to University. Bay Street was built from gold, nickel and bauxite from mines in Timmins and Sudbury. These are the halls of power.”

Palu says he finds the notion of the “fly on the wall” photographer ridiculous. He walks at a fair pace, looking into stairwells and down alleys, and explains that “the immediate and raw is what I want,” though it is apparent that there is less of it on this night than he was likely hoping to find. In one short alley remains the scant archaeological evidence of the prior city that Palu says he is intent on documenting. There is a dirty, faded sign for a diner that must have closed decades ago, on what was likely the disappeared restaurant’s back entrance. A chain-link fence barricades the back of the short alley, where construction of some new building has already begun, but there is also a rat trap and the belongings of a homeless visitor in the bay of a bricked-in doorway, where Palu ventures as a bright security light comes on. The homeless are a phantom presence. Palu stops mostly to photograph occasional clumps of anonymous possessions, a couple with the gift of food beside them, an indication of some passerby’s generosity.

“Basically, the rule is to shoot everything,” says Palu. If it stops you, that’s a picture. Sometimes you think you’re shooting nothing, but then you have 20 photos and a series. The beauty of shooting on film is that you never really know what you have.”

Palu passes a woman he says has been living on the same spot of sidewalk, on Richmond Street near the Sheraton Hotel, for years. She is wrapped in blankets and appears like an old Hollywood idea of an Indian squaw, sitting atop a pile of cardboard with belongings in the trolley next to her. Scaffolding rises up the first few storeys of the building at her back. She is indifferent, even when Palu steps up and photographs her.

“My father and grandfather were so close to being homeless,” Palu reminds me. “When someone asking for change could be a member of your own family, then where’s the line between us?”

A few blocks later, Palu recognizes a homeless man who walked by us earlier, and this time stops to ask for a smoke. I expect Palu to introduce the idea of a shot, but he does not. “I never go for the trade,” says Palu, walking on. “A lot of guys, I’ll talk to them for maybe a month—as I did in Mexico, with a man whose body was covered in tattoos. Finally, they’ll say, ‘Are you going to take my photograph, or what?’”

After a few hours, the cold is too much. We head down Queen Street to the Bovine Sex Club, the bar where Palu worked after graduating from OCA, and where he passed out after that first trip to Kandahar. The block is one of the last stands of a prior Toronto being erased by prosperity. In the bar, there are only two paying customers—both tattooed punk musicians—a solo guitarist performing from the stage as if there were plenty more, and a bartender who takes one of Palu’s big hugs. The rocker and his drummer invite us out for a smoke, leaving the performer to sing for nobody, which he does no less loudly as we step out the door to face one of the new buildings opposite. Palu professes his affection for the city. For home. “I’m bored of being shot at,” he says.

A week later, he is back along the Mexico-US border, and it seems fair to conclude that this phase of Palu’s work is not yet done.

This is a feature article from the Fall 2013 issue of Canadian Art. To read more from this issue, visit its table of contents