Despite living all his life in peaceful rural Ontario, celebrated photojournalist Larry Towell’s work is characterized by struggle, from his projects in Gaza and the West Bank, to the Mennonite communities in Canada and Mexico, to the Standing Rock protests. Still, it’s apparent in Towell’s photographs that he’s rendering everything in the frame as almost gentle. A poet who lived on a homemade raft, a singer who wrote protest songs in the middle of combat zones, a dedicated member of his hometown agricultural community, Towell is many things besides a photographer, but above all he is the rare breed who has strong beliefs and manages to live them.
His new exhibition, Vintage Prints, a retrospective spanning forty years of work, is on view at the Stephen Bulger Gallery. We talked about his storied career across a phone line, me in Brooklyn, him on his farm in Ontario, where we shared a time zone but little else. A few times, he referred to me as a “city boy,” a label I overcame only momentarily when I told him I have a fifty-square-foot raised bed garden in my backyard, and he seemed impressed.
Giancarlo Roma: You live on a farm, is that right?
Larry Towell: Yes, I sharecrop. It’s a 75-acre farm in southwestern Ontario, and it’s located in Lambton County. All my family pictures, if you see the captions, were shot in Lambton County. So my farm is about three hours west of Toronto and about an hour-and-a-half east of Detroit. So I’m kind of as far south in the country as you can get.
GR: Did you grow up on a farm?
LT: My dad was an autobody repairman, and we grew up on ten little acres, not far from where I live now. I had seven siblings, so there were eight kids. My dad was not a working farmer, but we were part of the rural community, as I am now. For instance, my neighbor works in a hardware store, and he’s part of the community as much as anyone. But I grew up in this area.
GR: I know you also write music and poetry. Were either of those a love before photography or did they come after?
LT: I think I was a songwriter before I was a photographer, but pretty much simultaneously. In those years, in Canada, it was impossible to publish a photobook, and there was no photojournalism to speak of, and very little photography. When I got into Magnum, that opened up another world, but before that, it was possible to publish poetry. I studied creative writing and visual arts at York [University], and when I got out I came home and built a homemade raft with a little shack in the middle and I lived on it for two and a half years and I started writing poetry there. So it was kind of simultaneous. But clearly I would say I was a better photographer and the doors opened with photography, whereas with creative writing they didn’t open quite as wide.
GR: A lot of your work has been in conflict zones. Were you ever in a situation where you felt compelled to look away, to intervene, or react in some way other than taking a picture?
LT: I mean sure, if I can help someone I’ll do it. But being there is an intervention, right?
GR: Right, we wouldn’t know what was happening in these places if they weren’t photographed. But as a photographer, what does it feel like to be in a dangerous place with a job to do?
LT: If I didn’t care I wouldn’t go. I don’t work on things I don’t care about. So there’s an ethical thing there – you’re there for an ethical purpose. And a lot of times, maybe most of the time, you’re there as a support, you’re there as a witness because you want the world to know. First of all, you want to experience it yourself. And then, you do want to pass that information on – your opinion and your interpretation at the time. I find most of the time I’m inspired by the people. People are struggling against systems often. Our job as a journalist – and I still like that word, I use that more often than “artist” – is to monitor power. You’re in a situation where people are usually struggling against a powerful system. Whether it’s capitalism, or politics, or a dictatorship, or something, people are struggling, and people are amazingly resilient. So it’s very inspirational, actually. Now is there anything I’d turn my head away from? Nope.
GR: Is there something that drew you to photographing in areas where there’s conflict?
LT: It’s part of the process of conflict resolution, not just conflict in itself, but “how is this conflict going to be resolved?” I went to Afghanistan to question what was going on there, because even my own government was involved – it was a disaster and I knew that at the time. I’ve learned in time not to believe your government. Governments, if they’re moving their lips, they’re lying. All you’ve got to do is watch them.
GR: Is there a project you photographed that stands out as something you felt connected to in a different way?
LT: Yes, of course. Some things you are more intimately engaged in than others. Probably the most intimate body of work that I photographed was the Mennonites. These were very, very vulnerable people, and they were kind of amazing, and I discovered them right here in Canada, in my own backyard. They were coming from Mexico – 60,000 Old Colony Mennonites live in Mexico, and they have a long history of persecution. They were originally from Germany, then they went to Prussia, then Russia, where they were persecuted during the Russian Revolution because they were considered well-off farmers. Some were killed, some fled, and others came to Canada. But after the First World War, Canadians didn’t trust them because they were Germans, so in the 1920s, several thousand loaded their horses and buggies onto trains and went to Mexico and produced many colonies. Then they started coming back to Canada as migrant farm workers. So then for ten years I photographed them in the cucumber and tomato and tobacco fields. And I would go back to Mexico with them in the winter and stay in their colonies with the families. And I did that for ten years, and produced that body of work, which also has quite a bit of writing in it. So that would probably be the most intimate body of work, unless you consider my family. But they also don’t allow photography, so it was quite a challenge to cut through that, for them to allow me to photograph them in a very vulnerable position.
GR: How did you manage that?
LT: Friendship. I would photograph them here, and when I went to Mexico I would show their relatives the pictures of their family in Canada, and then I’d photograph them and give the pictures to their family in Canada. And they just got to trust me because I would hang around with them down there in the fields, and one thing leads to another.
GR: Whether there’s violence or not, the common theme in your work seems to be that there’s suffering or a struggle of some kind. Is there anything else that unites the work?
LT: Well I would say that unites most of the work is the issue of landlessness. In my earliest years when I was photographing what they called the civil war in El Salvador, I called it the uprising of landless farmers, a peasant uprising. And then the Palestinians who lost all their land, and the Menonites who lost much of their land due to bankruptcies and economic collapse. And even in The World from My Front Porch [centering on Towell’s family life in rural Ontario], the book is about my relationship to the land. So everything has always kind of revolved around that – land, landlessness, what happens when people lose their land. They rebel, because they lose their identity. I work a lot now with First Nations, and they lost all their land, as we know, and they’re suffering from it still. So that’s in a way what has made all the work relevant and associated with each other.
GR: You own quite a bit of land. Is it a response to that in some way?
LT: Yes, I think so. I’m from here, I’m part of the land, too. I’m not an investor, I didn’t move to the country from the city because I wanted to escape. This is just who I am, where I’m from. I feel very close to this piece of land, and I relate. I relate.
GR: A lot of your photographs in the show, to my eye, really look like art photographs. Without the context of your career, and the captions, they wouldn’t register as conflict photographs. Is there something intentional about not playing up the suffering?
LT: It’s not sensational work, it’s not about sensationalism. What is a good photograph, right? For me, it has to have a composition. A well-composed photograph is art. Paintings are well-composed. You can hold it upside down, it still should be a good photograph. I think [Henri] Cartier-Bresson used to view his photographs upside-down because what does it matter if it’s right-side-up or upside-down? The balance, the equilibrium within the photograph would be the same. So it has to have a balance, a focal point, a point of reference, sources of energy, lines – that sort of thing. And if it has that, it doesn’t even matter what the subject is, it’s still a good photograph. But if you happen to take those photographs in a situation that is more explosive or more political, I think it elevates the work a little bit. You remember it. If it’s sensationalism, you won’t even remember the picture anyway. You remember it when its composition is strong.
GR: I think it’s interesting that composition is what makes something memorable. It’s probably even more apparent in something like music, where composition is kind of the name of the game.
LT: Music is more emotional by nature because it has a melody. Your body is 90% water and music of course reverberates through your body – that’s why you dance. Pictures don’t work in the same way, so it plays on a different sensibility. Photography plays more on your brain, it’s a different set of things. Not conceptually, I mean it works on your memory, your sense of space and balance.
GR: All of your projects were organized through Magnum, is that right?
LT: Not really. Magnum as my agency would be involved, there might be sometimes they were distributed through Magnum to magazines, to try to get them published. There were some times I got assignments through Magnum but not that much. I really just worked on my own projects.
GR: It’s the best way to do it if you can swing it.
LT: Well if you live out on a farm and you grow your own vegetables, it’s a lot easier than paying real estate in Manhattan.
GR: So your way of life allowed you to have the career you wanted.
LT: Look, everything has its cost. Because I live where I do, I missed out on a lot of opportunities, too. I couldn’t go to wine-and-cheese parties, I couldn’t go to openings, I couldn’t just go visit Kathy Ryan at The New York Times every time I had an idea. So you’re separate. But it has its benefits. You work in a more contemplative way. You work slower, maybe. You learn to depend less on certain inspirations and more on others. I had a family, a partner, I’ve got four children, I was home, I helped raise them. My wife didn’t work for a long time because someone’s got to be home with the children, so it was up to me to survive and try to feed the family, too. And it might’ve been easier in the city, but you know what? I don’t think so. I don’t believe in that. It’s also not who I am.