Current Obsession: Larry Towell’s haunting photographs from the ruins of Afghanistan

Current Obsession: Larry Towell’s haunting photographs from the ruins of Afghanistan

The Canadian photographer’s images capture the human side of an unwinnable war

Larry Towell was in New York for a meeting when he heard that the twin towers had been hit. He immediately grabbed his camera and ran to the scene; his resulting images of dazed and dust-covered New Yorkers have become iconic. That reaction was part of a pattern for the 58-year-old Towell, who for more than three decades has been travelling from his southwestern Ontario home to places like Nicaragua, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip and South Africa to take photos of people caught up in bitter, bloody conflicts. Beginning in 2008, Towell went to Afghanistan to witness first-hand the war that had been sparked by 9/11. He spent months in the country, and though he spent some time embedded with U.S. military units, he was determined to take pictures that said more than what government and political officials were telling the world. Many of his stark and unnerving photos are now on display at the ROM as part of a joint exhibition with the Irish photographer Donovan Wylie. We asked Towell to give us the backstory on some of the show’s unforgettable scenes.

“Afghan National Army Recruits in Training” “These guys don’t have any loyalty to the state—they’re tribal people. Some of them get their basic training, get paid and go back to their villages. Then they return and enroll again under a different name. It’s a joke.”

“Woman Selling Magazines” “Women beggars are a familiar sight in Kabul. One who happens to be selling glamour magazines is an oddity, however. I’d never seen it before. This woman is begging near the Serena Hotel, where a lot of foreigners stay.”

“Village Elder and Daughter With U.S. Military” “This is a meeting between Americans and village elders. The soldiers talk about a road or an irrigation canal they want to build. The old guys then go across the mountains into Pakistan to ask the Taliban. It’s the Taliban who decide what gets built.”

Larry Towell, Donovan Wylie: Afghanistan
Royal Ontario Museum
To July 8