The photographer documenting war with a cell phone

Updated 23rd September 2016
The photographer documenting war with a cell phone
This feature is part of Pixel, a series that turns the lens on some of the most inspiring photographers from around the world. See more here.
"I grew up in New York City in the 1980s, so that helped give me a little bit of street smarts." Benjamin Lowy knows how to hustle -- and how to blag a gig.
As a young photojournalist inspired by James Nachtwey's "Inferno", Lowy was sent on assignment to Gaza based on a "bold-faced lie," telling his commissioner he could speak Arabic and Hebrew.
He flew out with 400 rolls of chrome film on a wing and a prayer -- and no camera. (He bought one when he arrived.)
"When you have a good opportunity, the most important thing is to recognize it," he says. "I don't care what profession you're in, you jump on it."
People don't like to be confronted with something outside of their everyday little world.
Ben Lowy
Lowy's early forays into conflict photography have since taken him across northern Africa, all over the Middle East and Asia, as well as a good chunk of South America. But for his most well-known work, he left the chrome film behind.

Documenting war with a mobile phone

An early adopter of cell phone photography, Lowy started out experimenting with a Sony Erikson K750 circa 2005 before upgrading to an iPhone in 2008.
He began taking his cell into the field in 2010, using Hipstamatic in the pre-Instagram era, to capture the buried radioactive village of Uravan in Colorado for The New Yorker.
In 2012 he made the front cover of Time Magazine with an image of Hurricane Sandy, taken using an iPhone Lowy carried around in a zip lock bag. It was the first major magazine cover to feature cell phone photography.
Documenting instability in Libya in 2012 he similarly used mobile technology to his advantage.
"One of the things that I discovered early on when I was in Iraq -- and I spent six years going back and forth -- was that people here in the West got overwhelmed with the dearth of images," he explains. "After two years, the images looked so [similar]... people just didn't want to see it."
"A lot of what I've done with my career for the last ten years has been experimenting with different visual aesthetics to grab people, to get them into the images."

Confronting the public

Using cell phone images Lowy has curbed public apathy and brought them closer to his subjects.
He tells the story behind a portrait of his fixer in Libya, Omar, who opened up about a bullet hole in his windscreen he'd been driving around with for at least the month the photographer had hired him.
Omar had been shot at by a sniper, it transpired, and had returned fire, killing the man. The bullet hole was a reminder of the trauma the fixer had suffered in the days after; a reminder that even though Omar had never wanted to kill another human being, that it would never happen again.
Omar's story is one of many Lowy has featured on his Instagram account. He tries to post at least one image a day on his social accounts, and has done since 2009.
"People don't like to be confronted with something outside of their everyday little world," Lowy argues. "That's what I struggle with. How do you get past that? How do you get people to care?"
"The legacy [my photographs] leave will be this document of what I've seen and what I've been able to record," Lowy says. "Hopefully they can educate people. That's all I can hope for."
Video by Mimi Schiffman