Larry Towell: Sound & Vision

12 mins read

“I’m a collector,” explains photojournalist Larry Towell, “I collect sound and video until I feel that it’s ready. I didn’t go with the intention of making a film in Palestine.”

Towell is referring to Indecisive Moments, his 40-minute video diary from 2001 capturing his wanderings through the rubble and army checkpoints of the Occupied Territories currently under siege. As the lone Canadian at the esteemed photography agency Magnum, Towell used a small camcorder that Sony gave to some of the company’s shooters as a proposed experiment. “I wouldn’t have made a film unless someone had given me a camera.”

Towell shot stills with his three cameras until there were no more images to take, then pulled out his camcorder to pan or focus on whatever caught his eye. In one surreal moment on a deserted street, he follows a nervous Palestinian boy who retaliates by trying to heave large rocks at Towell. The most anxious moment starts innocently when Towell is surveying a bombed-out bus and a nervous Israeli soldier demands, “Get off the bus! We’re here to protect the bus.” Armed with his Sony camcorder, Towell asks, “Why? There’s nothing here to protect.” When Towell refuses to leave, the exchange escalates into a screaming match.

“With stills, I had become accustomed to making a decision on what was worth collecting,” explains Towell, who chose to videotape the bus instead of photographing it. “All of a sudden a soldier comes on and it’s pretty obvious you have to choose quickly what to do. This is gonna be sound.”

Surprisingly, Towell’s foray into cinema didn’t spring from photography, but audio. “When the DAT recorder was invented I started recording sound,” he explains in an even, precise tone. “That was back when I was photographing the Mennonites. I would end up in these desert colonies in New Mexico. The Mennonites would sit around a table with kerosene lamps and do these 15th-century hymns, and I’d record them. I realized that as a photographer I was in places that most people didn’t have the opportunity to go. Most of the time there’s nothing to photograph. So I started listening to sounds rather than photographing. That opened up my world a bit.”

When he left art school during the Reagan ’80s, he realized that his calling was to tell the story of other people. “I started with victim stories, like people of Contra atrocities, Mothers of the Disappeared in Guatemala and their fight against the military regime. I was photographing simultaneously, maybe not particularly well, but it was a growing experience.” Those images led to his 1989 induction into the distinguished photo cooperative, Magnum. “That time I was torn between collecting people’s oral histories or photographing as a still photographer,” he admits. “Now, I separate those two things better.”

Towell’s sentiments recall the Japanese master, Akira Kurosawa: “For truly cinematic expression, the camera and the microphone must be able to cross both fire and water.” However, Kurosawa and other dramatic directors, particularly Michaelangelo Antonioni (the eerie park scenes in Blow-Up) and Roman Polanski (Repulsion) used sound to create mood and express character. In Towell’s hands, sound is journalistic. He collects the oral histories of oppressed peoples who cannot get their voices heard. The theme of lending voice to the oppressed is what his sound recordings have in common with his photographs, from Guatemala to Gaza.

However, Towell’s film doesn’t take his footage to the next level, which is juxtaposing images to produce a movie. Instead, his video diary is episodic and suggests the notion, If his pictures could talk this is what they would sound like. Basically, sound is an extension of Towell’s photographs, which he insists are about movement. Furthermore, Towell argues that movement is more important to still than moving images. “Video is really about sound whereas still photography—if it doesn’t have movement, it’s a dead picture. Still photography is about freezing time. Photographs that I like have a lot of movement, emotion and drama. It captures the decisive moment in time, the 1/100th of a second. The magic and power of the image is the fact that it is moving rapidly and you capture it.”

In contrast, the power of motion picture lies in sequencing contrasting images. Editing. Another key element is conflict. Conflict energizes a film, which is why the bus confrontation is the most popular scene in Indecisive Moments. Here, Towell locks horns with an armed Israeli soldier, and the tension escalates. Towell could have shown the aftermath of this confrontation and presented a sequence of images, but chose to present the bus incident alone, like an anecdote.

Towell admits that he’s primarily a still photographer who looks at the world in terms of composition, lighting and geometry. However, he finds that in this day and age, subjects react the same to him whether he’s shooting with his 50mm Leica or Sony camcorder. “But if I pull out a professional-sized video camera, that would make a difference. If you have a film crew with a soundman, everything changes. It’s hard with that set-up to get anything truly spontaneous. Photography is all about spontaneity and the moment. That’s what my film is about.”

Mary Ellen Davis disagrees. She profiled Towell in her documentary, Territories, which follows him from the walls at the Mexican-American border to Palestine to illustrate oppression and authoritarian control. “Many people have small video cameras,” she explains, “the international activists, the Israeli pro-Palestinian activists, the Palestinians themselves. They want the world to see what’s happening.” In contrast, Israeli soldiers had to respect freedom of the press, “but were obviously not very keen on it,” she recalls from her Montreal office. “If there’s a crew, it’s potentially ‘established,’ therefore more liable to get on TV and reach more people. You could never predict how they would react.”

Coming from a documentary background, Davis employed a far different approach to filming than Towell. Most of her footage was shot by a traditional doc crew of DP, soundman and director, but key scenes were filmed hooking up a wireless microphone to Towell and letting him wander behind the wall by himself as the crew stayed at a distance. This freed up Towell to take photographs and record his own verbal observations. In one of the film’s highlights, Towell walks along the Palestine wall, muttering to himself, “Come on, decisive moment, where are you?” Suddenly the voice of an Israeli soldier echoes from off-screen to leave. Towell refuses and deadpans, “I’m not gonna hurt it. It’s much stronger than I am!”

For Davis, the mike “worked even better than I suspected [because] it allowed him to share his thoughts while walking.” Essentially, Davis turned the tables on Towell by recording his thoughts on audio. “I was startled to see that I talk to myself,” admits Towell. Precisely because of these unguarded moments, Davis’ film is actually more intimate than Towell’s. It takes the viewer from Towell’s Ontario farm to Ground Zero in Manhattan as the soundtrack is punctuated by acoustic songs written and sung by Towell.

Davis and Towell’s work both focus on victims of oppression. Towell’s commitment began as a student in the mid-’70s when he volunteered to help the poor and dispossessed of India. Since then his photos have portrayed humans as territorial creatures who use politics and force to control land and by extension poor people.

That viewpoint likely scared film festivals and broadcasters away from Territories. Davis’ documentary didn’t play any major film festivals in English Canada or America, and received only abbreviated airings on CBC Newsworld and Bravo. Shot by veteran cinematographer Mark Ellam (The Take) and directed by Davis (Haunted Land), Territories was well-crafted and opened a rare door into the life and art of Towell. However, Territories sympathizes with the Palestinians, which may have been construed as anti-Israeli. “Horseshit,” responds Towell. “Most Israelis I know criticize the Occupation every day. If you think supporting the Occupation is pro-Israel that’s too bad—I don’t think that way at all. I [also] don’t think criticizing Bush’s invasion of Iraq is anti-American at all.”

For Davis, the January bloodshed in Gaza by Israel sadly “brings back the memory of photographs of ruins that Larry took in Jenin, Ramallah and Rafah in 2003.” Towell is pessimistic. Right before Gaza became a battleground, he said, “I’m tired of it. I don’t see any hope.” He added, “Something will eventually happen. If the Americans quit funding the Occupation, it’ll bring it to an end in a heartbeat, but I don’t think they’re prepared to do that. I’ve said everything I had to say on that situation.” Would he go back? “If it changes.”

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