I first met Larry Towell at a National Geographic seminar in Washington. We were both speakers in the imposing institutional auditorium at the Geographic headquarters. I had compromised my normally dishevelled urban appearance for the occasion, wearing a suit, but Larry appeared in his standard gear – farmer’s blue jean dungarees, complete with braces, a check shirt and a battered straw hat. Gripping both sides of the podium, he informed the traditionally inclined audience of employees and associates, “I’m holdin’ on here for grim death ’cos I’m afraid I might pee my pants”. Of course, behind this public image of a simple, uncomplicated country hick lurks a creative artist with the strength and determination to know what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. 

We discover from Robert Delpire’s affectionate introduction to No Man’s Land that Towell farms 75 acres of farmland in Canada, is a poet who believes more in the influence of the word than in the power of the image, plays folk guitar and several traditional instruments and performs internationally as a whistler (sic). Looking through the photographs, Delpire concludes, “(he) is a giant among photographers, such is his understanding of human suffering, his empathy at people enraged at being unable to live a normal human life”.

This book was co-produced by the publisher Boot and the Archive of Modern Conflict. The Archive also gave Towell some financial assistance to help him complete the project. It has been in existence since the early 1990s, concentrating on the way in which the creative arts, especially photography, can emerge out of conflict and express some of the important aspects of a particular struggle. The founder, Timothy Prus, was motivated to start the collection because of his interest in what he calls “the lost stories”, those aspects of ordinary people’s lives that seldom get much coverage in the international press. It is easy to see why Towell’s poetic approach to photography, and indeed life in general, would appeal to Prus’s imagination.

The opening and closing images contain a dreadful internal narrative. Abstract in style, they represent what photography theorists like to call “the absence of presence”. In 2000, Towell photographed still lives of the rather innocuous looking slingshots (catapults) used by children protesting in Ramallah on the West Bank.

Four years later, he is concentrating on door handles and locks from destroyed houses in Jenin and Rafah Refugee Camp in Gaza. The journey from homemade weapons to mass destruction of houses has been swift and terrible.

The progression of Towell’s photography also seems to have shifted with the volatile political and military realities. In his early visits to the region, he appears very close to the action, frequently portraying small groups, young demonstrators, stone throwers, or larger gatherings, at funerals or in morgues. Progressively, he tends to concentrate on individuals, isolated in their brutalised environment. As the Israeli army’s tactics became more indiscriminate, we see people lost among the rubble of their former homes. Towell pushes himself towards a disconcerting view of the inanimate as the conflict becomes inexorable. We see vast apocalyptic urban landscapes, in places where it is more and more difficult to identify what had once been a street, a road or a row of houses.

Every now and then, Towell takes a side step and photographs some almost irrelevant scene, a shaft of light on cobblestones, symbolically illuminating a stone, a pigeon wandering in the sun by the Wailing Wall while an Orthodox Jew prays, young Hasidic children curiously observing jewellery in a shop window. It’s almost as if he needs to remind himself that there is a semblance of the poetic to be found in pockets of this troubled land. 

The final images in the book show the “separation wall” built by the Israelis in  East Jerusalem, a supremely ironic visual symbol some 15 years after the free world celebrated the end of the Berlin Wall. This new wall, of course, is to keep people out rather than keep them in.

Colin Jacobson