Lambton County photojournalist Larry Towell will be in Paris July 3 to accept the $50,000 Henri Cartier-Bresson Award. He won the prize, worth 30,000 euros (about $47,600 Cdn) for a photo study he has called "a personal and poetic perception" of Israel and Palestine. When it is complete, the pictures will be exhibited at the Cartier-Bresson Foundation.
"I'm 50 years old. I've been plugging (away) my whole life," Towell said yesterday of his most recent award. He was in New York, discussing projects at Magnum Photos, where he is a member.
The award is named for Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer credited with helping establish photojournalism as an art form.
Towell lives with his wife, writer Ann Towell, and their family on a Shetland-area farm in the southeast corner of Lambton County.
His reputation rests on a series of book-length photographic studies of crisis-torn regions such as Central America (Somoza's Last Stand, 1990) and El Salvador, 1997).
He has also studied the Middle East (Then Palestine, 1999), as well as Mennonite farmers in Mexico displaced by globalization (The Mennonites, 2000). During that project, he began making "field recordings" of the hymns of Old Colony Mennonites and other material. He and producer Jeff Bird of Cowboy Junkies teamed to make a "soundtrack" CD called The Mennonites, to go with the book. It's available at www.larrytowell.com
"A lot of photographers are known for being first to arrive, being brave, dodging bullets," he says. "I tend to be the last to leave. It's like anthropology. You stay with the people. At first they're uncomfortable with you, they feel staged. But then you blend in and they become themselves. It's long-term, it's committed and it's personal. Also," he adds, "less saleable."
He has never published a book in Canada, whose small market cannot support the kind of work he does. But in 1993 he was accepted into the Magnum photographers' co-operative, which sells his work and finds financial backing for his projects.