There are likely thousands of 24-year-old men and women who have gotten their first taste of battle during the Iraqi war. They are, of course, armed with the world's most high-tech weapons, but when Benjamin Lowy gets an enemy soldier in his crosshairs, he has only his camera to shoot with.
The recent Washington University in St. Louis graduate has covered everything from the Washington, D.C., sniper case to the conflict in Israel, but his tour embedded with the 1st Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne has brought Lowy closer to the action than he ever imagined.
"I was actually in a tent behind the grenade attack," Lowy said of the shocking attack at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait on March 23. "You hear this huge boom that shook the ground; everyone got up and some people were screaming in the tents. People just started putting their gas masks on right away and I was among them because you just had no idea." Lowy said the grenade exploded 10 yards from his tent, serving as a sobering wake-up call that this assignment would be unlike any other he's had.
Blind behind a gas mask without his contact lenses in, Lowy slipped his glasses on as the second grenade exploded. Realizing it wasn't a chemical-tipped Scud because of the proximity of the explosions, Lowy took a chance and put his contacts in, nearly losing one when he poked his eye as the third grenade went off. Then came a Scud missile alert and several minutes of chaos, during which Lowy — who is working for Time magazine and Corbis, a stock photography agency — grabbed his camera and started shooting, capturing the arrest of the U.S. soldier suspected in the attack.
It's that combination of quick-thinking, fearlessness and manic energy that comes through in many of Lowy's photos, which range from blurry, frantic images screaming across the frame to eerily lit battle scenes which frame the chaos, fear and sometimes unnerving placidity of war. A close-up of a young soldier in a gas mask captures his apprehension in a single eye, staring up at an unseen dread. In another, a dust-caked soldier, his face barely visibly under a helmet and layers of gear, gazes longingly at a photo from home.
Six weeks ago, Lowy was in New York when he got the call to embed with the 101st. He left for Fort Campbell, Kentucky, two days after receiving an e-mail with his orders, and left for Kuwait two days after that. Since then, he's been at the center of some of the most notable action in Iraq, from the clearing of Najaf to the taking of Saddam Airport and the looting of Baghdad.
"I usually go with the first five soldiers," he said. "I kind of push myself to the front. I let the first two or three go in and then I come in behind them ... I have to weigh the risks. That there's going to be a bad guy on the inside, what are the chances? That's just something you feel for."
Because he's close in age to most of the soldiers he's embedded with, Lowy said he's made a lot of friends on his assignment. "I hang out with them when they are off duty," he said. "We talk about the same things and can relate to each other, which works out for me, because when we're in the field, they are professional soldiers and I'm a professional photographer. We each do our thing, but we're able to work together and know each others' limits because we have become friends."
The soldiers trust Lowy when things get dangerous because he briefly trained with them in Camp Pennsylvania, during which he learned where to stand during battle situations and, most importantly, how to be safe while turning his back to the enemy in order to get a picture of a U.S. soldier. One of the hardest parts of Lowy's assignment is more mental than physical, when that trust and friendship is tested after things go wrong. "If you're friends with [the soldiers], it makes it a lot harder to talk about ... when they do something wrong," he said. "[During] the grenade attack, while those images were important, these were people that I knew and that I ate with, and if they were injured I had to stand there and say, "Well, I can't help them, that's not my job. That's not what I'm good at. I'm a photographer."
Lowy's assignment might sound as exciting as a real-life action movie, but the living conditions — including no shower for a month — were hardly A-list. One night in particular ranked among the worst of his life. During the initial assault on Iraq, Lowy spent three and a half days on the back of a five-ton truck along with 14 soldiers. "On the first night, it poured, it hailed and it sand-stormed," he said. "In the desert at night, it is freezing cold and we're just wearing our chemical protective gear. I had my cameras and a computer with me and I was sitting on them the entire night to protect them. We got completely soaked. There wasn't anyone in that truck that wasn't shivering."
Despite the hardship and strain on personal relationships ("My social life is nonexistent [and] I can't say that I've heard any music in the past two months."), Lowy can't imagine doing anything else. "I became a photojournalist because photography has this great potential to take a horrible image and make something really beautiful out of it," he said. "It's doing that work that's the romantic part."