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Shooting digital in Iraq
Sunday, June 13, 2004 | by Eamon Hickey

Corbis photographer Ben Lowy was very unhappy to be stuck in New York when we spoke with him in mid-April. Lowy had spent much of the previous year shooting in Iraq, and to him, the intensifying turmoil there was a siren song rather than a warning bell.

"I really want to go back right now," he said. "Badly. But I just can't. I have an assignment in two weeks in Cincinnati, and I have to get an apartment. So I can't, and it kills me."

And the escalating danger? "I think about it. I don't think any job is worth dying for. [But this is] the kind of work that I really, really like doing."

In fact, the 24-year-old Lowy has shot very little except war and conflict in his short career as a photojournalist. The path that took him to Iraq began in St. Louis where Lowy was studying art at Washington University. "I was doing a lot of model illustration," he says, "and I went into a book store to find a Herb Ritts book. He had really good model shots, so I wanted to [study] some of the body language, and I pulled out Nachtwey's Inferno book by accident. That was the watershed. I thought: "what am I doing?"

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An Iraqi man launches himself from a lamp post on the Al-Shuhada Bridge into the Tigris river on a hot Baghdad night. (Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

So Lowy switched his emphasis to photography and built experience and a portfolio with, in part, an internship at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and two self-assigned trips to Israel to shoot the Intifada and life inside an Israeli insane asylum.

Lowy's portfolio was good enough to get Time magazine's attention when it was looking for photographers to cover the Washington, D.C. sniper story in the fall of 2002. But the magazine told him he'd have to shoot digital if he wanted any work from them. "So the credit card came out, and I bought a digital camera," he says. The camera was a Nikon D1X, which Lowy equipped with a Nikkor AF-S 17-35mm f/2.8D ED-IF lens. The sniper story was Lowy's first paid gig, making him an early member of what will inevitably become a very large club in coming years: "I haven't had a professional film assignment ever," he says.

In February 2003, Lowy joined Corbis in New York and was assigned to embed with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division for the war in Iraq. He spent the next eight months shooting the war and its aftermath, much of it for Time. He returned again in January of this year, spending a month shooting breaking news as well as a story on the post-war reconstruction effort for Fortune magazine.

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 Immediately after a grenade attack on the commanders' tents at Camp Pennsylvania in Kuwait, US soldiers from the 101st Airborne Division carry one of the wounded away from the scene. (Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

When he first left for Iraq back in early 2003, Lowy took two D1X bodies, his 17-35mm lens, a Nikkor AF-S 80-200mm f/2.8D ED-IF, a Nikkor AF 50mm f/1.4D, a Speedlight SB-80DX flash, and "just in case" a Nikon FM2 film body.

Though the cameras fared well in the wartime environment, Lowy's zoom lenses did not. "In Iraq, I was just getting tons of crap into the zoom mechanism," he says. So, in July, he shelved his 17-35 and bought a Nikkor AF 14mm f/2.8D ED, a Nikkor AF 20mm f/2.8D, and a Nikkor AF 85mm f/1.4D IF. "I do not use zoom lenses anymore," Lowy says, though he acknowledged later that he still employs the 80-200mm if absolutely necessary.

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An Iraqi boy with a bundle of produce passes the burnt wreck of an Iraqi militia vehicle destroyed during a battle with American forces in Wadi al-Salam, or the Valley of Peace - the world's largest cemetery. (Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

Lowy's computer is an Apple iBook with a 12-inch display, 700MHz G3 processor, 512MB of RAM, and a 20GB hard drive. "You can still shake it out and get some Iraqi sand in your hand," says the photographer.

In Iraq, Lowy used a Lind MaxPower 60 external lithium-ion battery pack to supplement his iBook's built-in battery. He taped the pack, which is about half an inch thick and roughly the same dimensions as an iBook, to the bottom of the laptop, and it powered the computer for about four to five extra hours.

He also carried a SmartDisk FireLite 60GB FireWire portable external hard drive and a 40GB Apple iPod, both of which were used for backing up his daily take.

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US soldiers with the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment raid an Iraqi counterfitting operation in a run-down section of Sadr City, one of the poorest areas of Baghdad occupied by Shia Muslims. The troops netted over 200,000 fake Iraqi Dinars and arrested two men. (Photo by Ben Lowy/Corbis)

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