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Photographer, Cancer Survivor Ivan Lo Shows 'Afghanistan is More than War'

By Adeshina Emmanuel | August 19, 2014 7:29am
 Uptown-based photographer Ivan Lo documents humanitarian efforts in troubled parts of the world, including Afghanistan, where he found great strengh and hope amid the devastation.
Stories from Afghanistan
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UPTOWN — Diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia, pondering "the prospect of death on a daily basis," Uptown resident and humanitarian photographer Ivan Lo promised himself in 2007, "If I do survive this, I have to devote my life to what I think is worthwhile."

Lo — whose photos are on display this month at a new exhibit at the Bezazian Library — had been working since 2005 with international organizations to highlight humanitarian work abroad in troubled regions.

Adeshina Emmanuel sat down with Lo, and discussed how he battled through the disease:

Before he was diagnosed at 23, Lo was planning to change jobs and had “all these grand plans of working for National Geographic and Time Magazine, and being known as a press photographer.”

 Uptown-based photographer Ivan Lo (r.) documents humanitarian efforts in troubled parts of the world, including Afghanistan, where he found great strengh and hope amid the devastation.
Uptown-based photographer Ivan Lo (r.) documents humanitarian efforts in troubled parts of the world, including Afghanistan, where he found great strengh and hope amid the devastation.
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Ivan Lo (left); DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

As he battled cancer, the now-30-year-old son of Chinese immigrants realized that was the wrong dream for him to chase, feeling his motives were selfish.

“I don’t care,” he said, “if my name is remembered. I want to make sure the photos I do take have some positive impact.”

He survived — and stuck with humanitarian photography.

Lo believes that humanitarian passion runs in the family. His grandfather worked for a big newspaper in Hong Kong, gathering donations and helping coordinate relief efforts in the aftermath of natural disasters. His father, also an amateur photographer, worked as a United Nations social worker on behalf of Vietnam War refugees. His family has been in the U.S. since 1983, and he was born in Illinois.

"The drive to help people has always been in my life," Lo said.

'Afghanistan is More than the War'

Lo's photos from Afghanistan, culled from several trips to the war-wracked country between 2006 and 2011, are featured at the Uptown library through Aug. 31.

He has captured everything from an Afghan optometry outreach program that travels from village to village giving free eye exams and fitting people for glasses to a school training teachers to educate disabled children to organizations working with the mentally and physically disabled.

Most news reporting about the war in Afghanistan, which marks its 13th year on Oct. 7, centers on death and instability. What's missing, as Lo sees it, is a focus on the hope and strength that perseveres, stoked by the efforts of Afghans and humanitarians working amid the devastation.

"Afghanistan is so much more than just the war,” Lo said. “The people that I met, they are some of the most resilient people I've ever seen.”

Though not a war survivor, resiliency is something Lo understands well. In August 2007 Lo was diagnosed with Chronic Eosenopillic Leukemia.

It’s a condition where an overabundance of mutated white blood cells attack muscles, organs and other body tissue, mistaking them for parasites. He survived a one-year bout with cancer. However, the illness left him with a partially collapsed left hipbone and the medicines he took wiped out his immune system.

Sitting in an Edgewater café recently, Lo, an unhurried speaker with a boyish face but serious eyes, reached out with one hand and grabbed his metal crutch from where it sat propped against a window.

A hint of contempt crept into his cheerful voice as he eyed the crutch.

“This is the lasting legacy,” he said, remembering his ordeal.

Life as a Humanitarian Photographer

Navigating bustling Kabul can be difficult on a crutch, making it hard to move fast if necessary, Lo said. In addition, taking pictures with one hand is an awkward hindrance to his work.

That's why when he travels on photo assignments, he leaves his crutch behind. A heavy dose of painkillers makes the pain of walking without the crutch “just bearable.”

There’s also the constant risk of violence to contend with. Lo has had close calls: suicide bombs going off within a quarter-mile of him, firefights breaking out but subsiding in places where he unknowingly showed up half an hour after the violence had ceased.

Lo, who grew up in Downers Grove and later graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago, has paid his way to Afghanistan four times, spending thousands of dollars.

Married with no children, his day job as a Chicago-based graphic designer funds his efforts. He photographs without pay more often than not, aside from food and lodging provided by his client organizations, which he couldn't name for security reasons.

Clients use his pictures in promotional materials to woo potential donors, or in annual reports to show donors the impact of their generosity.

"I think if my photos can help [my clients] raise more money, can help change someone's mind about Afghanistan, or even just get people off their butts to do something to help other people, I'm OK with not being known for anything else," Lo said.

Hard Stares and Happiness in Afghanistan

Lo's photos include an image of the first deaf university students in Afghan history training to be special education teachers.

Another shows a physical therapist teaching a baby with severe cerebral palsy to crawl. There's also a picture of a young girl taking an eye exam at an all-girls school, a thing that wouldn't have existed when the Taliban ruled the country more than a decade ago.

The image Lo said he's gotten the most acclaim for is of two brothers sitting outside their father's shop in Kabul.

One of the brothers is shown in the middle of a smile while the other stares directly into the lens with an intensity, Lo said, that "sends shivers down my spine."

"I encountered that quite a lot in Afghanistan, people giving really hard stares," he said.

For Lo, the picture is a raw reflection of both the pain and strength in the country — and a better-rounded view of Afghanistan than most media outlets portray.

Afghans "are some of the happiest people I've ever seen,” he said, “even though they live under the constant threat of violence."

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