February 6th, 2007
James Nachtwey : war photographer
It is said that as a war photographer, you either become cynical or holy. If there are indeed only these two ways of existing as a war photographer, James Nachtwey belongs to the holy. Nachtwey, a tall and elegant man, appears within the terror which he photographs as if he is surrounded by an aura of being untouchable. He has been everywhere where there have been wars and atrocities have been committed during the last decades: Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Kosovo, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and many other countries. But of course, he is not untouchable at all. Serveral times he has been severely injured or illnesses have torn him down. Nevertheless he continues working because of his strong belief that his pictures can make a difference. Nachtwey, convinced of the effect his pictures have on viewers, has never stopped hoping to fight war, hunger and poverty with his work.
What Nachtwey has seen can hardly be described. It is bare horror. And his pictures convey only a part of it, because a picture can not reproduce the sound of a machine gun and the stink of a rotting corpse. These pictures, though, are so strong and overwhelming that they burn into the mind of the beholder. And that is what Nachtwey wants. Nobody should forget the atrocities going on in the world every day, and everybody should — according to his abilities — do something about them: a sublime ideal and a powerful motivation.
James Nachtwey. Chechnya. 1996. Ruins in the center of Grozny.
More…In the “STERN” book “Pictures of war” the author Rainer Fabian writes: “Lost children of our era are all of those who photograph wars and only wars. At the frontlines they have lost their social living habits, their emotional culture, their intellectual home. They have gotten used to moving back and forth between the pocalypse and the Hilton, anywhere they had affairs and ruined their marriages. They hooked up on the ‘thrill’ and could not live without it anymore. One day they knew every taxidriver in Seoul or Saigon in Beirut or Bagdad and nobody at home anymore. But they had — and that’s what consoled them — experienced much more in one day than an average person in his whole life.”
Nachtwey had no average life, no marriage or family to lose, because from the day he decided to become a war photographer he dedicated his life to this task. He founded no family, raised no kids. He photographed. Maybe this is the reason why he didn´t become a cynic. Because he never lived the contradiction of portaying a little starving kid and a little later embracing his own healthy well-fed children. His life seems to be lead by a higher power, a continuing transformation from monk-like asceticism to fullfilling his mission. This way the most aesthetic war photographs of all times have been and are being made, and that’s what he is reproached for. Nachtwey’s pictures are truly beautiful: perfect light, wonderful composition, always very close: aesthetics of horror. In “The Village Voice”, Richard B. Woodward accuses the famous war photographer of fueling a hunger for ever more gruesome pictures, while enjoying his holy role. Furthermore, Woodward claims Nachtwey is lacking a true mission. Here comes the question: how should war be portrayed, or rather, should it be portrayed at all? What value would Nachtwey’s pictures have if they hadn’t been displayed in all their perfection in the big magazines? Would they ever have made their way there? Is a snapshot of the war a better picture when a photographer leaves aside the aesthetic aspect because of the horror he portrays? No, because these pictures would not come to light; they would be left unpublished because of minor quality. Due to their unbelievable perfection and expressiveness, Nachtwey’s pictures have gotten so far and reached such a wide audience. That’s Nachtwey’s mission, and that is why he works so relentlessly. It’ getting harder and harder for him to publish his work in glossy magazines, and therefore he shows his pictures in galleries and exhibitions as well. Who wants to set product advertisments beside mutilated war veterans? Nachtwey wants to access mass media, not elite art palaces, which are only his second choice. In the first instance, he takes these pictures to show them to as many people as possible.
James Nachtwey. West Dafur, Sudan. Mother and son.
Nobody knows who the private man is behind this work maniac or how he copes with the time in his New York loft in between assignments. The South African photo journalist and war photographer Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for a picture taken in Sudan. You see a vulture behind a crouching and starving child. Carter took the picture but didn’t help the child. He committed suicide. In his farewell letter he says: “I’m haunted by the memories of the murder, of the corpses, of the rage, of the pain …, of starving and wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen …The pain of life surmounts the joy to an extent that no joy exists anymore…”
James Nachtwey. Romania. 1990. An orphan in an institution for “incurables”.
How does Nachtwey feel when he develops a freshly shot pictures and the first prints are made? When he sees starving people creeping over dried-up land, people he stood before and pulled the trigger of his camera? It is indeed well-known that Nachtwey not only takes pictures but also offers his help when at all possible. Maybe that’s what saves him from collapsing.
Presumably, James Nachtwey will take photographs until he dies, and it’s not unlikely that he will perish during a dangerous assignment. The crux of war photography is: you cannot just stop it. Don McCullin, who was haunted by nightmares, finally decided in 1981 to quit and never return to a warzone. In 1982, he flew to Nicaracua and did a new job. Michael Herr once said, “Coming back home was always coming down. After something like that where could you get your thrill from, what could withstand, what come afterwards?”
What is still to come in the life of James Nachtwey? Nobody awaits him at home. And the war is never going to stop. And what if it did? Then his mission would be accomplished.
Translation by Katja Kirsche.
Proofread by Jennifer Franklin Elrod.
The shown interview is from the Oscar nominated movie “war photographer” from Christian Frei. Here can you buy this extraordinary movie.