By Jain Lemos for The Picture Professional magazine
In trying to decipher what it is that makes someone like James Nachtwey tick—what makes him compelled to move in when others move away—the answers are as compelx as the images he makes and the tragic events that he covers. “I don’t know how to explain it, but photography chose me,” he insists in the book by Peter Howe, Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer.
Nachtwey, one of the world’s most honored war photographers, emanates a kind of quiet, humble grace for his tall and imposing frame. These aspects of his personality are reflective of his artistic style; his images are incomparable and contemplating the man behind the lens is an intriguing assignment on its own. As Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s chief international correspondent, puts it, “He is a mystery.” Indeed, it is a challenge to comprehend exactly how Nachtwey finds the inner strength to take the riveting photographs he does, but his contribution to our collective awareness cannot be ignored.
Nachtwey is one of those gifted and rare people who do not seem to be aware of their affect on others in a self-conscious or egotistical manner. This must be why in tough war situations, he can get the kind of unprecedented access that he does. He finds the places no one else either can get to or wants to get to. The result is a mass of images of the most impossible magnitude.
Raised in Massachusetts, he studied Art History and Political Science at Dartmouth College. In the late 1960s, photographs from the Vietnam War had a powerful effect on him. Coupled with the unrest in America and the civil rights movement of that era, Nachtwey made a decision to become a photographer, teaching himself the craft while in the Merchant Marines. Never looking back, he has dedicated his life to documenting wars, poverty and social issues. His associations with the renowned Black Star, Magnum and VII photo agencies, plus a contract position for Time since 1984, are the rewards.
In the 2001 documentary film War Photographer, Nachtwey adamantly calls himself an “antiwar photographer.” At the 2004 PhotoPlus Expo in New York during a presentation of his images at a session featuring a panel of photojournalists, it was apparent that he was struggling to put a lifetime of unbelievably harrowing experiences into some sort of cohesive wrapping. In his introduction he revealed, “On September 11, 2001, my thoughts crystallized. For twenty-one years I have been photographing stories involving Muslim conflicts and I thought they were individual, separate stories about the people in those locations. But after this tragedy, I realized what I had been photographing all these years was actually part of a larger story.”
When Nachtwey began speaking that afternoon, the audience couldn’t hear him clearly. He was too far away from the microphone and clearly unaware of it until someone shouted, “We can’t hear you, Jim!” As he moved closer to the microphone, session moderator Peter Howe, former director of photography for Life, joked, “If you aren’t loud enough, you aren’t close enough.” This drew a chuckle from those familiar with celebrated war photographer Robert Capa’s famous line, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Once Nachtwey began his slide show one thing was certain: He gets close enough.
His remarkable photographs have received numerous awards and countless recognition. A few nights before his presentation at the Expo he received a Lucie Award for Outstanding Achievement in Photojournalism. Sports Illustrated director of photography Steve Fine, who was presenting the Sports Photography Award to Walter Iooss, quipped, “I just saw Jim Nachtwey backstage and he said he’d rather be shot at than be here tonight.” But Nachtwey stuck out the uncomfortable-ness of the black-tie event that evening and went on to present the Visionary Award to Cornell Capa, founder of the International Center of Photography. The prestigious New York gallery has exhibited Nachtwey’s work on many occasions to facilitate social awareness.
Although he shies from taking the spotlight, Nachtwey’s work is notable enough that, like it or not, he continues to be acknowledged for the risks he has taken to tell the stories that need telling. “Photography can be perceived as the opposite of war,” justifies Nachtwey, who admittedly struggles with making a living off other people’s suffering. His work has taken him to the hotspots of our planet including Bosnia, Chechnya, Korea, Afghanistan, Rwanda, Kosovo and Korea. “But it takes a toll. You carry a weight, you carry a sadness, you carry anger and guilt. And it doesn’t go away; if you have a conscious, you carry it with you, always,” Nachtwey explains to Howe.
When viewing the gripping images Nachtwey puts forth, it’s hard to look away and we sense his sadness reflecting back. Even though his photographs are agonizing to contemplate we are compelled to confront some unbearable facts. Unlike watching the sanitized and over-produced war coverage on television, his frozen moments are hauntingly beautiful and powerful enough to propel positive changes and a new awareness about the consequences of war and conflict.
His 1996 photograph “Ruins of Kabul” is a fitting example of Nachtwey’s single subject style. The woman is clearly affected by her surroundings. Nonetheless, she proceeds to navigate life and survival in a war-torn nation. Although there is discrimination against her gender, Nachtwey captures her with a grace and Madonna-like presence as she floats among the ruins of war. The bright white of her confining burka appears translucent, so that the intention of her concealing garb actually reveals a side of the very womanhood and femininity that she is supposed to hide. Nachtwey witnesses a simple act, but brings a sense of desperation among a people who have seen horrors most of us can’t imagine. He found the gear to document horrific reality and kick it into stunning imagery.
Another photograph of note from that year’s coverage is “Playing Buzkashi.” Here, Nachtwey’s image of a group of Afghan horseback riders has a strange, arresting quality that few photographers master. He brings visual order to an otherwise chaotic setting. There is tremendous energy in this photograph, all stopped in a moment of visual clarity. Unlike the slow and tentative mood of “Ruins,” this image draws the viewer to the center of the action and the eye bounces. Both images evoke that unmistakable gasping pause present in Nachtwey’s portfolio.
Perhaps what distinguishes Nachtwey from other photojournalists is the degree to which he is concerned with his subjects more than his worry over how his images might be received. He makes photographs as an advocacy for people and their causes. According to Hans-Hermann Klare, Foreign Editor of Germany’s Stern magazine, “Jim is a remarkably un-cynical person.” Klare then adds this observation, “He has his own library of suffering in his head.”
Thankfully, he uses the power of photography as his medium for dispelling some of that agony.