Foundations of Photography I
May 12, 2009
Wrong Place, Right Time : A War Photographer’s Life
He is a self taught photographer who seems to always get the shot. He is a humanitarian and soldier of journalism. He is my choice for great living photographer and his name is James Nachtwey. I chose Nachtwey because, not only does his work continue to capture the attention of millions, it shares truth with those millions. This truth is that which cannot be expressed adequately in words. It is only great photographers who have the ability to share these truths, without fluff, because only a truly great picture can explain itself.
Born in 1948, James Nachtwey was raised in Massachusetts and became not only a great photographer, but a humanitarian as well. He graduated from Dartmouth College in 1970 with a degree in Art History and Political Science. It seemed that at this point in his life he knew he wanted to influence change.
According to his website, JamesNachtwey.com, “Images from the Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights movement had a powerful effect on him and were instrumental in his decision to become a photographer.” He “[taught] himself photography” while working as “an apprentice news film editor and a truck driver.”(Nachtwey)
Starting in 1976, Nachtwey’s start as a photographer was at a paper in New Mexico, but it wasn’t long before Nachtwey decided he had a need to expand his horizons. He then “moved to New York to begin a career as a freelance magazine photographer” in 1980. Nachtwey’s move to New York treated him well. He “immediately began to get work” and noticed that through photography, he could show “peoples’ authentic emotions.” (War Photographer) His goal was to be a war photographer from the start, focusing on conflicts and their effect on civilization. He now continues in the practice of expelling political lies, just as did the photographers in Vietnam, and “attempts to get the audience deeper into reality, to get them to be concerned with something bigger than themselves.” (War Photographer) Reflecting on the start of his career he says, in the 2001 documentary, War Photographer, “When I finally decided what to do with my life, I decided that’s what I’d do. I’d follow in that tradition.”
It was this humble beginning that started Nachtwey’s thriving thirty year (and still thriving) career in photojournalism. He began photographing on contract with TIME in 1984 and shoots for them to this day with a photo agency called “VII,” which he helped found in 2001. In War Photographer, a Christian Frei documentary on Nachtwey, Nachtwey explains that he used the lens to discover the world, as well as himself. “I had to develop a personal vision to express my own feelings,” he said. I believe this is why Nachtwey’s photography is so capturing. Work that is created when an artist is personally affected is the most meaningful, to both the audience and the artist.
Nachtwey has worked on many essays over the years in as many as twenty-five countries around the world, including: “El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, South Africa, Russia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Romania, Brazil and the United States.”
The hardest assignment Nachtwey has had to recover from was the genocide in Rwanda. He said, “They massacred thousands with very primitive weapons,” and that what he saw “was very difficult to get over.” He admits that, "Every minute I was there, I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this. Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of being there with a camera?" (War Photographer) Still, Nachtwey continues to seek out these stories saying that his photography “is a form of communication, as opposed to art, and provides a grim satisfaction,” because “over the years the real sense of purpose has become stronger.”(War Photographer)
Nachtwey’s humanity and his work’s ability to captivate an audience is what had earned him multiple awards such as: “the Common Wealth Award, Martin Luther King Award, Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award, Henry Luce Award, Robert Capa Gold Medal (five times), the World Press Photo Award (twice), Magazine Photographer of the Year (seven times), the International Center of Photography Infinity Award (three times), the Leica Award (twice), the Bayeaux Award for War Correspondents (twice), the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, the Canon Photo essayist Award and the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant in Humanistic Photography.”(Nachtwey) He has received “an Honorary Doctorate of Fine Arts from the Massachusetts College of Arts,” and also, “is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society.”
A statement which I felt was really telling of Nachtwey’s character and personal conviction is this: “Why be photograph war? Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed for through out history by means of photography the proportions of that notion seems ridiculously out of balance; yet, that very idea has motivated me. For me, the strength of photography lies within the ability to evoke human emotion. If war is the attempt to negate humanity then photography can be the opposite of war, and if used well can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote war. In a way, if and individual assumes the risk by placing himself in a war in order to communicate the rest of the world what’s happening he’s negotiating for peace.”(War Photographer)
I noticed while watching the documentary that Nachtwey moves slowly while documenting his subjects, shooting primarily film, he makes every frame count. I also noticed that he doesn’t shy away from getting in the middle of things while still he somehow manages to stay out of the way. His friend, a cameraman for Reuters named Des Wright, said, “When it becomes up close and personal, that’s Jim.”(War Photographer) Wright also told a story of an instance when he and Nachtwey were in Jakarta covering the student uprisings there in 1998. Nachtwey had called to alert him of a story in progress. He followed some men who were murdering an Amborgese man. They were killing for no other reason than race and Nachtwey got on his knees and begged them not to finish the deed. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t pay any mind to him but this only goes to show that Nachtwey is not just trying to get the photo; what he is doing is trying to promote peace with his photos.
While in the field, Nachtwey’s personal work ethic is to become personally involved with his subjects, if he can. He shares in the film that “in a war, the codes of civil behavior are suspended,” feeling as though he should justify his actions. He goes on to say that he keeps “open his heart” to the people he photographs, trying to understand their situation. He stays with them and moves slowly so they know his intentions are not to intrude, but to “give them a voice” by sharing their story with the world.
Nachtwey, again justifying his work, explains “the worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It’s something I have to reckon with everyday because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person’s predicament. The extent to which I do that is to the extent that I become accepted by the other, and to that extent I can accept myself.” (War Photographer)
Nachtwey, though this documentary, was able to clarify questions which have been swirling in my head for quite some time. I was never sure if conflict photographers had heart. I thought there would have to be a few who are compassionate and who struggle with epitomizing their subjects’ pain by making a career out of their misfortune. I have learned through my research on Nachtwey that there is humanity associated with photojournalism.
I am not sure if I could ever take pictures like Nachtwey; and, I am not sure I could control my emotions as he does. I am sure, though, that I would like to be able to inspire change, in one form or another.
"I have been a witness, and these pictures are
my testimony. The events I have recorded should
not be forgotten and must not be repeated."