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James Nachtwey

Pain has always been an inextricable part of human experience. Western art has featured suffering as one of the most central motifs throughout its entire documented history. Works of Francisco Goya or Pablo Picasso have entered our collective cultural consciousness and serve as a priceless historical testimony. Ever since the medium’s inception in the late 1830s, photography, in many ways an heir to painting, has devoted a substantial amount of attraction to violence and death (Sontag, 2003, p.21). Susan Sontag, an enormously influential essayist and political activist argues that witnessing world’s atrocities through photography has become a part of a ‘quintessential modern experience’ (Sontag, 2003, p.16).
Even with the very recent advancements in imaging technology, photojournalism seems to enjoy a privileged spot within the realm of visual media (Sontag, 2003, p.19). “Photographs furnish evidence,” asserts Sontag (Sontag, 1973, p.5). As a result, they are often the medium of choice when it comes to chronicling and documenting decisive historical moments. Robert Capa took us to the front line as the allied forces liberated Europe during World War 2, Dorothea Lange showed us how California looked like during the Great Depression, and Sebastiao Salgado, with his essay on the drought-stricken Sahel region, reminded us how powerful nature is. Even though history has seen dozens of great photojournalists, a handful of excellent ones, a single person stands out. Five times Robert Capa Gold Medal laureate, two World Press Photo of the Year Awards, seven times NPPA Magazine Photographer of the Year or two times International Center of Photography Infinity Award winner (www.jamesnachtwey.com, n.d.). James Nachtwey. Arguably one of the most influential and critically acclaimed photojournalist of our time (Chambers Harrap, 2011).
James Nachtwey was born in New York, raised in Massachusetts and received his education in New Hampshire. He attended Dartmouth College, where he studied a joint degree of political science and history of art (www.jamesnachtwey.com, n.d.). In an RPS magazine article, Nachtwey explained that his subject choice was not a carefully thought-out long-term plan, even though it may appear so in the retrospect. “These were really academic interests. It wasn’t then that I thought that I’d become a photographer or do anything with it. It was just that I loved it” (James, 2000). Late 60s and early 70s went down into history especially in relation to the peak of US miliatary involvement in Vietnam and the worldwide rising anti-war sentiment (Dunn, 2011). Nachtwey, a student at that time, explained that it was this time of social upheaval and questioning what awoke his ‘sense of idealism (Nachtwey, 2007). At the 2007 Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference in California, Nachtwey received the prestigious annual TED Prize, and in his acceptance speech, he spoke about what motivated him to become a documentary phtotographer. Being a student in the 60s, Nachtwey was influenced by the Civil Rights Movement, and the ‘public resistance fueled by the free flow of information represented by journalism, specifically visual journalism’ (Nachtwey, 2007). Perhaps for the first time in history, journalists became more than mere recorders. They were actual change-makers. “That was the tradition I wanted to follow” (Nachtwey, 2007).
Besides being dubbed one of the most influential photojournalists of the 20th century, Nachtwey is almost certainly one of the most controversial figures in photography. “Photographers go to the extreme edges of human experience to show people what’s going on,” Nachtwey said in his TED talk (Nachtwey, 2007). His devotion to chronicle some of the worst atrocities of our time has been applauded by numerous fellow photographers, journalists, or authors. Nonetheless, perhaps because of Nachtwey’s enormous influence, his work ethic soon came under an uncompromising scrutiny of critics. Richard Woodward, writing for the Village Voice, accused Nachtwey of being hypocritical about the reasons he does conflict photography. In the introduction to Nachtwey’s 1999 magnum opus called Inferno, the critic Luc Sante paraphrases the photographer that even though he first considered himself a war photographer, he is an anti-war photographer (Nachtwey&Sante, 2003). Woodward questions the plausibility of Nachtwey’s self-definition and asserts that while his remarkable talent and exceptional vision are indisputable, he “loves his work and how saintly it makes him feel. Like Sebastiao Salgado, he wants to carry the world’s agony on his shoulders and have us applaud his global compassion” (Woodward, 2000). In other words, one family’s tragedy is simply another piece of Nachtwey’s grandiose oeuvre. Allegations of ‘holding a gun to our heads’ (Woodward, 2000) or ‘functioning not in the service of some kind of truth, but in the service of his own ego’ (Koetzle, 2002), however, have been addressed quite explicitely by Nachtwey himself. “The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I’m benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It’s something I have to reckon with every day, because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition, I will have sold my soul” (War Photographer, 2001).
Numerous critics also raise the issue of beautification of suffering (Sischy, 1991). In an interview for Salon Magazine, Nachtwey shared his own standpoint on the relation between beauty and suffering: “I don’t think tragic situations are necessarily devoid of beauty” (Cruickshank, 2000). Challenging this standpoint, on the other hand, is a number of critics. Ingrid Sischy famously wrote: “To aestheticize tragedy is the fastest way to anaesthetize the feelings of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call for admiration, not to action” (Sischy, 1991). While Sischy’s argument appears to raise a legitimate and important concern, there is no consensus among critics over the ‘vanishing boundary between aesthetics and politics’ (Strauss, 2003, p.5). The critical argument of artistic excellence getting in the way of an accurate portrayal of human misery has haunted many other excellent photographers, including the aforementioned Sebastiao Salgado or Gilles Peress. Its problem, however, is that it ultimately makes any form of social documentary ‘indefensible’ (Strauss, 2003, p.8). Nachtwey, aware of this controversy, is very clear: “It’s a way in which images become accessible to people” (Cruickshank, 2000). And they do. They find elements of beauty in the midst of suffering and channel them to show emotions of strength and dignity. They show the humane in the inhumane.
But perhaps the single most controversial issue with photojournalism is its objectivity. Nachtwey, along with other leading photographers and critics, acknowledges that in photography, there’s no such thing. In the TED  Prize acceptance speech, he said he understands that documentary photography interprets events from their point of view (Nachtwey, 2007). This fact, however, does not undermine the basic purpose of social documentary. “It gives a voice to those who otherwise would not have a voice,” Nachtwey explains (Nachtwey, 2007). A photographer has to have a sense of purpose that transcends mere chronicling. He has to take sides. “I try to use whatever I know about photography to be of service to the people I’m photographing,” adds Nachtwey (Cruickshank, 2000). Because without that purpose, the photographer becomes nothing more than an intruder with a camera.
A very intimate glimpse into Nachtwey’s mind is the Christian Frei’s 2001 documentary called War Photographer. The Swiss director had set out to comprehend and interpret one of the most intricate artists of our time, and his Academy Award-nominated masterpiece reveals a frank portrait of a person witnessing the extreme limits of human existence. A man of brutal honesty portrayed brutally honest. The film opens with the famous Robert Capa quote: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” Words that epitomise Nachtwey and his work both in a literal sense, as well as figuratively. Noted for working with very short focal lengths, he acknowledges not being an outside observer, but a part of the scene – an approach rejected by many critics but insistently exerted by the american veteran. And becoming a part of the scene means, above all, establishing an emotional connection with his subjects. After a scene depicting Nachtwey spending long moments with a family in war-torn Bosnia, he commented: “These pictures could not have been made unless I was accepted by the people I’m photographing. It simply would not be done” (War Photographer, 2001).
Despite being one of the most renowned war photographers in the history, Nachtwey has only published three major books to date. But they are exquisite. Both in their content and their form, they mark the pinnacle of the amalgamation of fine art and journalism. One of them, however, stands out. Inferno. An antidote against social injustice, arbitrary violence and war. A guided tour of the worst atrocities and human tragedies of the recent decades. Inhumane conditions in Romanian orphanages, feeding centers in famine struck Somalia, devastated villages in Bosnia, and others. The contemporary nine circles of hell. The physical appearance of the book is nothing short of monumental. It is big, and heavy. Large, red INFERNO on the cover, a quotation from Dante’s eponymous masterpiece, a tender introduction by Luc Sante, and then the sorrowful journey through the harshest places on Earth. Everything together makes this book much more than a collection of artistically excellent pictures. Inferno is an experience. And it is also a paradox. It depicts some of the worst tragedies and horrors of the late 20th century. The images are graphic, they are brutal, they are terribly cruel. They drip with blood. But more importantly, they drip with humanity.
“The majority of the last 50 years of my life has been wasted. Photographing wars. What good have I done showing these pictures of suffering?” (Dunhill, 2013). Don McCullin, one of the world’s most celebrated photojournalists became a vocal objector to the notion of photographing wars. “I don’t want to be remembered as a war photographer. I hate that title,” adds McCullin. Being a witness to some of the most heinous atrocities history has ever seen inevitably takes a heavy toll. Nachtwey, in a sense McCullin’s heir, acknowledges the agony of a long-term exposure to human suffering (Hill, 2013). But he does reject the notion that chronicling it is futile. “Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me (War Photographer, 2001). When done right, photography is, I believe, absolutely unmatched as a tool for creating public awareness and collective conscience. James Nachtwey has done his job as the witness. And now we must do our part too. We must look at it, we must not forget, and we must not let it happen again.