It was the buzz of the night: James Nachtwey is no longer affiliated with VII and is currently managing with his professional affair through his own studio. VII Photo’s managing director Stephen Mayes tells BJP. Alain Mingam, his friend and “ancien compagnon de route” gave us this text. It’s just finish to write.
For the seventh consecutive year, America’s National Press Photograhers Association has awarded its Magazine Photographer of the Year prize to James Nachtwey. This comes as yet another tribute to the work of the man who is now considered the world’s greatest war photographer, or “anti-war photographer,” as Nachtwey always counters.
Since 1981 when he started working as a photographer in Northern Ireland, he has “covered” all the most important conflicts of the past two decades, the latest being in Israel-Palestine. His manner is extraordinarily calm, and yet this is a man who has consistently placed himself on the front line, to face every manner of weapon and every form of danger. From Grozny to Ramallah, Nachtwey is always driven by an unfailing professional concern that remains the core of his work: to preserve the dignity of the victims of forgotten wars or renewed conflicts.
In a world saturated with information, the viewer is numbed by pictures that come around in a repetitive loop, bombarding and overloading the senses. In the middle of all the chaos, Nachtwey’s images are arresting, a rampart against the abyss of oblivion. For the citizen of the world, the image of the Rwandan teenager’s face hacked apart by a machete will remain forever etched in memory, as will the widow’s dignified loneliness under her “burqa” in the deserted cemetery of Kabul.
Nachtwey sets out to bear witness, and consequently, he does all he can to position himself as the “spokesman of all victims”. He wants his images to “speak” for them, he wants his work to plead and howl so that their pain and distress can be heard all the way from Mostar, Jenin or Jesrusalem, so that the victims will not die another death, killed by the indifference of the media who forget or ignore their plight.
From the early days, Nachtwey’s mission was to “declare war on war,” and that has not changed.
On the ground, his attitude is beyond symbolic. Natchwey actually gets down on one knee, to be on the same level as the mothers and their children dying of hunger in Sudan, as the abandoned kids in some God-forsaken hell hole in Romania, the amputees left over from the barbaric ethnic conflict in former-Yugoslavia, or those the world forgot in Chechnya. Perhaps it is because they can sense he is on their level that these men and women can accept what might otherwise be seen as a grotesque violation of their privacy by a camera lens focussing up close on to their grief and suffering.
Nachtwey works slowly and takes the time to approach his subjects with sensitivity. This creates a sort of mutual respect which allows him to bridge the distance that would normally keep him one step removed from the subject. He is right there on the ground, on the earth soaked in the blood and tears of the nameless victims in the refuges camps of Bardera in Somalia or Goma in former Zaïre.
Through his lens Nachtwey lends us his vision so that with our own eyes we can capture what little these people have left. We can feel that last breath of life now being used to cry out to the world in hope for survival. We can see that final look pleading from those enormous eyes for a little justice in this world. Then perhaps tomorrow, as in the past, the image will carry its message from the page or the screen to penetrate deep into our comfortable lives and hit us straight in the heart.
“I hope that those who look at my photos can see through the suffering and recognise the dignity of human beings even if they have lost everything,” he says. A former member of Magnum and a founder of the photographic agency SEVEN (VII), since 1984 Nachtwey has been everywhere from Kosovo to Palestine and Afghanistan for TIME magazine.
He has never shown any sign of becoming jaded or immune to horror or tragedy, which would obviously erode the power of his testimony and perhaps expose him to accusations that he is exploiting the tragedy of other people’s lives for his own ends. He is in fact obsessed by this issue, and some even see him as deliberately cultivating a certain naivety in response to this. He remains irreproachable in his conduct, as well as in the rigorous way in which he frames his images down to the last millimetre. No matter what, if there is one thing Nachtwey cannot endure, it is the obscenity of death, were it of a single individual.
His real courage lies not only in the fact that he is willing to place himself in dangerous situations, it is also his deep ethical sense which drives to the real core of the event. Here is a man of profound conviction and clarity of purpose. These qualities are what gives his images the power to scream the truth.
Nachtwey is a fervent opponent of the telephoto lens. His visual acuity is outstanding and most of the time he works with a 35 mm lens. Effectively, his own body becomes the zoom, moving in closer and closer until he is “right in the middle” of the fighting, the shooting or killing in Kunduz or Jakarta.
Most would have fled the danger, probably through fear, and many might justify this, arguing that they are exercising a form of self-censorship. Nachtwey has never gone down that road. The American citizen that he is has always allowed the photographer in him to express himself. He will not stop himself from taking a photograph no matter how disturbing it might be or damaging to the hegemony of his own camp. In this respect, he is the real heir of a long tradition of freedom of thought and indeed, freedom to take images. This is a tradition that can be traced back to one of his forebears, Matthew Brady, whose work in 1862 during the American civil war “brought home the terrible gravity and reality of war.”
Nachtwey hates war with a passion, and he hates the way war is often portrayed, in full colour, like the historical paintings that glorify famous battle scenes. This is the essential reason why he prefers to work in black and white. He is nonetheless considered one of the great masters of colour photography, as his stinging photos taken at Ground Zero confirm.
Nachtwey is not merely a creator of images. He tries to be fair in the way he portrays what he sees. His photos are powerful because they are composed with great rigour and originality, making it impossible for anyone to distort their meaning. Nor can it be said that they are contrived to incite compassion.
We live in a world in which extreme vigilance is justified by the evidence of how easily information is manipulated and twisted: the Gulf war being one of the most flagrant examples, if one was needed. Nachtwey may well be intransigent, but he is sincere in his approach and almost fanatical about ensuring respect for his images and how they are presented, both in terms of composition and caption. His concern is legitimate: the photos must leave no room for re-interpretation or compromise. There is no way in which can they be used or abused by governments, puppet media or propaganda machines.
This is a man, who in his own words had to “convince himself that it was the right thing to do to become a war photographer, before convincing the world”. He has managed to keep the faith after all these years and continues to believe that his passion is justified, and that he is indeed a privileged witness. He follows in the footsteps of the likes of William Eugene Smith, Robert Capa and Larry Burrows whose work has been so important in showing him the enormous gap between reality and what politicians would have us believe. Nachtwey wishes to be worthy of continuing the task they began with their fight against the unbearable. It would not be inappropriate for him to place himself under the banner raised by David Douglas Duncan to shake up American public opinion in his last book on the Vietnam war: “This is war. I protest.”
“We have art so that we do not have to die of truth, “ said Nietzsche. We have the photos of James Nachtwey so that we do not die the slow death of indifference. Let the eye bear witness, let the heart be a witness to cry out in solidarity against oblivion. An antidote to all wars.
Pingyao 20th September 2002-10-03
World Press Photo Contest President of The Jury 1996.
World Press award for “Afghanistan / execution of a treator1982”