James Nachtwey is not a household name but many of his photographs are
easily recognizable and make him rank as one of the leading photographers of our time.
Nachtwey is a photojournalist and war photographer. He
has covered events such as the Rwandan genocide attempt by the hutu tribe; the poverty that exists in
Indonesia; the battle between the Israeli soldiers and Palestinians; famine in Sudan; and the war in Kosovo. His images
are incredibly powerful and have won him many awards in the 20 years or so in which he
has been working tirelessly in this field.
In war the first thing to suffer is the truth. James Nachtwey's mission in life is to see that
does not happen, and he is willing to put his life on the line every single day if necessary
to ensure that the truth be known to the world. This comes across in his work which has a
power of its own because of the extraordinary courage he possesses.
"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."
To get an idea of the power of Nachtwey's work check out the video below before reading
on. It is a series of his photographs set to Pink Floyd's Goodbye Blue Sky. Best watched full
screen by pressing the icon in the bottom right of the frame.
Although Nachtwey seems to be shy and reserved and looks as if he belongs behind a
desk or in front of a classroom full of students, he is a self-possessed man whose ability
to deal with fear in the face of unspeakable horror, has allowed him to take intimate
portraits and pictures of the suffering of the world's people at a minimal distance
which most war photographers would find uncomfortable if not downright scarey.
Because of his close proximity to the centre of the action Nachtwey has been injured
on several occasions, including one incident in Iraq where a grenade was thrown into the vehicle in which
he was travelling. Nachtwey was hit with shrapnel in the arms and legs and in the stomach
where his armored vest ended. His companion, senior correspondent Michael Weisskopf, threw
the grenade out of the vehicle but it exploded as he did so and Weisskopf lost his right
Many people are cynical about the press and photographers in particular but don't realise just how
often they lay their lives on the line in order to bear witness to the events of the
world, and to bring back the images which we consume through magazines or on the television set. But it
is important to realise that photojournalists like Nachtwey act as the voice of people
who may have no voice otherwise. The photographs he makes bear testimony to the suffering and horror which
Nachtwey believes must be seen, must be witnessed so that we may put an end to the atrocities and
stop the barbarities from recurring.
Young war photographers often die during their first visit to a battle-torn zone as they
lack the experience and intuition needed to just stay alive. If they survive their first
battles they can go on for years but then the danger lies in thinking that they have somehow
Nachtwey has been around a fair while now and is perhaps beginning to sink into that bullet-proof mentally.
Not only that, he is no longer a young man, he is in his early 60s, and perhaps should be thinking of
retiring. But on September 11th 2001, as fate would have it, he was very near to the two towers
of the World Trade Centre.
Nachtwey made his way to the area where the first tower had fallen and as he was
photographing it the second tower began to collapse. Fortunately for him, it collapsed away from
where he was standing but he still found himself beneath a torrential downfall of debris and
was lucky to escape by diving into the escalator of a nearby hotel lobby.
It is said that journalism reinvented itself as Nachtwey's pictures on www.time.com had
over two million page views on the first day. During the following days, news sites became
more popular than pornography sites!
This supports Nachtwey's belief in the power of the still image, a power that other
forms of communication do not possess. And as a photographer, he has established credibility
with the press and feels a big responsibility to continue with his work.
"As far as I can see right now I am still healthy, I understand the value in it and I think I still
have a place. Having a place is a privilege and a responsibility that I cannot turn
my back on. I have to continue." For Nachtwey, hanging up his camera bag for the last time would seem
to be a way off yet.
If you are interested in war photography as a genre,
follow the link to read my article which looks at the Vietnam War and Iraq in particular, and how
photographs of a war-torn country can change our perceptions. There are also articles on photojournalism
and one on documentary photography which you might
find of interest.