Bearing Witness

When you open the homepage of photographer James Nachtwey’s website, you are confronted with a dark, grey screen, no photos, and this quote in stark, white letters:

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.

Running down the left side of the screen is a menu of political/social issues and locations that frame his body of work. Click onto any link, from Afghanistan, Aids, Bosnia, and famines, to Pakistan, Rwanda and 9-11. From this neutral field, you will be yanked into a world of the most disturbing and moving photographs you will ever see.

nachtwey, photo one
Rwanda, 1994 — Survivor of Hutu death camp.

Nachtwey has been documenting the depravations and horrors of civilization run amok since an early assignment took him to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1981 to cover the “troubles” between the IRA and the Ulster Loyalists. He became a contract photographer with Time magazine in 1984. After being a member of the famed photo agency Magnum for years, he became one of the founders of another photographic agency, VII, in 2001. It was while in NYC for a meeting that he bore witness on September 11, 2001 to a human tragedy in his own backyard. His apartment is very close to the World Trade Center and he was one of the first photographers to reach the scene. He narrowly avoided death when the south tower collapsed as he was taking close-in shots.

James Nachtwey is a winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal (five times), Magazine Photographer of the Year (seven times), and the ICP Infinity Award (three times).

There is so much to say about Nachtwey and his work, but it all pales alongside an examination of the  images themselves. It is this intensely personal encounter which I want to make the body of this piece.

In a video clip, Nachtwey, in a nighttime interlude in a dark room, reflects on the meaning of his work. An abrupt cut brings us to a violent confrontation between Palestinian youth and unseen IDF soldiers in the West Bank city of Ramallah. You will see the scene from the POV of his 35mm. camera. A lipstick video camera mounted on the camera body records the scene as he works. Every shutter click is like a gunshot answering the Israeli troops.

These scenes are from Christian Frei’s Academy Award nominated film War Photographer, which over a period of more than two years follows Nachtwey while on international assignments. Along with Frei, Swiss photographer Peter Indergard, SCS, is the principal cameraman, with Hanna Abu Saada shooting in Palestine.

A moving YouTube tribute begins by showing some of Nachtwey’s most well known images in an emotional montage—but at 3:30, it jumps you into a video sequence of the same Ramallah encounter. But now we see the photographer so close in that we fear for his life. He is, in fact, tear gassed alongside the dissident youths and we see Abu Saada's relentless video camera documenting Nachtwey's agony. The scene is also from War Photographer.

Over the years Nachtwey has seen far too much fighting; it is present even in the beginning of his career. But he can only be labeled a “war”photographer if you are to consider that his engagement with so many of the human hellholes on planet Earth is one’s man’s personal “war” against injustice. A broad range of his work, much of which deals with famine and poverty, can be seen at the site below. This is not work you can wander through, like flipping the pages of a magazine: link

To truly see how this quiet, even reclusive man, inserts himself into an unfolding event, you need to see an early sequence of War Photographer. A village in Kosovo is in flames. Nachtwey moves slowly through rubble, recording the detritus of a once furnished home. Later on, he encounters a grieving family, moves toward it, quietly, slowly. He works close in, with a wide enough lens so that he becomes one with the action, the silent witness.

If you get only one DVD this year, make it this one. It will warrant repeated viewings. I can think of no film about an artist “at work” that has such emotional charge and empathic insight to the human condition. Find it wherever you will, but here is one portal: link – War Photographer

To understand that Nachtwey is not just a great photojournalist but is an “engaged man” look at this clip, where his colleague, Des Wright, a Reuters cameraman, gives testimony to Nachtwey’s insertion of himself into a riot in Indonesia, to try to save a man’s life, a gesture normally anathema to the neutral photographer:

Some years before this event, Nachtwey was on assignment in the South African township of Thokoza during the closing violent months of the struggle against apartheid. A group of fellow photojournalists, Kevin Carter, Jaoa Silva, Greg Marinovich, and Ken Oosterbroek were daily putting their lives at risk. Other newsmen had dubbed them The Bang Bang Club. In 2000, Marinovich and Silva, the two surviving members, wrote a harrowing book about this time. link – The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

These are four tough, hard-boiled, adrenaline junkies, whose emotional distance in temperament and work could not be more removed from Nachtwey’s. In a total SNAFU confrontation, Marinovich is wounded, Oosterbroek is killed. Nachtwey rushed to help. In this video clip Hans-Hermann Clare, foreign editor of the German magazine Stern, describes Nachtwey’s action under fire:

The fourth member of the group, Kevin Carter, three months after the death of his closest friend, Ken Oosterbroek, committed suicide. He had only recently received the Pulitzer Prize.

It had seemed as if, almost in a world apart, that Jim Nachtwey had some personal writ of safe passage, that he was invulnerable. Were his signature freshly laundered shirts and creased jeans some mythic “Ghost Dance Shirt” that protected him from bullets? It was not a bullet that eventually got him on Dec. 10, 2003, but shrapnel from a tossed grenade, as he rode in an open Humvee through the nighttime streets of Baghdad’s ancient Al-Adhamiya quarter:

The New York Times article link

Nachtwey and Michael Weisskopf, a senior correspondent for Time magazine, were in the back of the vehicle when a shiny object landed on a wooden bench. Weisskopf thought it was a rock and reached to toss it out of the vehicle. When the grenade went off Weisskopf lost part of his arm; Nachtwey’s wounds were far less serious.

Weisskopf’s account of the incident and his rehabilitation among wounded soldiers became a feature article in Time magazine:

Time magazine article link

Nothing seems ever to slow Nachtwey down. He is almost constantly on assignment. Two of his friends and fraternity brothers from their student days at Dartmouth, Roy Carlson and Denis O’Neill, even have difficulty keeping tabs on him. I met Jim Nachtwey at the opening of a show of his work at an LA photo gallery. I met Denis, who is tagged Jim’s best friend in War Photographer, through Roy Carlson who was the screenwriter on a film I directed, China Moon. Though my relationship with Jim is through others, I instantly felt kinship upon meeting him. It is this immediate sense of empathy that he radiates that must be the cloak that protects him. You can see it here in a PSA announcement he made promoting the battle to defeat TB:

His quiet mannered demeanor is consistent with the way he does his work, his intrepid witness to chaos and death.

Here is a slideshow of his photos documenting the ravages of XDR-TB. It is strong stuff. Prepare yourself:

There are a number of books of Nachtwey’s work, but one of them is unlike any photography book you have ever seen. It is called Inferno or, by some reviewers, “The Black Slab.”

nachtwey photo three

A review by David Friend begins, “Last month a man left a tombstone on my doorstep.” He describes the world of suffering Inferno documents, its nine chapters echoing the descending circles in the first part of Dante’s great poem: link

In War Photographer, Denis O'Neill says of Jim's relentless drive to work, to bear witness in the world: "The possibility of a normal life, that's the main conflict. . . and what he's had to sacrifice to live the life that he leads.  . .  He has given everything to the job." And, Roy Carlson tells a story that is, even early on in their history, indicative of the intense focus of the man.

Shortly after they had graduated from Dartmouth, Roy was doing advanced studies at Boston University. He had a cramped apartment, heated only by a stove; but he had a great darkroom squirreled away there. Mornings, early, before Roy left for the day, Jim would come by to work in the darkroom. Late at night, when Roy returned, he was overpowered by the reek of chemicals. Jim was still at work, oblivious of the passage of time, oblivious of the rank, acrid, smells— no supervening chore, but doing the studied, unforgiving work that would soon be the documented witness to a most dangerous, even deadly, career.



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