James Nachtwey’s “Aftershock”

This is a photo of the bare exhibition space of a most unusual gallery.

401 Projects' bare space.

The name of the gallery is also its address on Manhattan’s West Street, a long walk and a world away from the glitz and glam of Chelsea’s affluent exhibition spaces. 401 Projects stands alone as an art space in a busy commercial area fronting the rushing traffic just outside its door, a stone’s throw from the Hudson River. If the gallery had Chelsea type storefront windows it could claim the quintessential “riv vu” moniker. 401 Projects was founded in April 2006 by photographer Mark Seliger as a non-commercial exhibition space for emerging as well as established artists. Famed VII photojournalist, James Nachtwey, has exhibited at the gallery several times. A few years ago his subject in this space was the operating theater of an Iraq War triage and trauma hospital. Titled simply Sacrifice, the now completed 60 image photo essay dominates an angled gallery wall at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, a continuous scroll-like mural, the emotional coda of the Getty's current exhibition, Engaged Observers. I will be doing a piece on this historic exhibition very soon.

Even if you know Nachtwey’s work from his museum exhibitions or from tony galleries, or from his Time magazine photo-essays, a visit to his website and to the essay I wrote about him last October may give you added insight to his fervid, intense commitment to humanely documenting world events, often in the most desolate and troubled places. The essay has links to scenes from Christian Frei’s Academy Award nominated documentary, War Photographer.

John’s Bailiwick: “Bearing Witness” blog entry link

When you enter 401 Projects to view his latest solo exhibition, you pass along the length of a narrow hallway. It is almost impossible to back far enough away from the walls to get a full view of the photographs hanging there, Nachtwey’s photo-essay on the devastation of this year’s Haitian earthquake, titled “Aftershock.” The hallway is moody, lit usually only by light streaming in through the frosted glass front door. This is what it looks like—Nachtwey’s photographs from the Haiti earthquake here lining the wall on the right.

The West Street entrance hallway.

And here is a view of the sky lit main room of the exhibition. The photos are not artfully framed as in a traditional gallery, but simply push-pinned through the print into the wall. The harsh skylight beats down on the slightly curled paper like the relentless Haitian sun. These are not meant to be collectible prints, but documents, a solemn record of the ongoing tragedy that has befallen the Haitian people, as witnessed by this most compassionate of photojournalists. The exhibition is held in conjunction with several Haitian relief efforts.

Here is a view of the main gallery.

The main room with "Aftershock" installation.

401 Project’s rough brick walls and unforgiving light, as well as the erratic blood-like red lines spiking out above and below the photographs, represent a Richter scale like record of the quake’s seismic trail. An industrial font wall stencil introduces the exhibition.

Everything here is displayed in a way that removes you as far as possible from the normal photo gallery environment. The effect is as if you were in an impromptu space thrown up a short time after the quake itself. To return to the dim entry hallway after your eyes have adjusted to the bright sun streaming through the skylight—is to encounter an inferno of images of dead bodies just piled up across the street on the sidewalk. Nachtwey says that within an hour of his getting off the plane, and still orienting himself to the surreal landscape, this is what he saw.

Instead of moving ahead to continue his work deeper in the city, he stayed on this single street for some time, recording the way passing Haitians reacted to the sight of the dead, left like so much refuse to be picked up who knows when. To pass along the length of this dim wall, seeing the corpses across the street from the perspective of passing Haitians in the foreground, is a deeply immersive meditation on the vagaries of survival. This sense of immediacy rather than that of removed observation is the measure of Nachtwey’s way of making us witness to the most painful of events. If you link to the earlier essay cited above, you will see in scenes from Christian Frei's film, War Photographer, how Nachtwey bears witness.

Here is a closer photo of a wall of the main gallery room with the red seismic record:

Stenciled in smaller print on the wall between the hallway and the main room is Nachtwey’s own statement for the exhibition. To read it is to discover an artist whose sensitivity to the power of words is equal to that of his photographs.

There is nothing more I can write in the rest of this essay that will serve the work, nothing more than letting Nachtwey’s own words on the wall statement in the photo above,  and now placed between the photographs below, speak to you:

To witness the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti is to be lost inside a waking nightmare, the markers on this mapless journey, swarms of looters, children with chopped-off limbs, cities fabricated of sticks and bed sheets, pulverized cathedrals, dogs circling the dead in the streets.

Most Haitians have always lived in a society clinging to a narrow ledge on a precipice above the abyss—on the plateau over them, the rich, unseen in their black-windowed Land Cruisers. Higher still, as if levitating in air, the immaculate, blinding white Presidential Palace, the secret desire of all despots, now crushed by the weight of its own three Baroque domes. Where the ledge crumbled the dead cascaded into oblivion. Where it held, people huddled closer, those with next-to-nothing now with even less. They continue to endure their own history—a crescendo of privation and hardship, matched by strength, pride and dignity born in the conquest of slavery, nurtured by poverty, struggle and faith.

The earth shrugged, Haiti collapsed and the world responded, "compassion fatigue" unveiled as the straw man of cynics and ad salesmen. Epic catastrophe was met by epic generosity, without benefit of untapped oil reserves or geopolitical gain. The UN is here in force, but the real united nations are the small NGO's from every corner of the planet who just showed up, flying by the seat of their pants. String their acronyms side by side, and they'd go halfway around the equator. Recite them, and you'd be speaking in tongues.

The Haitians themselves are not just sitting back with their hands out. They're doing a lot of the heavy lifting; so humble in its nature it seems invisible. Massive, international relief supplies are transported by cargo ships, helicopters and C-130's. Haitians carry what they need on their heads. They dig survivors out of the wreckage by hand, not with big yellow machines. Everyone is doing what he can by whatever means available.

As a photojournalist involved in documenting the history of the past 30 years, much of my work has focused on wars, conflicts and social injustice. It's been fueled by anger, driven by the belief that if people are informed they will be inspired by compassion, and will share a sense of outrage at violence, aggression and the unacceptable deprivation of fundamental human rights. Those issues are all man made, and anger can jump start the process of change. An earthquake is an act of nature. Tens of thousands die in a few minutes. Who is to blame? Regime change is not an option. How can anger be directed at the earth itself? Compassion is the ultimate motivation in a natural catastrophe. The challenge is to maintain it for the long haul, not allow it to die with the headlines.

Haitians have forged history with a capital H. Slaves rose up to vanquish the armies of Europe's mightiest empire. An earthquake reveals the power within the earth itself. But the spirit of the Haitian people is also a force of nature. Virtually all the symbols of political power in a country synonymous with corruption have been erased. What will the people of Haiti write on the blank page of a new chapter of their history?

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