“To turn our backs is a form of acceptance.”
James Nachtwey defies all preconceived notions one might have of a war photographer. When we meet in Paris, I find myself sitting opposite a calm, composed and slightly reserved man who at the same time seems to radiate curiosity, enthusiasm and warmth that is as striking as it is unexpected. He speaks slowly with a reassuring, rolling bass, carefully weighing his words and frequently taking long pauses to think. If anything, it is the quiet intensity of his concentration and his alert presence that indicate what Nachtwey has dedicated his life to: to document the wars and catastrophes of our times.
While seeking to reach as many people as possible with his photographs, Nachtwey himself does not like to be the center of attention. Preferring to let the images speak for themselves, he rarely takes the time to talk about his work, let alone his experiences of war. And yet he is one of the most prominent contemporary photojournalists, published in the most prestigious magazines and newspapers, awarded countless times for his work.
There are many contradictions to Nachtwey and his work that are difficult to grasp. After all, for more than 30 years Nachtwey has been photographing the suffering and calamities that we humans have inflicted on each other, in images that are neither easy to look at nor easy to forget – and yet he appears, unlike many of his colleagues, unscathed by what he has seen and experienced. Not untouched, but without bitterness, at peace.
Nachtwey’s body of work could also be read as a trajectory of global conflict – from the troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s to the revolutions in South and Central America, from the collapse of Communism to the famines of Africa in the 1990s, again and again the spiraling conflict between the Muslim and the Western worlds, from Israel to 9/11 to the war in Iraq.
James Nachtwey has often described himself a witness, but also as someone who has been trying to disappear. It is the paradoxical challenge at the heart of photojournalism: how to observe and yet engage, to be fully present and remote at the same time, to take us closer but also stand a step back. And, indeed, Nachtwey’s images are so immediate that it is sometimes inconceivable that he was actually there. It feels like we are looking at life itself rather than a picture of it. Like we are hearing the voices of people who cannot make themselves heard.
His photographs depict scenes of war, but they rarely show the activity of war, the fighting. Instead, they describe the damage of violence: the loss and the scars. They are overtly political, but on a human and thus universal scale. They don’t deny complexity, but translate it into a language that we can all understand. His images show destruction and suffering, and yet they mysteriously distill a sense of hope and beauty. They speak with an urgency and integrity that are as compelling as they are demanding: By exposing us to our weakest and darkest impulses, they tell us that we can do better. By forcing us to confront our failures, they hold us to our beliefs and morality. They acknowledge, but they don’t accept.
James Nachtwey has devoted his life to a cause rather than a profession, driven by the sheer momentum of conviction and compassion. And maybe it is this clear sense of purpose and his unwavering belief in the power of images that keep him going ever forward where most of us would naturally retreat, that force him to address what we would prefer to ignore.
There is no doubt that Nachtwey’s images are a challenge – to the powers that be by proposing an unflinching look at the reality on the ground, at the effects of politics on human lives, but also to us as their audience, by questioning our implication and, quite simply, by opening our eyes to the world.