Icons of Photography: James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey was born on March 14, 1948, in Syracuse, New York. As Robert Capa was to the middle of the 20th century, so Nachtwey was to its last decades. He is the central late 20th-century war photographer – outraged that, after the Holocaust and Vietnam, war is still, shockingly, an ever-present. He’s won the Robert Capa Gold Medal five times.

Like Capa, like Goya, he is powered by the urge to document. ‘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.’ That’s the opening statement on his website. His is not a world of ironies or doubts; it’s one of rage – an anger that has yet to be assuaged or diluted. Never will be, perhaps. Never can be, even.

He grew up in Massachusetts and went to Dartmouth, the small Ivy League college in New Hampshire, where he studied art history and political science. So far, so, very East Coast. Even, well, so preppy. Then, though, he was swept up and away by the radical tenor of the times. In particular, he was driven to action by the Vietnam war. Even more particularly, by the images of that conflict. As he has said, he and his generation were presented with a choice about what to think about the world. They could believe what they were told or they could attend to the evidence they saw in photographs. Nick Ut’s picture of a naked, running, napalmed Phan Thi Kim Phúc. Nam, the book by Tim Page – base for the Dennis Hopper character in Apocalypse Now. Don McCullin’s thousand-yard-stare of a grunt. Philip Jones Griffiths’s book, Vietnam, Inc.

Nachtwey decided to become a war photographer. Deliberately, he set about learning his trade. In 1976, he took a staff job on the Albuquerque Journal. By 1980, he was where he wanted to be: in New York, a freelance photojournalist, ready, willing and able to go to war. In 1981, he went to Northern Ireland, at the time of the IRA hunger strikes. Since then, there’s barely been a war or conflict he didn’t turn up for. You might even say: it’s not a war until Nachtwey’s there.

Rwanda. Chechnya. Bosnia. Famine in Sudan. Romanian orphanages. Kosovo. South Africa, where he – inevitably, really – became an associate member of the Bang-Bang Club, an informal grouping of local photographers. He was there the day in 1994 when two of the club’s four full members were shot and one, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed. He was there for the invasion of Iraq, where a grenade attack smashed up his foot. He kept photographing the medic who was treating the other people who had been injured in the attack – right up until he lost consciousness. By the end of the following year, he was up and off east, to cover the aftermath of the 2004 Asian tsunami.

There is rarely a name on a Nachtwey caption. His subjects are not people but ‘people’, representatives of human tragedy – and therefore of us all. Hence the echoic power of his images. There is nothing romantic about his wars. He doesn’t share other photographers’ admiration for front-line soldiers – as W Eugene Smith did so passionately and compassionately. Though he has said that, early on, he was interested in the mechanics of war, that can’t be found in his photographs which focus, focus, focus on war’s horrors.

Yet nor does he share the nagging doubts of a later generation of war photographers – Zed Nelson, for example. Nowhere in Nachtwey’s pictures – or captions – is there the worry that images of death and violence can actually prolong and deepen wars, that the relationship between aid-giving rates and images of hacked-off limbs is all too often a mutual one. Or that the aid given is all often siphoned off to buy the weapons to hack off limbs – and that a photographer with access to western papers and magazines is one of the unwitting turbo-chargers of that corrupt, deathly circle.

His 1999 book, Inferno, is nearly 500 pages long and weighs almost 5kg. Its cover is black, consciously funereal. There is a mania about it, showing us so many pictures. He forces us to keep our eyes wide open. Sometimes, he makes you feel like he’s a mad, demented person clawing away at you. Unable to exhaust himself, he set about exhausting us. The idea, I guess, is to go beyond desensitisation, to a place where we cannot not look. 

The book is prefaced with a quote from hell’s own poet-in-residence, Dante: ‘There sighs, lamentations and loud wailings resounded through the starless air, so that from the beginning it made me weep.’ Yet Nachtwey never retreats into despair or cynicism. He channels all those feelings – his and ours, too – into profoundly resonant photographs. Like most – perhaps all – war photographers, he’s a disappointed man forever placing himself in spots that will confirm his disappointment. 

And sometimes that spot will find him. He was in New York the day the Twin Towers were hit and fell. He lived nearby. ‘I heard a sound that was out of the ordinary. I went to the window and saw the tower burning. I made my way there through the smoke. It was virtually deserted, and it seemed like a movie set from a science fiction film. Very apocalyptic. Very strange ambiance of the sunlight filtering through the dust and the destroyed wreckage of the buildings lying in the street.’

I’ll pause him there. Because that’s where Nachtwey’s tragic genius lies: his capacity for aestheticising conflict and destruction. Or, at least, to find an aesthetic in them. All kinds of war photographers record, vividly, the destruction of war. The thing about Nachtwey, though, is that when all around is death and horror and confusion and blood and pain, he can make a formally composed, resonant image of it. Not glamorous but aesthetically saturated, generally with sorrow – the anguish of the Adagietto in Mahler’s Fifth Symphony.

Back to 9/11. ‘As I was photographing the destruction of the first tower, the second tower fell and I was standing right under it. I was underneath this avalanche of falling debris. I was in a state of disbelief. The scenes were very familiar. But now, it was literally in my own backyard. And I think that one thing that Americans are learning from this is that we are now part of the world in a way in which we never have been before.’

And so he goes, uncoloured by cynicism, seemingly inexhaustible. Afghanistan. Haiti earthquake. Victims of AIDS and drug-resistant TB. And so – despite Nachtwey’s angry, disappointed, great pictures – it goes, perhaps inexhaustibly.

© Peter Silverton 2021

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