Friday, February 16, 2007

Interview With War Photographer James Nachtwey

Vlog, Videoblog: James Nachtwey : War photographer

February 6th, 2007


Interview: James Nachtwey (Quicktime-Video)

James Nachtwey : war photographer

It is said as a war photographer you either become cynical or holy. If there are indeed only these two ways of existing as a war photographer James Nachtwey belongs to the holy. Nachtwey, a tall and elegant man appears within the terror which he photographs as he was surrounded by an aura of being untouchable. He was everywhere where there had been wars and committed atrocities during the last decades: Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Ruanda, Chechnia, Kosovo, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Libanon, Israel, Irak and in many other countries. And of course he is not untouchable at all. Serverall times he had been severely injured, illnesses tore him down. Nevertheless he continues working because of the strong belief to change something with his pictures. Nachtwey is convinced of the effect his pictures have and never has stopped hoping to fight war, hunger and poverty this way.

What Nachtwey has seen can hardly be described. It is bare horror.
And his pictures show only a part of it because a picture can not reproduce the sound of a machine-gun and the stink of a rotting corpse. These pictures though are so strong and overwhelming that they burn into the mind of the beholder. And that is what Nachtwey wants. Nobody should forget what atrocities are going on in the world day by day and everybody should - according to his abilities – do something against it: sublime ideal and a powerful motivation.


James Nachtwey. Chechnya. 1996. Ruins in the center of Grozny.

In the „STERN“ book „Pictures of war“ the author Rainer Fabian writes: „Lost children of our era are all of those who photograph wars and only wars. At the frontlines they have lost their social living habits, their emotional culture, their intellectual home. They got used to move back and forth between apocalypse and the Hilton, anywhere they had affairs and ruined their marriages. They hooked up on the „thrill“ and could not live without it anymore. One day they knew every taxidriver in Seoul or Saigon in Beirut or Bagdad and nobody at home anymore. But they had - an thats what consoled them – experienced much more in one day than an average person in its whole life.

Nachtwey had no average life, no marriage or family to lose because from the day he decided to become a war photographer he dedicaded his life to this task. He founded no family, raised no kids. He photographed. Maybe this is the reason why he didn´t become a cynical. Because he never lived the contradiction of portaying a little starving kid and a little later embracing his own healthy well-fed children. His life seems to be lead by a higher power, a continuing transformation from monk like asceticism to fullfilling his mission. This way the most asthetic war photographs of all times have been and are being made and thats what he is reproached for. Nachtwey´s pictures are truly beautiful: perfect light, wonderful composition, always very close: aesthetics of horror. In „The Village Voice“ Richard B. Woodward accuses the famous war photographer of fueling the hunger for pictures getting more and more gruesome and enjoying his holy role. Furthermore Woodward claims Nachtwey is lacking a true mission. Here comes the question: how should war be portrayed or rather should it be portrayed at all? What value would Nachtwey´s pictures have if they hadn´t been shown in their perfection in the big magazines? Would they ever have made their way there? Is a snapshot of the war a better picture when the photographer leaves aside the aestitical aspect because of the horror he portrays? No, because these pictures would not come to light, they would be left unpublished because of minor quality. For their unbelievable perfection and expressiveness Nachtweys pictures have got so far and reached such a wide audience. Thats Nachtwey´s mission, that is why he works so restlessly. Its getting harder and harder for him to publish in glossy magazines and therefore he shows his pictures in galleries and exhibitions as well. Who wants to set product advertisments beside mutilated war veterans? Nachtwey wants to access mass media not elite art palaces which are only his second choice. In the first place he takes these pictures to show them to as many people as possible.


James Nachtwey. West Dafur, Sudan. Mother and son.

Nobody knows who is the private man behind this work maniac, how does he cope with the time in his New York loft in between two assignments. The south african photo journalist and war photographer Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Price in 1994 for a picture taken in Sudan. You see a vulture behind a crouching and starving child. Carter took the picture but didn´t help the child. He committed suicide. In an extract of his farewell letter he says: „I´m hunted by the memories of the murder, of the corpses, of the rage, of the pain …, of starving and wounded children, of trigger-happy madman …The pain of life surmounts the joy to an extend that no joy exists anymore…“


James Nachtwey. Romania. 1990. An orphan in an institution for “incurables”.

How does Nachtwey feel when he develops the freshly shot pictures and the first prints are made? When he sees starving people creeping over dried up land whom he stood before and pulled the trigger of his camera? It is indeed well known that Nachtwey not only takes pictures but also has offered his help when it was somehow possible. Maybe thats´ what saves him from collapsing.
Presumably James Nachtwey photographs until he dies and it´s not unlikely that he will perish during a dangerous assignment. The crux of war photography is: you cannot just stop it. Don McCullin who was haunted by nightmares decided in 1981 to finally quit and never come back to a warzone. In 1982 he flew to Nicaracua did a new job. Michael Herr once said: „Coming back home was always coming down. After something like that where could you get your thrill from, what could withstand, what come afterwards?“
What is still going to come in the life of James Nachtwey? Nobody awaits him at home. And the war is never going to stop. And what if? Then his mission would be complished.

Daniela Krien

Translation by Katja Kirsche.

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