The Common Good
February 2004

Windows into War

by Ryan Beiler | February 2004

The quiet outrage of James Nachtwey's photography.

On my first international assignment for Sojourners, I joined a medical team bound for war-torn Sudan, determined to photograph the worst humanitarian catastrophe in the world. The experience was humiliating. Unable to enter Sudan because of red tape and denied flight clearances, I was stuck in a forgotten corner of northwest Uganda, my ambition to be a war photographer stymied. I was still able to tell an important story of an impoverished and suffering people there in Uganda, but I missed the "big" story. I struggled with the question: Am I only motivated by the mystique, the bravado, and the rush of going where most fear to tread? Or am I a journalist because I care about people—regardless of how high the profile of their predicament?

I was drawn to Christian Frei’s documentary film War Photographer because I wanted to see James Nachtwey, the film’s subject and one of the world’s foremost living war photographers, in action. For nearly 30 years, Nachtwey—the recipient of every major photography award—has dedicated himself to covering the suffering and violence of war. Frei followed Nachtwey for two years. The result is a powerful look at how this shy, unassuming man views the world—literally. A tiny video lens mounted on the top of Nachtwey’s still camera allows us to see everything that he sees.

Images of the Vietnam War propelled a young Nachtwey to war photography—images that he felt told the truth about the conflict and subverted government distortions. And though drawn by war’s adventure and excitement, his motivation soon shifted to the people he photographed and his desire to help them tell their own story.

Hardly a swooping, voyeuristic vulture, the film shows Nachtwey approach his subjects in a delicate dance—following their lead. With gentle grace, he navigates the anguish of grieving mothers, the daily routine of an Indonesian amputee, and the tension I feel almost constantly while photographing: How can I balance the good that may result from others seeing these photographs with the potential discomfort, invasion of privacy, and irritation caused by the camera’s presence?

"I don’t like to move too fast, I don’t like to speak too loudly," he says. "I want to feel open in my own heart towards them and I want them to be aware of that. And people sense it with my few words, sometimes with no words at all.

"The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer, I’m benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me," Nachtwey says later in the film. "I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition, I will have sold my soul."

THE FILM’S SCENES flip from a photo in a New York gallery back to the moment it was taken in an Indonesian slum, from a scene of rubble in a Kosovar village to its detached discussion by editors in a German magazine office. Not only does the documentary’s approach allow insight into the "decisive moment" when Nachtwey chooses—or chooses not—to release the shutter, but it also preserves in starkest terms the tension felt by journalists who must travel between worlds of comfort and suffering, privilege and poverty.

"These photographs could not have been made unless I was accepted by the people I was photographing," says Nachtwey. "They understand that a stranger who’s come there with a camera to show the rest of the world what is happening to them gives them a voice in the outside world they otherwise wouldn’t have."

This solidarity is vividly expressed in scenes where Nachtwey chokes on sulfur fumes, wades through garbage, endures the stench of cadavers, and is overcome by tear gas. Separated from his subjects by language, culture, and class, Nachtwey breathes the same noxious air as they do, and he gains credibility not simply by being present in places of suffering, but by his willingness to suffer himself.

Colleague and Reuters cameraman Des Wright contrasts Nachtwey’s sensitivity with the approach common to many war photographers. "A lot of people would be quite happy for [someone] to be killed so they can get their particular picture," Wright says. This attitude takes its toll on journalists themselves—many of them self-medicating cynics who wallow in the horror they’ve witnessed. An example the film does not mention is Kevin Carter, the South African photographer of the now-infamous photo of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese child. Though he chased the bird away after the shot, he was wracked with guilt for not carrying the child to aid, and he committed suicide two months after the photo won a Pulitzer.

Says Wright, "I know a lot of people who do not help—they say, ‘I’m sorry, I’m a journalist. I’m not part of this.’ But I say, ‘You are a part of it.’" He tells how in Indonesia, Nachtwey got down on his hands and knees between an angry mob and the man they were attacking, while other journalists perched far from the scene with telephoto lenses. Though the mob stabbed the man to death in spite of Nachtwey’s pleas, his photographs expose the brutality of that moment in a way no one else’s could.

But Nachtwey’s bravery is not bravado. While adventure and excitement are powerful motivators, he has been able to sustain his career because of his remarkable calm—his ability, as he describes it, "to stay centered inside yourself." He has beaten the adrenaline addiction, and is now capable of patient presence. "I channel my emotions into my work. Any anger that I’m feeling, frustration, disbelief, grief—I channel it into my pictures."

Nachtwey describes himself as a "witness" and his work as "testimony." He has had an encounter with the truth of human suffering—a truth that many would prefer to ignore. "It’s more difficult to get publications to focus on issues that are more critical—that do not provide an escape from reality, but attempt to get them deeper into reality, to be concerned about something much greater than themselves," Nachtwey says.

Journalists I met in Palestine—who were very aware of the suffering and injustice of the occupation—knew that their paycheck depended largely on getting the images that the world expected to see: arrests, stone-throwing, conflict, action. So much for deeper reality. But even though we see Nachtwey photographing Palestinian militants hurling Molotov cocktails, we also see him documenting the full experience of conflict, including the aftermath, the grief. "We must look at it. We’re required to look at it," says Nachtwey, and then he goes a step further: "We’re required to do what we can about it."

Ryan Beiler is Web editor at Sojourners. He has done documentary photography in the United States, Central America, Colombia, Africa, and the Middle East.

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