I don’t quite know how to put this, but I find the work of warphotographer James Nachtwey amazingly powerful and intense, and very very beautiful in a sense that it captures the human drama that plays out in the world around us. Even though it somehow seems politically incorrect to like the disturbing images of pain and suffering it is a very human part of us that will be drawn towards it – we are reminded of our own mortality in our sheltered little existence where we have the luxuries of complaining about litterbugs or the weather!
James Nachtwey was born on the 14th of March 1948 in Syracuse, New York. Educated at Dartmouth College, Nachtwey went west to learn photojournalism in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He has stated that his intense interest in photographing the war-torn world was fostered in particular by images from Vietnam. He started working as a newspaper photographer in 1976 at the Albuquerque Journal.
In 1980, he moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer. In 1981, Nachtwey covered his first overseas assignment in Northern Ireland illustrating civil strife and since then documented a variety of armed conflicts and social issues, spending time in South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union shooting pictures of war, conflict and famine, and images of socio-political issues (pollution, crime and punishment) in Western Europe and the United States. Working as a contract photographer with Time since 1984, he also worked for Black Star from 1980 until 1985 and was a member of Magnum Photos from 1986 until 2001. In 2001, he was a founding member of the VII Photo Agency.
His first book, Deeds of War, was published in 1989; Inferno appeared in 2000. Just as Sebastião Salgado has been criticized for his beautifully composed images of starving people, critics have raised questions about Nachtwey’s visual preoccupation with the grimness of war and poverty. He has countered: ‘I try to photograph with compassion, and in such a way that people can relate their own humanity to that of others. I try to make it so that it stops just short of pure horror because I think that would indeed turn people off.’
Nachtwey had been injured previously in his work, but it was during his extensive coverage of the United States invasion of Iraq that he received his first combat injury. As Nachtwey, along with Time correspondent Michael Weisskopf rode in the back of a humvee with the United States Army “Tomb Raiders” Survey Platoon, an insurgent threw a grenade into the vehicle. Weisskopf grabbed the grenade to throw it out of the humvee, but it exploded in his hand. Two soldiers were injured in the explosion, along with the Time journalists. Nachtwey managed to take several photographs of medic Billie Grimes treating Weisskopf before passing out. Both journalists were airlifted to Germany and later to hospitals in the United States. Nachtwey recovered sufficiently to return overseas to cover the tsunami in Southeast Asia of December 26, 2004.
His photographs have been exhibited throughout Europe and the United States and he has received numerous prizes and awards including:
- the World Press Photo award in 1994.
- the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1983, 1984, 1986, 1994 and 1998.
- In 2001, the documentary War Photographer was released, focusing on Nachtwey and his work. Directed by Christian Frei, the film received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary film.
- In 2002, he received the prestigious Dan David Prize for his haunting photos aimed to burden viewers with an uncomfortable awareness that will force them to seek justice and change throughout the world.
- In 2006, Nachtwey was awarded the 12th Annual Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities from the Heinz Family Foundation for his body of work, an honor that includes a monetary prize of US $250,000.
- the 2007 TED Prize (one of three winners). Each recipient was granted $100,000 and one “world-changing wish” to be revealed at the 2007 TED conference, in Monterey, California. Many members of the TED Community, and a group of world-class companies, have pledged support to help fulfill the wishes. Nachtwey’s wish, revealed March 8, 2007, is this: “There’s a vital story that needs to be told, and I wish for TED to help me gain access to it and then to help me come up with innovative and exciting ways to use news photography in the digital era.” Early results of this work have been unveiled at XDRTB.org to document extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis
In 2008, Nachtwey exhibited a series of original photographs at Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. The exhibit entitled “Struggle For Life” documented the human toll of TB and AIDS presented the work of Nachtwey with text by Dr. Anne Goldfeld of work they began together in Cambodia in 2003as well as photos from Thailand, Africa and Siberia.
Nachtwey currently lives in New York.
“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.”
“Even in the age of television, still photography maintains a unique ability to grasp a moment out of the chaos of history and to preserve it and hold it up to the light. It puts a human face on events that might otherwise become clouded in political abstractions and statistics. It gives a voice to people who otherwise would not have one. If journalism is the first draft of history, then photography is all the more difficult, because in capturing a moment you don’t get a second chance.
Hundreds of years from now, when our descendants are trying to understand the time in which we are living, photography will be a crucial part of the record. In the present tense, photography is critical in helping create an atmosphere in which change is possible, not only possible but inevitable. It does this by making an appeal to people’s best instincts: generosity, the ability to distinguish between right and wrong, the willingness to identify with others, the refusal to accept the unacceptable. In the long run, photography enters our collective consciousness, and more important, our collective conscience. It becomes an archive of visual memory, so that we learn from the past and apply its lessons to the future.”
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