James Nachtwey, Why Photograph War?

War Photographer StillStill from the film War Photographer 2001 © Christian Frei Filmproductions

The following text is read by James Nachtwey at the end of War Photographer, a film by Christian Frei which provides a portrait of Nachtwey’s work as a war (anti-war) photographer. The film is an up-close and unflinching, yet still hopeful, look at the violence and misery that people around the world inflict upon each other.

Why Photograph War?

Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me.

For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.

In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war in order to communicate to the rest of the world what is happening, he is trying to negotiate for peace. Perhaps that is the reason why those in charge of perpetuating a war do not like to have photographers around.

In the field what you experience is extremely immediate. What you see is not an image on a page in a magazine ten thousand miles away with an advertisement for Rolex watches on the next page. What you see is unmitigated pain, injustice, and misery.

It has occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone’s leg off – if everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.

But everyone cannot be there, and that is why photographers go there – to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they are doing and pay attention to what is going on – to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference – to protest and by the strength of that protest to make others protest.

The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise.

I attempt to become as totally responsible to the subject as I possibly can. The act of being an outsider aiming a camera can be a violation of humanity. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person’s predicament. The extend to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other, and to that extent I can accept myself.

James Nachtwey

The film’s website reproduces this text as Nachtwey’s Credo though leaves out the paragraph which references magazine advertising and Rolex watches (para 4). Oversight or not, Nachtwey is pointing to a critical link in the chain which connects subject to photographer to spectator.

If photographers are bridges, as Susan Meiselas suggests in Picturing Atrocity (2012), understanding the qualities and responsibilities of each part which makes up the subject-photographer-spectator whole is important in being able to respond appropriately to the visual testimonies of “unmitigated pain, injustice, and misery” supplied by photographers.