James Nachtwey is an American photojournalist who is a specialist in war photography. James Nachtwey’s first assignment as a photography came in the year 1981 in Northern Ireland where there was an ongoing civil strife (Christian and James pp.47). As a war photographer, James was dedicated and passionate about photography since he has never had a family, has suffered from diseases and he has been wounded many times in his line of work, but he has never given up. He has given everything to photography. Throughout his career, he has covered numerous countries such as Bosnia, Rwanda, South Africa, Nicaragua, Sudan, El Salvador, Brazil, Guatemala, Chechnya, Russia, and Afghanistan. The central focus of James Nachtwey’s fruitful career has remained the spectrum of armed conflict, social unrest, key social problems and poverty (Christian and James pp.48).
James Nachtwey’s Perception of Photography
James Nachtwey holds a very high regard for photography as he views it as a medium of communication. According to James, photography not only records history but also helps change its course. Through photography, change is not only likely but also unavoidable (Howe pp.72). James Nachtwey opinion on documentary photography is that they offer citizens and causalities of war with a voice to be heard by the outside world, a voice that they would not have otherwise. As a rejoinder, photography sparks public awareness and debate.
James Nachtwey states that he wanted to use photography to request for people’s best characters, rejecting what is intolerable, willingness and ability to identify with other people and the sense of wrong and right (Howe pp.74). James states that he channels the emotions of war into his pictures. He has always illustrated empathy and respect to his subjects who are nearly always victims of war, social unrest or grave, tragic events. James states that he never moves too quickly to space where he is not welcomed. He proceeds with empathy and understanding to these people who are undergoing grave tragedy, and this helps them relate better to the people and tell their story through photography.
James was a member of the Bang-Bang Club that comprised of four photographers who photographed the apartheid in South Africa. Two of the associates were shot, and one died while undergoing treatment in hospital. James Nachtwey was also shot while covering the United States’ invasion of Iraq but has never given up on his passion.
James Nachtwey’s Photography
James spent a lot of time in Africa covering a lot of tragedies and wars. He points out to one instance when the Hutu army was overpowered in Rwanda. He had just completed an assignment where he had photographed mass graves and massacres. His photographs speak volumes of what exactly transpired and the magnitude of the situation. Immediately after the Hutu Army was overpowered, thousands of Hutu escaped to neighboring DRC (Democratic Republic of Congo) and Tanzania (Möller and Susan pp.135). James went to this place to document the plight of these refugees and realized that the people he was photographing were probably the same people who committed massacres back in Rwanda and he states that the experience was like taking an express elevator to hell (Linfield pp.52).
During this time famines was rampant in Rwanda and most of the famines were not natural but rather the product of war. Thousands of people were exterminated strategically, and famine was seen as an effective tool of mass annihilation. In my opinion, James was able to capture this conflict comprehensively, and this will help people prevent the occurrence of such calamities ever again. In my view, James Nachtwey uses photography as a voice rather than a tool to communicate the plight of individual regions to the outside world.
Christian Frei, and James Nachtwey. War Photographer. First Run/Icarus Films, 2003.
Howe, Peter. Shooting under fire: The world of the war photographer. Artisan Publishers, 2002.
Linfield, Susie. The cruel radiance: Photography and political violence. University of Chicago Press, 2011.
Möller, Frank, and Susan Sontag. “Rwanda revisualized: Genocide, photography, and the era of the witness.” Alternatives 35.2 (2010): 113-136.