Bearing Witness

When you open the homepage of photographer James Nachtwey’s website, you are confronted with a dark, grey screen, no photos, and this quote in stark, white letters:

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.

Running down the left side of the screen is a menu of political/social issues and locations that frame his body of work. Click onto any link, from Afghanistan, Aids, Bosnia, and famines, to Pakistan, Rwanda and 9-11. From this neutral field, you will be yanked into a world of the most disturbing and moving photographs you will ever see.

nachtwey, photo one

Rwanda, 1994 — Survivor of Hutu death camp.


Nachtwey has been documenting the depravations and horrors of civilization run amok since an early assignment took him to Belfast, Northern Ireland, in 1981 to cover the “troubles” between the IRA and the Ulster Loyalists. He became a contract photographer with Time magazine in 1984. After being a member of the famed photo agency Magnum for years, he became one of the founders of another photographic agency, VII, in 2001. It was while in NYC for a meeting that he bore witness on September 11, 2001 to a human tragedy in his own backyard. His apartment is very close to the World Trade Center and he was one of the first photographers to reach the scene. He narrowly avoided death when the south tower collapsed as he was taking close-in shots.

nachtwey, photo two

NYC, 2001 — Collapse of south tower, World Trade Center.

James Nachtwey is a winner of the Robert Capa Gold Medal (five times), Magazine Photographer of the Year (seven times), and the ICP Infinity Award (three times).

There is so much to say about Nachtwey and his work, but it all pales alongside an examination of the  images themselves. It is this intensely personal encounter which I want to make the body of this piece.

In a video clip, Nachtwey, in a nighttime interlude in a dark room, reflects on the meaning of his work. An abrupt cut brings us to a violent confrontation between Palestinian youth and unseen IDF soldiers in the West Bank city of Ramallah. You will see the scene from the POV of his 35mm. camera. A lipstick video camera mounted on the camera body records the scene as he works. Every shutter click is like a gunshot answering the Israeli troops.

These scenes are from Christian Frei’s Academy Award nominated film War Photographer, which over a period of more than two years follows Nachtwey while on international assignments. Along with Frei, Swiss photographer Peter Indergard, SCS, is the principal cameraman, with Hanna Abu Saada shooting in Palestine.

A moving YouTube tribute begins by showing some of Nachtwey’s most well known images in an emotional montage—but at 3:30, it jumps you into a video sequence of the same Ramallah encounter. But now we see the photographer so close in that we fear for his life. He is, in fact, tear gassed alongside the dissident youths and we see Abu Saada’s relentless video camera documenting Nachtwey’s agony. The scene is also from War Photographer.

Over the years Nachtwey has seen far too much fighting; it is present even in the beginning of his career. But he can only be labeled a “war”photographer if you are to consider that his engagement with so many of the human hellholes on planet Earth is one’s man’s personal “war” against injustice. A broad range of his work, much of which deals with famine and poverty, can be seen at the site below. This is not work you can wander through, like flipping the pages of a magazine:

faheykleingallery.com link

To truly see how this quiet, even reclusive man, inserts himself into an unfolding event, you need to see an early sequence of War Photographer. A village in Kosovo is in flames. Nachtwey moves slowly through rubble, recording the detritus of a once furnished home. Later on, he encounters a grieving family, moves toward it, quietly, slowly. He works close in, with a wide enough lens so that he becomes one with the action, the silent witness.

If you get only one DVD this year, make it this one. It will warrant repeated viewings. I can think of no film about an artist “at work” that has such emotional charge and empathic insight to the human condition. Find it wherever you will, but here is one portal:

Amazon.com link – War Photographer

To understand that Nachtwey is not just a great photojournalist but is an “engaged man” look at this clip, where his colleague, Des Wright, a Reuters cameraman, gives testimony to Nachtwey’s insertion of himself into a riot in Indonesia, to try to save a man’s life, a gesture normally anathema to the neutral photographer:

Some years before this event, Nachtwey was on assignment in the South African township of Thokoza during the closing violent months of the struggle against apartheid. A group of fellow photojournalists, Kevin Carter, Jaoa Silva, Greg Marinovich, and Ken Oosterbroek were daily putting their lives at risk. Other newsmen had dubbed them The Bang Bang Club. In 2000, Marinovich and Silva, the two surviving members, wrote a harrowing book about this time.

Amazon.com link – The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

These are four tough, hard-boiled, adrenaline junkies, whose emotional distance in temperament and work could not be more removed from Nachtwey’s. In a total SNAFU confrontation, Marinovich is wounded, Oosterbroek is killed. Nachtwey rushed to help. In this video clip Hans-Hermann Clare, foreign editor of the German magazine Stern, describes Nachtwey’s action under fire:

The fourth member of the group, Kevin Carter, three months after the death of his closest friend, Ken Oosterbroek, committed suicide. He had only recently received the Pulitzer Prize.

It had seemed as if, almost in a world apart, that Jim Nachtwey had some personal writ of safe passage, that he was invulnerable. Were his signature freshly laundered shirts and creased jeans some mythic “Ghost Dance Shirt” that protected him from bullets? It was not a bullet that eventually got him on Dec. 10, 2003, but shrapnel from a tossed grenade, as he rode in an open Humvee through the nighttime streets of Baghdad’s ancient Al-Adhamiya quarter:

The New York Times article link

Nachtwey and Michael Weisskopf, a senior correspondent for Time magazine, were in the back of the vehicle when a shiny object landed on a wooden bench. Weisskopf thought it was a rock and reached to toss it out of the vehicle. When the grenade went off Weisskopf lost part of his arm; Nachtwey’s wounds were far less serious.

Weisskopf’s account of the incident and his rehabilitation among wounded soldiers became a feature article in Time magazine:

Time magazine article link

Nothing seems ever to slow Nachtwey down. He is almost constantly on assignment. Two of his friends and fraternity brothers from their student days at Dartmouth, Roy Carlson and Denis O’Neill, even have difficulty keeping tabs on him. I met Jim Nachtwey at the opening of a show of his work at an LA photo gallery. I met Denis, who is tagged Jim’s best friend in War Photographer, through Roy Carlson who was the screenwriter on a film I directed, China Moon. Though my relationship with Jim is through others, I instantly felt kinship upon meeting him. It is this immediate sense of empathy that he radiates that must be the cloak that protects him. You can see it here in a PSA announcement he made promoting the battle to defeat TB:

His quiet mannered demeanor is consistent with the way he does his work, his intrepid witness to chaos and death.

Here is a slideshow of his photos documenting the ravages of XDR-TB. It is strong stuff. Prepare yourself:

There are a number of books of Nachtwey’s work, but one of them is unlike any photography book you have ever seen. It is called Inferno or, by some reviewers, “The Black Slab.”

nachtwey photo three

A review by David Friend begins, “Last month a man left a tombstone on my doorstep.” He describes the world of suffering Inferno documents, its nine chapters echoing the descending circles in the first part of Dante’s great poem:

www.digitaljournalist.org link

In War Photographer, Denis O’Neill says of Jim’s relentless drive to work, to bear witness in the world: “The possibility of a normal life, that’s the main conflict. . . and what he’s had to sacrifice to live the life that he leads.  . .  He has given everything to the job.” And, Roy Carlson tells a story that is, even early on in their history, indicative of the intense focus of the man.

Shortly after they had graduated from Dartmouth, Roy was doing advanced studies at Boston University. He had a cramped apartment, heated only by a stove; but he had a great darkroom squirreled away there. Mornings, early, before Roy left for the day, Jim would come by to work in the darkroom. Late at night, when Roy returned, he was overpowered by the reek of chemicals. Jim was still at work, oblivious of the passage of time, oblivious of the rank, acrid, smells— no supervening chore, but doing the studied, unforgiving work that would soon be the documented witness to a most dangerous, even deadly, career.


  1. Mary McCusker


    A beautiful dedication covering James Nachtwey’s journey into looking at what we all are fearful to sit with – intolerable suffering brought on by war that can be prevented and disease that can be treated.

    I have supported Paul Farmer’s work in Partners in Health – treating tuberculosis and James’ photography visualize the need to reach out to those who can be treated.

    thank you, John…I shall pass your blog on and on….

    Mary McCusker

  2. Justin

    Thank you very much for such a well-crafted introduction to the work of James Nachtwey. I must admit I am new to his photography, having first heard about him during your most-recent workshop at UCLA. Your depiction then of Nachtwey’s shooting style piqued my interest, and I wanted to learn more from your blog.

    I was not prepared for what I encountered…Never before have a been so immediately struck by photographs as this evening, visiting the links you provided. One image in particular, a wide shot of an unfathomably emaciated man crawling on all fours in the desert dust, clouded my eyes with instant tears. I had to hold back weeping.

    I do not understand the injustices of this world. I fail to grasp how humans can reach the point where Nachtwey brings us through his lens. And I don’t know what to do about it. Nachtwey has certainly found his way of trying to help. His philosophy on the potential power of photography–(which he discusses in the first video of your blog)–is utterly fascinating. I certainly hope his photographs generate more protest than the Rolex ads do sales on the next page of the magazine.

    Thank you again for such an informative, thought-provoking, and emotionally-stirring blog.

    – Justin

  3. Kartik Vijay

    I was studying at the Los Angeles Film School when I first met John and asked him if he could take a look at some of my Still Photographs.

    He told me that he was having a lecture the following week for the AFI students at The Fahey/Klein art gallery on La Brea Ave., and that I should come and meet him there.

    I walked into the Gallery, and into the world of James Nachtwey. The lecture had a screening of the Documentary and had some of his photographs displayed.

    I’d been previously heavily influenced by photographers like Sebastia Salgado, Raghu Rai, Robert Capa and Steve McCurry, to name a few, but never had I seen such bold, brash and hard-hitting work that left me stunned and amazed at the same time.

    As Nachtwey says, “If I can upset people, if I can ruin their day, then I have done my job.” Not only does he do his job bloody well, but he actually opens up your mind to the kind of world we are living in today. The reality of it all is what strikes you the most. You feel anger, hatred and sorrow at the same time. Not at him, but at what’s around us. Dunno many who can actually do that.

    The least we can do is to help change this reality in whatever small way we can.

    Thanks John, for introducing me to Nachtwey’s world. Thanks Mr. Nachtwey for opening my mind up and changing me forever.

    – Kartik Vijay

  4. havanaclipper

    Thank you , John. I have seen many of Nachtwey’s photographs but this is the first time I truly see him. He suffers so we can see.

  5. nailya alexander

    Photography is such a powerful tool in expressing human suffering. Nachtwey is an artist in a true sense and is a real hero. I have not seen photojournalism more intense or profound.

  6. Pete Kuttner

    When I knocked on John Bailey’s door in mid-March of 2003, the bombing of Baghdad had just begun. I think I was still damp from marching through downtown LA a month earlier in torrential rain with 75,000 others, demanding a non-violent solution to the non-issue of the non-existent weapons of mass destruction. John met me at the door excited about a photograph he wanted me to see. It was a James Nachtwey image of a killing field maybe in Central Europe with families looking to identify the dead.


    I imagined that a similar scene was occuring in Iraq as we stood in John’s kitchen. I was disturbed by the unframed print and looked away to the stove top where the coffee was brewing. Not today, John. I don’t want to see any pictures of dead people. I’d just spent a sleepless night as my then-16 year old daughter flew to Frankfurt and on the Rome – two possible targets for retaliation for the US bombing. Was that me and her mother in a babushka leaning over bodies in the Nachtwey? No, John, don’t show me that. If I don’t look at it, maybe I won’t have to think about it. And if I don’t think about I wont have to do anything about it.

    But, of course, we must look. At the start of your piece you quote Nachtwey’s righteous rephrasing of George Santyana’s famous “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” It hits the mark. It’s why the past government withheld images of US dead and their coffins from us. Thanks, John, for turning us on to James Nachtwey’s work. We cannot stop the brutality and violence in the world by looking away. With the help of artists like Nachtwey, we must, as you suggest, share the responsibility of bearing witness and, more importantly, joining the struggle to end it.

    -Pete Kuttner


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