He risks his life to capture the horror at the moment in which it happens. His photos are skillful compositions that tear the brutality from the oblivion. Reminding to us an atrocious injustice and unforgivable inequalities, they load us with an awkward awareness. While he, who has seen into the abyss for long, leaves the last word to us
Let’s clear up one thing. Interviewing James Nachtwey has reached for me extraordinary dimensions: I’ve chased him by telephone at Singapore and in Thailand for two months, when I finally managed to meet him in February, in Paris, at Laboratoire, at the exhibition “Combat pour la vie”. His activity as a war photo-reporter seems to incarnate one of the most famous phrases by Robert Capa: “If your photos are not good enough, it is because you didn’t get close enough to the subject. Love the people and make them understand it”.
The communication with the American photographer, defined as “the anti-war photographer” for excellence, was not less arduous. However, when seeing his images live, it’s easy to perceive the reason: it has been 20 years that his eyes see, without any filters, unimaginable horrors that only the war and an indifference can generate. Perhaps at a certain point, the words become a less effective, superfluous and useless instrument.
Nachtwey is indeed a kind of a kamikaze-photographer, armed with his 35mm, he risks his life by literally “diving into” the most dangerous situations of the “hottest” points of the planet, in order to “simply” testify.
Interviewed in 1985 by Alain Mingam (called in by DROME 12 – liberté) on his need to photograph the war, he answered: “Wars have exist since human beings exist. As people get “civilized”, their methods become more effective, more barbarous … Can the photograph affect the human history as it goes through history? It’s a ridiculous and pretentious ambition. And yet, this is the ambition that pushes me into photographing the war”.
For more than 20 years he has been covering the crises that have shaken the planet, each of his books is first of all a History text, each of his exhibitions is an event. Nachtwey’s images – who studied History of Art at Dartmouth College, and cites Goya and Caravaggio between his favorite artists – have a refined aesthetic that exceeds the reportage in order to make art, “unwillingly” and in spite of the often prohibitive conditions that he takes photos. But, his photos are, before everything else, eloquent, strong, hard, audacious, awkward. In his case, the words turn out to be superfluous in respect to an action and a mono-maniac work from a militant vocation. He only has one objective: to denounce the horror of the war and to give the word to the silent victims of those who abuse the power. “The greatest problem with which I’ve come across my job is the risk of taking advantage of other people’s misery. This thought haunts me and follows me every day, because if I left the career and the money to have the upper hand over my compassion, it would mean that I sold my soul”.
Here is what he said to us:
DROME: In your photos I see a lot of humanity, but when you are in the war, where is this humanity?
JAMES NACHTWEY: I photograph the humanity. Millions of people suffer from infectious diseases like the AIDS, the tuberculosis… and I want the spectators to see this situation: I photograph reality, I don’t manufacture it. I record what there is at the place: if a person is sick or his/her life is ending, it doesn’t mean that s/he is not human.
D: What’s the war for you?
JN: I’ve photographed wars and conflicts for many years. This exhibition (“Combat pour la vie”, with Asa Mader, at Le Laboratoire, Paris, NdR) is about diseases and therefore about health. In order to go on war, a political will is needed, and to speak about diseases a political will is also needed. Both of these situations demand attention and sensitivity. I’m trying to create this sensibility.
D: What’s the position of the American government? Is it for or against your work?
JN: Absolutely against! In fact, for example, a senator asked me if she could use my photos and stick them up on the floor of the Senate while she was trying to pass the approval of the law in order to make drugs accessible to people with AIDS. Thus, in reality, she was using my work to carry this case ahead.
D: Do you display in America?
JN: Yes, a lot, and I’ve had a contract with “Time Magazine” since 1984, so my photos are published very often.
D: What do you do when you don’t do reportage?
JN: Well, I… photograph. It’s all I do.
James Nachtwey photographed by Emilie Moysson for DROME magazine
James Nachtwey is, at a planetary level, between the most important and rewarded photo-reporters. He grew up in Massachusetts and studied History of Art and Political Sciences at Dartmouth College. The images of the Vietnam War and of the civil rights’ movements play a significant role in his decision to become a photographer. In 1976, he started releasing his photos for a newspaper at Mexico City, and in 1980 he moved to New York. His first reportage, in 1981, documents the Civil War in North Ireland during the strike of the IRA. War conflicts and social engagements have occupied his days since then. He has talked about Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Lebanon, the Gaza line, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, South Africa, Russia, Bosnia, Cecenia, Kosovo, Rumania, Brazil and North America.
Nachtwey has worked for “Time Magazine” since 1984. He was a partner of the Black Star agency from 1980 to 1985 and a member of the Magnum agency from 1986 until 2001, the year in which he became one of the charter members of the photography agency VII.
He was honored with an “ad honorem” Bachelor in Fine Arts from the “Massachusetts College of Arts”, where he also exposed his photographs. Moreover, exhibitions that were dedicated on him were held at the International Centre of Photography of New York, at the Bibliotèque nationale de France at Paris, at Palazzo delle Esposizioni at Rome, at the Museum of Photographic Arts at San Diego, at the Canon Gallery and at the Nieuwe Kerk at Amsterdam, at the Hasselblad Centre in Sweden, …