The limitations of these photographs may also reflect their original context as photojournalism, where their purpose was to raise awareness by delivering an immediate impact. In Inferno, they have been repackaged as archival documents (the book’s oversize format and plain black cloth cover, as well as its $125 price tag, clearly suggest library use), but a significant percentage lack the individuality that distinguishes truly enduring images.
Yet as we gleefully tune in to the Fox Network’s endless supply of home-video disaster footage, Nachtwey’s lifework stands as an indispensable corrective. His endeavor stubbornly credits our capacity to take an unblinking look at Earth’s most hellish places, and to focus not on the uneasiness such images inspire, but on the torment of the people they portray. In the end, for all its devastating bleakness, Inferno is a hopeful book inasmuch as it appeals to our best qualities, above all to our empathy — that special quality on which depend our chances of ever building a more humane world.