The Eyes of Perpetual War 

James Nachtwey has spent a lifetime on the frontlines of the world’s worst calamities. Here, the photojournalist talks about the burden of documenting war, famine, poverty and human-rights abuses.

Wednesday, Nov 20 2002
Photo by David Fahey

IN 1996, PHOTOGRAPHER JAMES NACHTWEY WAS on assignment for Time magazine to document the human disaster lingering in Afghanistan after more than a decade of war and civil war. There in Kabul, barely marked gravestones stretched to the horizon across a landscape of cracked earth, a stark reminder of how completely this bloody political football had been dropped in the post-Cold War era. Standing with an interpreter at a graveyard, Nachtwey heard the wailing of a woman, grieving the recent death of her brother, a civilian killed in a Taliban rocket attack. She allowed Nachtwey to photograph her, a ghostlike figure kneeling on an alien landscape. Afterward, she greeted him, lifting her burka, somehow grateful that her grief was finally acknowledged.

The pictures Nachtwey published then would not shift international opinion on the civil wars of Afghanistan and the implications of the Taliban. That would not come until the fall of 2001, in Lower Manhattan, where Nachtwey would again document scenes of infinite grief and horror with a charged visual commentary.

As one of the world's premier trouble-spot shooters, he belongs to a grim tradition that stretches from Robert Capa to Don McCullin and beyond, confronting warfare and its aftermath up close. Nachtwey is no swashbuckling sightseer, though. There is a quiet commitment to his work, among the most moving, most influential pictures now being made in this genre. Berlin, 1990Photos by James Nachtwey

The results are often explosive, documenting war, famine, poverty in images both iconic and horrible. There is the starving Sudanese man crawling numbly on insectlike limbs, or the double amputee raising a family of five between a pair of railroad tracks in Jakarta, Indonesia. And more scenes from Kabul, where classrooms are scarred from mortar attacks and men kneel in prayer above their rifles. A photograph from Rwanda is simply of the ground thick with discarded, blood-stained machetes, which, collectively, became a different kind of weapon of mass destruction.

It has been enough to turn Nachtwey into a powerful witness against war and crimes against humanity. Politics is not his subject, but in 2000 he published Inferno, a large-format collection of his darkest images from the '90s, a time he now calls "a terrible decade." Copies of the book were mailed directly to most of the world's leaders, along with philosophers, educators and opinion makers, as if to ensure that the visual evidence he'd gathered could not be ignored. Romania, 1990

Nachtwey studied art history and political science at Dartmouth, graduating cum laude in 1970, and then spent six months as a cook with the merchant marines. He taught himself photography, and his career began with shooting local news and state-fair pumpkin-carving contests in New Mexico. By 1981 he had secured his first foreign assignment to Northern Ireland. In the years since, he's won many prestigious awards and became the subject of last year's Academy Award-nominated documentary War Photographer. Many of his photographs can be seen in his first solo Los Angeles gallery exhibition at Fahey/Klein Gallery (through November 30), and in a career retrospective at San Diego's Museum of Photographic Arts (through January 5).

By chance Nachtwey was briefly home in New York during the attacks on September 11, and barely escaped when the towers fell. The attacks came as no great surprise to him, and he now sees "the failure to reach out and try to understand the realities of our world" as being partly responsible for what happened, leaving the West "without the background to understand the dynamics of the world we all live in." Nicaragua, 1984

Nachtwey has developed a kind of mystical presence among his peers -- always at the center of action, the last one out, the endless close calls. His next assignment will keep him in the United States, focusing on post-9/11 images, but he knows that soon he will likely be making his first trip to Iraq, as the boundaries for a world endlessly at war shift closer to home.

"I develop strong feelings about the stories in which I become involved," he explains. "I try very hard to be truthful about those stories. The impact of journalism can take many forms. The effect I most want to avoid is indifference."

L.A. WEEKLY: You've been called an "anti-war" photographer. Are you comfortable with that label?

JAMES NACHTWEY: I think it's fair enough. When I think of all the war photographers, from early on, they all appeared to be anti-war photographers, outside of propaganda photographs. Any picture of war seems to be like a plea to stop it. I think of all the pictures that Gene Smith made in World War II, all the pictures from Vietnam, from the Civil War on the battlefield. There are very few war pictures that endorse war. Somalia, 1992

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