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.
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.”
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.
Did you go into photography with the intention of focusing on wartime?
I was influenced by the work of the photographers in Vietnam. I found it very revealing that our political leaders were trying to convince the nation of one thing, and the photographs were telling us a completely different story. I think they gave momentum to the anti-war movement. Those pictures — in combination with all the press in all the mediums — not only reported history but changed the course of history. The public sentiment fueled by those images helped get the U.S. out of Vietnam. They seemed to have some kind of social value, and that's what I wanted to do.
It's hard to tell. There is very strong circumstantial evidence that photography has an impact. It was very effective in terms of the famine in Ethiopia and the famine in Somalia. The intervention in Kosovo was going to happen anyway, for good reason, I believe. But I also believe that the pictures gave moral assurance to what they were going to do.
It doesn't always work. In the case of Rwanda, [world leaders] were determined not to do anything to help the Tutsis, even to the point of refusing to use the word genocide in public. They understood that if they were to use the word, they would be obligated to do something. It was a very shameful moment for world leaders. But the press was there, and the leaders eventually had to accept the word genocide. It was undeniable. Both Kofi Annan and Bill Clinton did finally apologize in public, and those apologies did not save one human life.
So you feel like your role is to gather evidence?
That's one of the things we do. We bear witness, we present evidence. It's effective not to do it in a cold clinical way, but in a human way. The images are a cold statement of fact, but they present the human tragedy. There are consequences to what we do and don't do, serious consequences for ordinary people.
How has witnessing all this horror affected you as a person?
It's made me sensitized and aware. Emotionally it's more difficult. It has a cumulative effect, and it doesn't get easier. It gets harder. The images I've seen and made I carry with me.
What was your philosophy behind publishing Inferno? It's not a true retrospective of your work. It seems designed instead to make a statement on the horrors that continue to rage around the world.
Beyond being a photography book, it was to be a visual archive of what are sometimes crimes against humanity, the human cost of international policies in the final decade of the 20th century. It's a journey through the dark reaches. It was a terrible decade. While people here in the U.S. were happy with the bubble economy, there was war in Bosnia, two wars in Chechnya, genocide in Rwanda.
Can your message get through? Many people now don't even read the newspaper every day or watch the news on television.
Scary, isn't it? I work with Time magazine, and it has great influence and credibility in the world, and they keep me out there. That's as good a position as I could ask for as a documentary photographer. I feel the need to use that position to keep pushing on these critical issues. And I think people want to know, and once they see these things, they want something done about it.
Very often you are in places where war is occurring, but long before most people in the West have shown any interest, though the suffering is just as real. You were in Afghanistan in the mid-'90s, a story that only later was understood to have profound importance to Americans. Has that been frustrating?
If people don't know about it, they can't care about it. In Afghanistan, I was covering the mujahedeen when they had all the support of America [in the 1980s]. Then, when the Russians left, we forgot about them. These are the same people who were our allies, but just because the Cold War is gone we don't care about them anymore. That didn't seem right to me. When I went to my editors at Time, they were intrigued but not sure. But they trusted my judgment to go, and it became an important story. Then Afghanistan became like a black hole and you couldn't make pictures there under the Taliban. A few people did, but it was difficult. It kind of dropped off the map until September 11th.
Did the terrorist attacks of September 11th surprise you?
No. The scale of it did. It was very dramatic, obviously. I had been working in the Middle East since 1981. I covered three or four different wars in Lebanon, unrest in the West Bank, war in Afghanistan a couple of times, both Palestinian uprisings. They seemed like separate stories for 21 years. On September 11, this idea crystallized that I had been working on the same story all this time.
It was partially a failure of journalism, because it has focused so much on escapism: celebrities, fashion, lifestyle. People do want to know about those things, but it became unbalanced. And it was a failure of our political leadership to deal with these issues in a more comprehensive way. They were not paying attention to what was coming. The World Trade Center had been attacked already. Three embassies had been bombed. A U.S. military base had been attacked in Saudi Arabia. Journalists had been reporting these things, but it takes more than that.
What was the scene like when you arrived at the World Trade Center? Was it a moment that was familiar from other war zones?
I was there before either tower fell down. It was familiar. As a single hit, it was bigger than anything I'd ever seen. I'd been in Beirut and Bosnia when they were hit, so I was familiar with working in places where there was a lot of chaos and destruction. There were hundreds of firemen there doing their work. In Grozny you never saw a fire truck. A fire truck was a target.
Will you be going to Iraq?
I dread the thought. No, I shouldn't say that. If there's a war there, I'll go. I really hope there isn't. I don't think it will do much for pro-American sentiment.