In the early 1990s, when pictures depicting victims of the civil strife in Somalia and the Sudan became a staple of news coverage, media pundits invented a national syndrome they dubbed “compassion fatigue.” Exposure to recurrent images of human misery had supposedly drained our reservoirs of sympathy and overtaxed our capacity to respond. A given individual, after all, only has so much compassion to spare.
This new malaise also reflected the unsatisfying shape of the last decade’s regional conflicts, which typically dragged on without defining moments, creating countless victims yet few identifiable victors. As had been the case with the Vietnam War, there was usually no real hope of a happy ending, no triumph of justice to redeem the suffering and death we witnessed secondhand. Something was horribly wrong, the media images told us, yet we were unable to fix it — as the U.N.’s futile interventions repeatedly demonstrated. Eventually, the grim spectacle of another no-win situation seemed merely to mirror our own sense of helplessness and frustration, and we began asking how much we could bear to look at, rather than how much the victims themselves could endure. So collectively we changed emotional channels.
For photographer James Nachtwey, however, compassion fatigue has never been an option. For close to two decades, Nachtwey has been taking pictures of the world’s war zones and disaster areas, usually for national magazines like Time and Newsweek. Some 382 of these photographs from the 1990s are gathered in Inferno, a massive travelogue to nine circles of hell-on-earth, including Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Kosovo, Romania, Somalia and the Sudan.
Most of Nachtwey’s black-and-white photos are stark ground-level tableaux, shot at close range as if he were determined to physically immerse viewers in his subjects’ nightmarish existence. While not all of these images are successful in this respect, his portraits of children often achieve a haunting psychological intimacy. A series taken in Romanian orphanages after the fall of Ceausescu reveals not just grotesque squalor, but also something of the emotional lives of orphans left to care for one another. A cluster of boys cling to each other in a bathtub with the camaraderie of sailors on a sinking ship. Naked toddlers crouch in filthy, unlit hallways, hands covering faces pinched with hunger and anxiety, transformed prematurely into despairing old men. And in one of Nachtwey’s most poignant portraits, a sad-eyed child with deformed legs sits in bed feeding his paralyzed companion, his tiny face radiating more compassion and sorrow than a Byzantine saint’s.
These are not easy pictures to look at — not simply because of the appalling circumstances they chronicle, but also because the best of them simultaneously evoke a tainted glimmer of childhood’s grace. A young boy in Chechnya, lying in a makeshift hospital bed with two freshly bandaged stumps for legs, is shown gazing off with a sweetly dreamy look in his eyes, utterly vulnerable and seemingly oblivious to the photographer’s presence — and, for a moment at least, to his own pathetic state. Even in a picture of a naked dead Somalian boy being laid out on a burial shroud, Nachtwey’s camera directs our attention to his startlingly beatific features and to the tenderness of the hands holding his head, as well as to his pitifully wasted body.
Aside from these portraits, the most effective work in Inferno tends to resemble crime-scene photography, with Nachtwey focusing on telling details that indirectly evoke prior scenes of carnage and death. One striking image, taken in Rwanda after the 1994 massacre of Tutsi tribe members, depicts a vast pile of confiscated machetes, weapons whose crudity betrays the violence and determination with which the murderers acted. Another shows the aftermath of a schoolyard slaughter: Amid a scattering of papers in the dirt, a girl’s dress adorns a headless and armless corpse, its legs spread wide as if a victim of every conceivable form of violation.
In his introduction to Inferno, Luc Sante mentions that Nachtwey doesn’t consider himself to be a war photographer, but an anti-war photographer. As a compassionate witness, his self-appointed task is to give a human face to the statistics of mass misery, to find a way of bringing mind-boggling devastation within range of our emotional compass. Nachtwey prefaces his book with an epigraph from Dante that ends with the line “Through me is the way to join the lost people,” and his pictures relentlessly aim to connect us to their unfortunate subjects.
Yet, despite their potent content, a good many of Nachtwey’s photos are less than arresting. Part of the problem is that his compositions often seem like iconic images, invoking a kind of universal vision of suffering. Pictures of mass graves and emaciated, fly-covered bodies, of naked skeletal figures crawling across the ground or too weak to even move, conjure a Dantesque vision but without the specificity of Dante’s hell-bound characters. Viewed en masse, they lead you to the conclusion that suffering takes the same form everywhere — in which case, a single picture should suffice.
To some extent, Inferno’s encyclopedic size exacerbates this tendency. By the time we come to the 382nd image of unrelieved hardship, the measured black-and-white tones and recurring compositional strategies of Nachtwey’s work can begin to seem slightly rote. Looking through the book, you feel entrapped not only by the gruesome situations depicted, but also by the photographer’s aesthetic.
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.
Ralph Rugoff is the author of Circus Americanus, fromVerso.
INFERNO | Photos by JAMES NACHTWEY, introduction by LUC SANTE | Phaidon | 480 pages | $125 hardcover