Posted by: David Vernon | June 29, 2009

James Nachtwey War Photographer

Photographer James Nachtwey, photographed by Яков, Creative Commons licensed

Photographer James Nachtwey, photographed by Яков, Creative Commons licensed

I just finished watching Christian Frei’s 2001 documentary “War Photographer” about James Nachtwey. And while I was late to the party by a few years, the film has held up so remarkably well. It was – in a word – superb.

Nachtwey came to war photography in the 1980s and is more or less considered the guy when it comes to documenting the human condition in less then ideal situations. The documentary provides some very interesting views of a man at work – consumed by the importance of it – in Kosovo, South Africa, Jakarta, Palestine, and Indonesia. It’s riveting stuff – and his images – beyond the pale. They hit you with a force that will knock you off your feet.

Part of Frei’s approach to the documentary was to have Nachtwey attach a micro video-camera to his own Canons – so you can see from the camera’s point-of-view quite a bit. It really transports you to the chaos. It also cleverly lets you see that Nachtwey loves to shoot at 1/250th of a second an awful lot (although I’m sure that’s not always the case) – and always in manual. Being 2001 you also get a dose of Kodak Tri-X film and Canon motor drives, but mostly you just get the amazing story of the man who wants to – no has to – make a difference. And you get the story of how photography can change the world. I was most astounded by Nachtwey’s compositional elements. Things I would never think of. He definitely challenges the watcher and is a man on top of his game.

How does Nachtwey do it? Listen to the man himself:

“The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I’m benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It’s something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition, I will have sold my soul.
The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person’s prediciment. The extent to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other and to that extent I can accept myself.

“The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I’m benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It’s something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition, I will have sold my soul. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person’s predicament. The extent to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other and to that extent I can accept myself.”

Just wow to the movie. Netflix will have their local copy back on Tuesday. Get crackin’. If you want to fill the time until the movie shows up, just click on the Nachtwey link above and start exploring the images.

Note: Genuine appreciation to photographer Яков, who photoblogs here, for the Creative Commons attribution-licensed photo of James Nachtwey, taken in September 2007 in Amsterdam.

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