As close as it gets: James Nachtwey


“I have been a witness and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”
James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey

PEACE AMONGST WAR: James Nachtwey takes a break from photographing the horrific... PIC: Online

In the Killing Fields

When legendary photographer Robert Capa claimed: “If the picture wasn’t good enough, you weren’t close enough,” it’s as if he had James Nachtwey in mind.

Nachtwey has been to some of the most war-torn places in the world: Bosnia, Sudan, South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan, amongst others. He is often on scene with soldiers, terrorists or war-crazy citizens. It was only while photographing a bomb explosion, skin melting off his arm that he realized his obsession with getting the right shot had taken over his life and sanity. Nachtwey suffered for years from post-traumatic stress disorder. In various interviews, he describes his nightmares as simple recollections of what already had been, only now the mangled corpses were screaming out in pain, asking for help.

Rwanda Hutu Camp Genocide

SCARRED: A survivor from a Hutu death camp; Rwanda/ 1994. PIC: James Nachtwey

Echoing Silent Voices

His horrific experiences turned Nachtwey into a recluse, unable to communicate properly with his family and colleagues. Nachtwey has since admitted that he is slowly recovering and jokingly claims: “Somehow the only way to replace such morbid pain and anger is to be fascinated by that which is even more morbid. It is a never-ending love-hate relationship with what you are witnessing.”
When Nachtwey speaks, his voice is as steady as his hand on the camera. There is a monotony to his voice that makes him sound like a Shaman amongst photographers. It has become more than just a profession, but a passion. His colleagues in the documentary War Photographer describe this as a passion-turned-obsession. Even after the shot is taken, Nachtwey will spend hours cropping and changing levels of light or saturation on Photoshop. Nothing, however, is manipulated, but only aimed at getting a better account of what happened. Nachtwey has claimed for years that the credibility of one’s pictures is all about your own account and testimony on the field. His photographs are often on eye-level, to make the viewer feel as if he/ she was there.

Sudan Famine

DESPAIR: Nachtwey's account of the famine in Sudan during the 1990s helped open the world's eyes to what he calls "the weapon of mass extermination." PIC: James Nachtwey/ site

Cream of the Crop

Zimbabwean photojournalist Richard Con* hails Nachtwey as “the most legendary photographer of all time,” stating:

“When Mugabe’s militants tortured me for ten hours to get my photos, I thought of Nachtwey in that documentary claiming every bit of torture, whether expected or not, is worth it. But yet, I’ve come to realize people act in front of the camera. When I photographed civil war in South Africa around the same time as Nachtwey, I realized men become savages to seem more amazing on film. That is when I had enough…”

CNN foreign correspondent Christian Amanpour describes Nachtwey as “a loner…a mystery” with an incredible drive, yet compassion, for those he photographs. Nachtwey insists in the documentary that a photographer must never force him/herself upon the scene. He has learnt the most effective photographs come from respecting your subjects. Their grief somewhat becomes your grief. When they cry, you take a few pictures and offer them tissues and a few kind words. After all, they have offered you an intimate look into their personal world.

Illustrating Pain

Susan Sontag criticises photographers in Regarding the Pain of Others as insensitive, yet Nachtwey has learnt to creatively use the pain of others. He will, for example, photograph only half a crying face for more effect, as if the subject is still searching for some guidance or reassurance that will make them whole again.

Some have criticised this symbolism, while others have hailed it as ‘genius’ and ‘works of art.’ Nachtwey, however, does not see his pieces as ‘works of art’ but as fragments of people’s pain, suffering and daily life. He boldly claims:

“I do not want my works to be hung up in people’s homes as masterpieces. How can someone’s extreme pain be a masterpiece? Each piece is sacred, an intimate bit of his/ her life.”

nachtwey war photographer

BANG BANG: The documentry War Photographer, produced by Christian Frei (2001), is a bitter-sweet reflection into Nachtwey's passion, life and relationships with his colleagues. PIC: Online

Nachtwey’s signature trademark of photographing everything in black and white has shown the importance of composition over colour. “Jim” as he’s known amongst his friends has been in the business since 1980. He was first part of Magnum photo agency, then co-founded his own agency VII with other worldwide photographers.
Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva describe Nacthwey as “the missing member” of their Bang Bang Club in their book with the same title. Nachtwey covered some of the civil war between two tribes in South Africa: Xhosa (African National Congress Party) vs Zulu (Inkatha Freedom Party). Nachtwey was the one who carried wounded Marinovich to safety in 1994 and helped carry the body of his dead colleague Ken Oosterbroek. The movie with the same title is currently on circuit.

Being taken as a serious photojournalist demands days, weeks or even years of being in war-zones, amongst the dying and grieving for only a few published pictures. Yet Nachtwey has learnt over the years that such few published pictures can change the lives of those you are photographing, as well as the lives of those who see them:

“Sometimes, one picture will touch one person then another and suddenly I am swarmed with people offering money, food or shelter. It is then that I realize even just one picture was all worth it.” 


Documentary: War Photographer (2001) produced by Christian Frei
Book: Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva
Various interviews of Nachtwey on YouTube
Personal interview with Richard Con*
Class notes

Obsession behind the lens

famine africa

MAMA AFRIKA: Finbarr O’Reilly’s depiction of famine-stricken Africa won him World Press Photo in 2006. COURTESY: Finbarr O’Reilly/ World Press Photos

There’s something exhilirating in holding your first camera. You feel invincible. People in front of the lens may be smiling, crying, shaking or playing, but you are absolutely still and focused. You wait and watch. There you see it – that split second that makes the photo stand out above the rest. Click.

Content, you take it home and watch it over and over again on your PC screen. It has a unique story; maybe it was the last tear drop escaping a child’s face as she fell. Or, maybe it was the smile she had as she realised her ice-cream escaped the fall unscathed.

Johann van Tonder, photojournalism lecturer at Stellenbosch University’s Journalism Department, lists the three characteristics that set photojournalism apart: a subject, a subject which stands out and a story told by the picture.

Often, people mistake photojournalism with art. You may take a pretty picture of a child, an insect or a flower, but if it doesn’t tell a story, it is NOT photojournalism.

The best photojournalism picture often has a heart beat. It is able to speak to the viewer. It even has the power to move, intrigue or disgust him/her.

The Bang Bang Club by South Africans Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich captures the thrill, pain and glory (or lack of it) photojournalists go through. Their friend, Kevin Carter, won a Pulitzer prize for his photo of a child stalked by a vulture in famine-ridden Sudan. He was criticized for being insensitive. People in his own profession called him a coward for taking the picture, rather than helping the child. He became increasingly depressed and eventually committed suicide. As Marinovich points out in the book: “That image is engraved and burnt into your mind forever.”

GENIUS: James Nachtwey covered the Bosnian war, amongst others. His black & white technique proved that composition can be more powerful than colour. COURTESY: James Nachtwey

James Nachtwey has similar views in a National Geographic documentary made about him and his work. Nachtwey has been to some of the most war-ridden places in the world. His experiences in Bosnia turned him into an insomniac and recluse. He couldn’t confide in his wife or children. He found solace in taking even more horrific pictures. When his skin began to melt while taking a picture of an explosion, he realised his obsession with the right shot and addiction in getting it was taking over his life.

“Nothing prepares you for the pain afterwards,” says a former Zimbabwean photojournalist. His PC is filled with images of bruised bodies and raw flesh; after ZANU-PF officials threatened him and his colleagues as they tried to get rid of journalists in Zimbabwe.

They were harrassed and beaten; their camera straps used to strangle them.

There’s a price to pay for being a serious photojournalist. It demands determination and courage. It includes long hours, days or years of being in threatening places for a few published pictures. But the best photojournalists know that there is power in their profession. It is the power to paint a more realistic world, one defined by the eyes which were brave enough to look first.

stalked child

PULITZER PRICE: South African Kevin Carter was criticised for taking a photo of a starving child being stalked by a vulture. Many believe the criticism led to his eventual suicide. COURTESY: Kevin Carter/ archives