James Nachtwey, for good or for evil?

James Nachtwey is considered one of the best contemporary photojournalists in existence, he is best known for his work covering wars and conflict. James grew up in Boston, Massachusetts. He studied art history and political science at Dartmouth College. During his time at College he was exposed to images of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war. Those images had a powerful influence on him and he then went on to teach himself photography. 1976 was when Nachtwey got his first break and started working for a Newspaper in New Mexico, He then quit that position in 1980 to move to New York where he started his career as a freelance magazine photographer. In 1984 he became a contract photographer with Time Magazine. He was also a member of Magnum photography from 1986 to 2001.

James Nachtwey’s work is questioned. Controversy arises when people witness his photographs. But not everyone feels that way, freelance photographer Craig Fletcher said “Humanity needs to see these images that show what is going on around the world”. But others see the horrors James witnesses and wonder why he does nothing to stop it? Nothing to help the people? But James does claim to making attempts to contribute towards helping the suffering and the victims. James said “If there comes a time when I’m the only one who can make a difference, then I’ll suspend being a journalist and help people”. This was tested during a time in Indonesia, “there was a time I tried to save a man in Indonesia. People from a mosque in Jakarta were offended that a Christian church had a bingo parlor next to the mosque. They saw bingo as a form of gambling, which was against their religious beliefs. So they attacked the bingo parlor and began to kill the Christian guards. One of the guards came running up an alleyway, chased by a mob. I tried to stop the mob from killing the guy. Three times they actually stopped. Once, a man was about to cut the guard’s throat. At that point, I got on my hands and knees and begged him not to do it. And he didn’t do it. He actually put down his knife and stood the guard up”.

A lot of criticism is expressed when people view the photographs and learn about James. People are curious whether these images actually make a difference to humanity? Or if he is just humiliating the subjects and profiting from the situations in his photographs? A difference has been made to lives and humanity through the work of James Nachtwey. James does work for a number of charitable cases. In 2007 James Nachtwey won a grant from TED of $100,000 to fulfil his wish, his wish was to raise awareness about Tuberculosis. James said “I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age”. In 2012 James traveled to India after learning about their struggle with TB. In 2011 there was 2.2 million people in India suffering from Tuberculosis, although the Indian government have supplied drugs since 2006 to treat TB. There are now strains of TB that has become immune to the mainstream treatment these are Multi-Drug Resistant (MDR) and Extensively Drug Resistant (XDR) Tuberculosis. With this information James pursued a project for Time magazine and to fulfil his wish to TED and had a issue of Time magazine display photographs of the true scale of TB and how the threat of the spread of TB applies to the whole world not just in India, Cambodia, Lesotho, South Africa, Siberia, Swaziland and Thailand, which are where the photographs were taken for the project.

James Nachtwey appears to seek out war and suffering. His whole life has been shaped and is still being shaped by conflict and suffering, James says “I think I’m a very different person now to when I started”. But why does he continue to show this desire to photograph these events? If its not for profits sake then what is it for? Well a lot of it comes down to it being his job, which would mean for profits sake. But really James does it for humanity. If it was just about the money he could potentially earn a similar wage doing a far less dangerous and life threatening career. In James’ Documentary film ‘War photographer’ James says “Why photograph war? Is it possible to put an end to a form of behaviour that has existed throughout history, through means of photography?” “For me the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity.” And his photographs do just that, they engage humanity. Craig Fletcher commented saying “He has seen the worse side of humanity and has presented it for the world to judge its own actions”.

Photographing war and conflict has almost become hard-wired into James’ mind. He constantly finds himself approaching dangerous situations while others are retreating from them. This trait was most apparent on September 11th 2001. James had just returned from a trip to France on the night of september 10th 2001. He awoke on September 11th and followed his usual routine of having breakfast and gazing out of the window. During that gaze he witnessed the north World Trade Centre on fire. He presumed it to be an accident, then what he saw next would determine his later actions. He saw a plane hit the south tower. From experience he knew this was no accident but an act of war. In an interview for Time magazine James said “I’ve always gone away, and been involved in other people’s tragedies and dangerous situations, and coming back to America was always a refuge”. This would never be the same again. It must be difficult for him to feel at ease anywhere now, especially now that what he has been documenting for the past 33 years has now happened on his door step.

James Nachtwey’s images shows the level of violence and hate that humanity can do to humanity itself. What is shown shouldn’t be happening and shouldn’t be repeated. But as photographers such as, James Nachtwey are reporting the events their images show this is still happening more and more often. The need for photojournalists to expose the truth and wrong doings of our society will always be needed, for as long as it is happening. Without these photographs the victims will remain anonymous and invisible. We would be blind from the truth. War and suffering is then only what we see on television and in the mainstream media. In the words of Albert Einstein “Nothing will end war unless the people themselves refuse to go to war”.


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