“The Inferno of James Nachtwey” –March 25, 2003

A few years ago—three to be more exact—I was encountering the usual indignities of a life of freelance writing and was talking with the Boston Globe Arts editor, Scott Powers, about opportunities at that august newspaper. About the same time the renowned photographer James Nachtwey was in town to lecture at the Photographic Resource Center in conjunction with his book, Inferno, newly published by Phaidon. Seizing an opportunity to showcase my skills and
initiative, versatility, sense of humor, grasp of social issues, equanimity, fashion sense, news nose and kindness to animals, I wrote up a seven hundred word news piece on Nachtwey’s lecture and the book. Which I then e-mailed to editor Powers shortly after the lecture that evening (hoping, of course, to also prove my creative rapidity and/or my rapid creativity).

Power’s response was flabbergasting. He might have told me that I was a terrible writer and that what I had written was terrible. Or he might have told me that what I had written was okay but not for a newspaper—or any number of variations on that theme.

Here’s what he did tell me: the Globe had done a big piece on Nachtwey three years hence when the Mass College of Art hosted a major exhibition of Nachtwey’s work. Therefore, there was no need to cover this lecture or review the book. Maybe he was being a nice guy and sparing my feelings by not trashing my offering. Who knows?

Here is what I wrote:

Photojournalist James Nachtwey, who was raised and went to college in New England, spoke and presented slides from his new book Inferno at the Photographic Resource Center in Boston last night. Over two hundred people heard Nachtwey refer to the emotional challenge posed by the photographs in that nearly 500-page tome. As he showed some of the photographs he repeatedly acknowledged “the harrowing nature of these images” and his commitment to putting them in front of the world and his respect for the readers whom viewed them.

Edited from 10 years of visits to the mouths of hell in Romania, Somalia, India, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire, Chechnya and Kosovo, Inferno is not a “best of” collection of photographs. Rather it is the expression of the narrative thread that Nachtwey realized was emerging in his work around 1992. From the horrors of the orphanage gulag in Romania he discovered in 1990 to the profound despair in he portrayed in Kosovo last year James Nachtwey, who is a member of the hallowed Magnum photo agency, has shot for Time, Life, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, the German magazine Stern and the major Spanish magazine El Pais. In his photographs, he conveys the dignity of the sufferers in a dramatically personal and direct way. We look right into the faces of Romanian AIDS orphans. We see close up a dead Somali child being washed in preparation for her funeral shroud. Nachtwey gives us a picture of just the arms of Indian “untouchables” doing body-breaking menial labor. In Bosnia, we watch the bodies of Serbian soldiers being dumped out of a flat bead truck. In Kosovo, we are placed face to face with the despairing and displaced Albanian deportees. In page after page of this beautifully designed and printed book— which is dedicated to the people in it—eloquent and direct testimony is given to suffering of the victims of these crimes against humanity.

Nachtwey, who eschews any skill in writing and in fact, sees its practice as a totally different mind set, was persuaded by a good friend to contribute an afterward to his book (Luc Sante wrote the Introduction), “Inferno represents a personal journey through the dark reaches of the last decade of the twentieth century. It is a record of loss grief injustice, suffering violence, and death. Implicit is the appeal to the reader’s best instincts—a spirit of generosity, a sense of right and wrong, the ability and the willingness to identify with others, the refusal to accept the unacceptable.”

James Nachtwey has won the World Press Photo award twice, the Robert Capa Gold Medal four times, the Magazine Photographer of the year six times and numerous other awards. He has published Deeds of War (with a Foreword by Robert Stone) in 1989 and the Inferno in 1995. His photos have been exhibited at the International Center of Photography in New York, the Hasselblad Center in Sweden and in 1996 an enormous collection of his work, curated by Jeffrey Keough, was shown at the Massachusetts College of Art.

Referring to himself as an anti-war photographer Nachtwey asserted, “After I published Deeds of War I felt I had been released psychologically from covering war itself—I was starting to turn to other struggles people face—and I realized I hadn’t become a war photographer, but an anti-war photographer.” Nachtwey also scoffed at the validity of compassion fatigue. Despite the horrific circumstances and the cruel misery depicted in these pages he suggested that it is his responsibility to show these horrors to the rest of the world and not allow for his personal withdrawal from the tragedies he depicts, and he debunked the notion that people have a finite supply of human compassion. As he concluded the Inferno‘s Afterward, “The people whose photographs appear in this book are worthy of one’s recognition and the patience that may require. I have witnessed people who have had everything taken from them—their homes, their families, their arms, their legs, their sanity. And yet, each still possessed dignity, the irreducible element of being human.”

In any case, I was reminded of my Nachtwey story this last week when the Globe mentioned in its spectacularly bland “Names” (it’s version of a gossip) column that James Nachtwey and documentary filmmaker Fredric Weisman were joint winners of the Dan David Prize, which has a monetary value of one million dollars. Is there a story there? One would think. And maybe The Globe is using one of their better writers—Alex Beam, Mark Feeney or Joseph Kahn to write it. One would hope. But so far nothing.

The proposition that still photographs are more powerful and iconic than news reel and video footage is, I suppose, arguable. But having been imprinted with images from Auschwitz, Robert Capra’s Spanish soldier photo and the photos of the naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, the Viet Cong suspect being shot in the head and a Kent State student kneeling at one of the fallen victims—it is an argument I would be willing to make. And it would be James Nachtwey’s photos I would offer as evidence…


James Nachtwey by Robert Birnbaum copyright 2000

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