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

A few years ago—three to be more exact—I wasencountering the usual indignities of a life of freelancewriting and was talking with the Boston Globe Artseditor, Scott Powers, about opportunities at that august newspaper.About the same time the renowned photographer JamesNachtwey was in town to lecture at the Photographic ResourceCenter in conjunction with his book, Inferno, newlypublished by Phaidon. Seizing an opportunity to showcase myskills 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’slecture and the book. Which I then e-mailed to editorPowers shortly after the lecture that evening (hoping, ofcourse, to also prove my creative rapidity and/or my rapidcreativity).

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

Here’s what he did tell me: the Globe haddone a big piece on Nachtwey three years hence when the MassCollege of Art hosted a major exhibition of Nachtwey’swork. Therefore, there was no need to cover this lecture orreview the book. Maybe he was being a nice guy and sparingmy feelings by not trashing my offering. Who knows?

Here is what I wrote:

Photojournalist James Nachtwey, who was raised and wentto college in New England, spoke and presented slides fromhis new book Inferno at the Photographic ResourceCenter in Boston last night. Over two hundred people heardNachtwey refer to the emotional challenge posed by the photographsin that nearly 500-page tome. As he showed some of the photographshe repeatedly acknowledged “the harrowing nature ofthese images” and his commitment to putting them infront of the world and his respect for the readers whom viewedthem.

Edited from 10 years of visits to the mouths of hellin Romania, Somalia, India, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire,Chechnya and Kosovo, Inferno is not a “bestof” collection of photographs. Rather it is the expressionof the narrative thread that Nachtwey realized was emergingin his work around 1992. From the horrors of the orphanagegulag in Romania he discovered in 1990 to the profound despairin he portrayed in Kosovo last year James Nachtwey, who isa member of the hallowed Magnum photo agency, has shot forTime, Life, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic,the German magazine Stern and the major Spanish magazineEl Pais. In his photographs, he conveys the dignityof the sufferers in a dramatically personal and direct way.We look right into the faces of Romanian AIDS orphans. Wesee close up a dead Somali child being washed in preparationfor her funeral shroud. Nachtwey gives us a picture of justthe arms of Indian “untouchables” doing body-breakingmenial labor. In Bosnia, we watch the bodies of Serbian soldiersbeing dumped out of a flat bead truck. In Kosovo, we are placedface to face with the despairing and displaced Albanian deportees.In page after page of this beautifully designed and printedbook— which is dedicated to the people in it—eloquentand direct testimony is given to suffering of the victimsof these crimes against humanity.

Nachtwey, who eschews any skill in writing and in fact,sees its practice as a totally different mind set, was persuadedby a good friend to contribute an afterward to his book (LucSante wrote the Introduction), “Inferno representsa personal journey through the dark reaches of the last decadeof the twentieth century. It is a record of loss grief injustice,suffering violence, and death. Implicit is the appeal to thereader’s best instincts---a spirit of generosity, asense of right and wrong, the ability and the willingnessto 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 Photographerof the year six times and numerous other awards. He has publishedDeeds of War (with a Foreword by Robert Stone) in1989 and the Inferno in 1995. His photos have beenexhibited at the International Center of Photography in NewYork, the Hasselblad Center in Sweden and in 1996 an enormouscollection of his work, curated by Jeffrey Keough, was shownat the Massachusetts College of Art.

Referring to himself as an anti-warphotographer Nachtwey asserted, “After I publishedDeeds of War I felt I had been released psychologicallyfrom covering war itself---I was starting to turn to otherstruggles people face---and I realized I hadn’t becomea war photographer, but an anti-war photographer.” Nachtweyalso scoffed at the validity of compassion fatigue. Despitethe horrific circumstances and the cruel misery depicted inthese pages he suggested that it is his responsibility toshow these horrors to the rest of the world and not allowfor his personal withdrawal from the tragedies he depicts,and he debunked the notion that people have a finite supplyof human compassion. As he concluded the Inferno'sAfterward, “The people whose photographs appear in thisbook are worthy of one’s recognition and the patiencethat may require. I have witnessed people who have had everythingtaken 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 lastweek when the Globe mentioned in its spectacularlybland “Names” (it’s version of a gossip)column that James Nachtwey and documentary filmmaker FredricWeisman were joint winners of the DanDavid Prize, which has a monetary value of one milliondollars. Is there a story there? One would think. And maybeThe Globe is using one of their better writers—AlexBeam, Mark Feeney or Joseph Kahn to write it. One would hope.But so far nothing.

The proposition that still photographs are more powerfuland 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 photosof the naked Vietnamese girl running down the road, the VietCong suspect being shot in the head and a Kent State studentkneeling at one of the fallen victims—it is an argumentI would be willing to make. And it would be James Nachtwey'sphotos I would offer as evidence…


James Nachtwey by Robert Birnbaumcopyright 2000

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