a place for sharing all things photographic and some things not

James Nachtwey, peace photographer.

One of the photographers who inspires me the most is James Nachtwey. In some ways he has ‘seen it all’, but given the way the world evolves these days, I doubt it’s possible to see it all.

An interesting thing about photography is that you can never presume what the photographer looks like simply by looking at his photos. You can tell how he thinks and how he feels and how he shoots, but all these may not immediately present themselves upon looking at him/her. I’ve seen Nachtwey’s photos, they are  immensely powerful in their own way, but here’s a portrait of him.

This was taken in 1995. When I first googled his portrait image, I was surprised by how old he was. Granted he had been there for many wars, but the fact that he’s still doing it now surprises me. I thought him to be younger.

Back to the point I want to make. There was an article published that was sort of a writeup for Nachtwey. The website called it a eulogy but that’s a misnomer in the sense that he is still with us. There are several lines that jump out at me and I cannot help but to agree with them. For those of you who can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, I’ll pick out some excerpts.

War is a huge, infernal industry, the largest one on this planet. It seems presumptuous for one man to attempt to stand in the way of this machinery. Once war has broken out, everything spirals out of control almost immediately, turning even the armies and the soldiers who fight in it into helpless onlookers, victims of their own hubris. Who would dare then to oppose it and put it into perspective with mere… photographs.

 Just imagine going to war with that! And imagine doing so just to take a picture to undeceive the entire world and tell them what’s going on there!

Each photograph contains a second one, invisible at first, that doesn’t reveal itself immediately. It’s a “reverse angle”, if you will, a “counter-shot”. That reminds us that taking photos is also called “to shoot pictures”… Yes, the camera is shooting back, is literally “backfiring”! The eye that looks through the lens is also reflected on the photo itself. It leaves a faint, sometimes shadowy trace of the photographer, something between a silhouette and an engraving, an “image” not of his features, but of his… heart, his soul, his mind, his spirits. Let’s stay with the first and simple word for a moment, “the heart”.

These lines were written with much thought, and I find them true to the spirit of what it describes. I don’t think I have heard the same sentiments expressed in the same way by another. The article was also to talk about Nachtwey winning the Dresden International Peace Prize.

This man is a “Menschenfreund”, a lover of humanity, and therefore an enemy of war.

A lover of humanity. No better way to put it.

I leave you in the good hands of the original article, which although wordy, bears true in the things that it asserts.

Just remember, everytime you see an image by Nachtwey, an image of war or the many bloodied trails that it leaves behind, it is not about you, it is not about him, it’s about us, as a people, as one humanity. It’s what we choose to do and what we don’t. It’s what we see and what we pretend not to. And perhaps, the remnants of one man’s undying hope that someday this world will be a better place.

Image by James Nachtwey


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