James Nachtwey on the Impact of Images

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Article from PDN pulse:

Veteran photojournalist James Nachtwey shared the stories behind images he’s shot throughout his career at the keynote address Saturday afternoon at PDN PhotoPlus Expo. It was a presentation of one photographer’s life’s work, but it was also a 30-year global history of armed conflict and critical social issues. Speaking before a standing-room-only crowd, Nachtwey explored the power the mass media can have in stirring people to action when it chooses to cover a humanitarian crisis.

Nachtwey said he believes photojournalists are civil servants; the service they provide is awareness. Their work is part of the free flow of information that “is absolutely vital to a free and open society.”

Nachtwey first worked as a conflict photographer in Northern Ireland. Showing images of Irish citizens carrying out their lives amid burning cars, he noted that the “front lines in contemporary war are not isolated battlefields, they are where people live.” He also showed images from conflicts in Central America, Lebanon, Eastern Uganda, Sri Lanka and Iraq.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nachtwey said, he turned to documenting critical social issues. He had heard stories of an AIDS crisis in Romania’s orphanages and went there to report it, trading cigarettes, chocolate and brandy for access. In 1966, Romanian president Nicolai Ceausescu had banned birth control and abortion, and insisted that women under 40 bear five children apiece. Many families could not support five children, and the orphan population swelled. At the severely under-funded orphanages, sick children received injections of adult blood rather than medication, and AIDS quickly spread as needles were reused repeatedly.

Witnessing what he called a “gulag of Romanian children” deeply shook his faith, Nachtwey said. “Knowing that the world would respond” urged him on, and fortunately the world did, he said.

In 1992 he went to Somalia to document famine, which he called “the oldest and most primitive weapon of mass destruction.”

On the night before his second trip to Somalia, he had a nightmare that nearly caused him to cancel his flight—what he had seen during his first trip had been so horrific.

Somalia taught him the importance of having images “published in the mass media at the time conflict is happening.” When The New York Times Magazine ran the Somalia images as a cover story, the phone at the Times rang off the wall with people who wanted to help, Nachtwey said. Last year, Nachtwey learned from an International Committee of the Red Cross official, Jean-Daniel Tauxe, that the magazine story helped the ICRC mobilize the largest aid effort they had undertaken since World War II in Somalia, saving 1.5 million people.

There has never been a scientific study of the impact of photojournalism, Nachtwey noted. “We all do what we do as an article of faith.” Learning of the effect of his Somalia photos made him feel his career had been worthwhile.

Nachtwey shared some lessons he has learned over the years. As he showed images of famine in Sudan, Nachtwey said he has discovered that people who live in poverty are not without hope, that people who are suffering are not without dignity, and that people who are afraid do not lack courage. While showing an image of a Chechen boy who had lost both his legs during the war between Russia and Chechnya during the 1990s, Nachtwey noted that he had learned to channel his rage and “turn it into something that would clarify his vision instead of clouding it.”

He also noted that “people open up to photographers who share risks with them.”

After the attacks of September 11, 2001, he saw his coverage of the Islamic world throughout his career as a single story. He called the incident a failure of politics but also a failure of journalism. The Islamic world had been crying out, he said. “Why weren’t we listening?”

His recent work covering AIDS in Africa and his TED Prize-supported project documenting Extensively Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (XDR-TB) globally were the final images in his presentation.

In closing his talk, he again noted that photography, along with political will and science, is at the service of humanity. Photojournalists, he said, aim their pictures at people’s best instincts.

— By Conor Risch

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