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Wednesday, Sept. 17, 2003

Being there

Photojournalist James Nachtwey embeds himself in the moment


Think of combat journalists and a certain image springs to mind: reckless, driven, possibly hard-drinking types, who thrive on danger and adrenaline rushes. You can blame the movies for that image; Dennis Hopper in "Apocalypse Now" may be too over the top an example, but certainly Woody Harrelson in "Welcome to Sarajevo" seems to fit the bill, the daredevil journalist who'll do anything to get the story.

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Photojournalist James Nachtwey

Talking to James Nachtwey, however -- the award-winning photojournalist who's the subject of the new documentary "War Photographer" -- one gets a very different impression. Nachtwey, a 55-year-old veteran of more than two decades of covering the world's hot spots, measures his words deliberately, thoughtfully, but makes it clear he doesn't buy the stereotype.

"The people I've worked with over the years are very serious people," says Nachtwey. "If people were thrill-seekers, they'd be bungee jumpers, because this job carries with it a very real responsibility. There's a lot at stake, and the consequences are very grave and tragic. You can't take that lightly."

"War Photographer," directed by Swiss documentary filmmaker Christian Frei, follows Nachtwey over the course of two years, on assignment in Kosovo, Indonesia, the West Bank, and back "home" in New York City. Frei discreetly shoots Nachtwey from a distance, giving us a sense of how he works, while also using a micro-video camera mounted on top of Nachtwey's own camera to give us the photographer's perspective as he frames his shots.

The most striking aspect of the film is Nachtwey himself, how he defies our expectations of a war correspondent: He's a solid, centered man, with the sort of powerful calm and focus usually seen only in Zen masters. We see how he quietly gains access to charged situations -- whether it's refugees mourning slain loved ones in Kosovo, or stone-throwing Palestinian youths in the tear gas-filled streets of Ramallah -- through sheer force of presence, a quiet force that seems to invite trust from those being photographed. As Nachtwey points out in the film, he offers a chance for their story, their tragedy, to be given a voice, an image for the rest of the world to consider. In discussing how his perspective has changed over the years, Nachtwey admits that initially his focus was narrow when he started in 1981, covering Northern Ireland as a self-taught photographer. "I had blinders on, almost, just going for some situation that was high drama, and I'd just sort of forget about everything else. Just those peak moments," he says. "I'm still interested in that, but I think I have a wider range now; I'm interested in more peripheral things as well, things that build up to that climactic moment, and I try to put them together to create narratives."

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Protesters on the streets of Jakarta, 1991

While Nachtwey has a portfolio full of high-drama shots -- see his photos of the battle for Grozny, or the collapse of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11 -- what may be his strongest point is the palpable sense of compassion conveyed in his pictures of the victims of conflict, famine and economic injustice.

"Yeah, that's the bottom line of my pictures," agrees Nachtwey. "I think they can evoke many emotions. In me, they evoke a sense of disbelief, a lot of anger and outrage that these things are happening. Certainly sadness and grief as well. But at the bottom of it, if there isn't compassion in the picture, it's failed on its most important level. I don't ever want to be too sensationalist about the events I'm covering."

In an age of intrusive, rude paparazzi, Nachtwey's approach relies on respect. In "War Photographer," it's interesting to watch him at work in Jakarta, wandering along the railroad tracks, which is the only free space available for the most destitute families to live. He moves quietly, nodding and smiling, with a soft "salamat pagi (good morning)" for everyone he shoots. He becomes attached to one man, who lost an arm and a leg when he rolled onto the rails in his sleep. Despite his injuries, he struggles to keep his family together; when Nachtwey's pictures are published, letters pour in from people moved enough to send some money to help. Now the man has a home, and Nachtwey's belief in the power of a photo is certainly confirmed.

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The view from James Nacthwey's camera as he photographs a homeless man washing his children in a river in Indonesia, 1998

Although his work regularly appears in mainstream publications such as Time, Life and Stern, it's clear that Nachtwey is an activist photographer. When asked what made him turn to photography, after receiving a double major in art history and political science at Dartmouth College, and spending time in the Merchant Marines, Nachtwey replies without hesitation: the Vietnam War and the photos that emerged from it.

"It was very clear to me that those pictures had a very big impact in changing the course of American policy," explains Nachtwey. "If it hadn't been for the work of the journalists, I think we would have been involved there for much longer. So I understood right from the beginning that there was a great social value to war journalism, that pictures didn't just record history, but changed it as well.

"That inspired me to become a photographer, and not just any kind of photographer, but a war photographer in particular. And I wasn't a photographer before I made that decision; it hadn't been a hobby or a pastime that evolved into a way of making a living. It was something I decided to do for a very particular reason."

For someone so inspired by the coverage of the Vietnam War, it seemed natural to ask Nachtwey how he viewed the reporting of America's biggest post-Vietnam conflict, the ongoing war in Iraq. Surprisingly, Nachtwey has no gripes about the military's much-criticized practice of "embedding" journalists.

"A lot of my friends and colleagues were embedded, and not one of them complained of being restricted," he says. "They thought it was a very good, professional relationship, that the troops allowed them to do whatever they wanted to do."

Nachtwey, for his part, covered the war from Baghdad. "That's the aspect I felt most compelled to cover, to tell the story of what was happening to the Iraqi population as best I could," he says, but he adds that there were restrictions. "We were in the hands of a totalitarian police state, and although we were allowed to work in a limited way, it was very difficult, and quite dangerous if you broke the rules, which I did as often as I could. It was very uneasy; this government was cruel and remorseless, and they could have done anything to us."

When asked if he was censored, Nachtwey says that it's nearly impossible now due to the nature of modern journalism, which is all done by satellite phones. "They couldn't possibly keep track of it all," says Nachtwey, "So they just tried to restrict what we were able to see and hear. But you could find ways to bend the rules."

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A house goes up in flames in the West Bank, 2000

One example he cited was going on government-directed bus tours of various sites that had been hit by American missiles, while having his personal driver trail the bus. Later, after the government minders had moved on, he and his driver would revisit the spots. "As a photographer, you can't make an eloquent and powerful image if there are 20 camera crews walking over the scene of the bombing. We'd go back later and I could work alone and see something more real, see how people were reacting to it."

In battle, being a journalist offers no certain protection. Frei's documentary shows Nachtwey choking on tear gas fired by Israeli troops, and Reuters cameraman Des Wright recounts how Nachtwey placed himself -- futilely, as it turned out -- between a mob and their victim in a Jakarta riot.

Still, he acknowledges the difference between him and his subjects: "There's a dilemma. . . . I get involved with the situation and people I'm photographing. While I'm working, I'm sharing the same danger, some of the same hardships, and I think they appreciate that, but at the end of the day, I get on a plane and leave them behind, and that is something . . . [long pause] . . . that I have to reckon with.

"But I believe there's a purpose to it, a value. Eventually the flow of information creates a pressure for change. I remember, the war in Bosnia at one time seemed endless, but it's over now."

Of Nachtwey's recent work, perhaps his most harrowing experience was covering Sept. 11 as it happened. Nachtwey had returned to NYC just the night before, and his studio was only minutes away from the Twin Towers. One incredible shot of the South Tower collapsing, foregrounded by a cross on a church steeple, nearly cost him his life.

"I was about a block and a half away," Nachtwey recalls. "I remember shooting, and just as I took the shot, the tower collapsed, and this kind of avalanche of steel girders, glass, office furniture and everything you can imagine was flying toward me. And in my eyes it was coming at me in slow motion. It was like it was floating ever so slowly, and I felt like I had all the time in the world to take this picture. And then at the very last moment I realized, 'This stuff is about to hit me!' And I ran into a street perpendicular to it and got shelter from the buildings as all this stuff fell over me.

"Then I realized, my God, the World Trade Center just fell, so I've got to go see it on the street. So I made my way through the smoke and got to this scene [points to a hazy "ground zero" shot], and I was so compelled to photograph it, I wasn't quite using my head. Because I should have realized if the first tower fell, most likely the second one would, too. And in fact I was standing right under the second tower when it fell. And by really a miracle, I survived it. My view of the second tower falling was straight up over my head."

While Nachtwey has seen tragedies all over the globe, he obviously had complicated emotions while seeing it happen in his hometown. "On the one hand I was very familiar with photographing this kind of situation," says Nachtwey. "Nothing quite this monumental, but I'd been in Grozny when it was being severely bombarded by the Russians. I'd been in Mostar, Beirut, many places that were under attack, where bombs were falling day after day. So I was used to this chaos, violence and destruction, and I knew how to operate within it.

"But New York had always been a kind of refuge, the place I'd come back to, away from all that. . . . Several things occurred to me, one of which is that America had just become part of the world in a way in which it never expected to. Another thought was that I'd been covering events in the Mid East and the Islamic world since 1981. A couple of wars in Beirut, several uprisings in the West Bank and Gaza. I'd been to Afghanistan with the Mujahedin when they were fighting the Russians, and during the civil war when the Taliban were trying to take Kabul, and in Chechnya, Somalia, Kosovo and Bosnia. And at the time I was photographing those stories, I thought they were all separate stories. But at this moment, history crystallized in my mind, and I realized that for 20 years I'd been covering the same story.

"My sense of sadness and grief for the victims was certainly very real and intense, but it was no more intense than it was for the victims of crimes against humanity in other countries. So I realized my sympathy for people was not determined by my nationality."

For a further look at James Nachtwey's work, visit his online gallery at: www.jamesnachtwey.com "War Photographer" is currently playing at the Tokyo Museum of Photography in Ebisu Garden Place, (03) 5428-1079, and in Osaka at O.S. Gekijo C.A.P. (06) 6376-1012. It will also open at Nagoya Cinematheque in November.


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