James Nachtwey and The Other

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James Nachtwey is an American photojournalist and war photographer. He has been awarded the Overseas Press Club’s Robert Capa Gold Medal five times. In 2003, he was injured by a grenade in an attack on his convoy while serving as a Time contributing correspondent in Baghdad, from which he has made a full recovery. He is by all accounts one of the greatest war photojournalists of our time, a member of The Bang Bang Club and Magnum, he has bodies of work ranging from Sudan, Kosovo and Northern Ireland to the Middle East and 9/11.

His words are always haunting, he has seen and photographed horror in its deepest and darkest form. It is miraculous he has survived both physically and mentally so far. He remembers;

“The most incomprehensible situation I’ve ever witnessed was Rwanda where we don’t really know how many people died; the estimate of half a million to a million. They were killed with very primitive weapons; clubs and rocks and machetes, face to face. And I saw some massacre sites and I just do not understand how people can do that to each other. What can inspire such fear and such hatred? This is beyond my understanding really. It’s very difficult to get over that.

…And I realised that many of the people I was photographing might have been the very ones who had committed the massacres that I had witnessed just a few weeks before. And it was like taking the express elevator to hell.”

A lot of photojournalism is knowledge, absorbing information and coming to an innate understanding of the events. This should never be achieved on the road to the event. You must think first as a journalist and second as a photographer. Journalism will always provide you with the context in what to shoot, rather than choosing the most attractive position. James is a connoisseur in this field, but was thrown when the attacks of 9/11 happened, almost dying while shooting under the WTC 2, when it fell.

Nachtwey spent the rest of the day, after the collapse, at Ground Zero doing his job. He had brought 28 rolls of film as he had not switched to digital in 2001. It is possible that Nachtwey kept these rolls in a fridge for a decade before making contact sheets, but I think their was a deeper reason he did so, out of grief and pain, but possibly out of realisation.

Susan Sontag was an American author, literary theorist, feminist and political activist whose works include On Photography and Against Interpretation, she also wrote about ‘The Other’. The Other, or alterity, implies the ability to distinguish between self and not-self, and consequently to assume the existence of an alternative viewpoint. Nachtwey could work with alterity, as most soldiers on the front line do, but with the horror unfolding in his backyard it was hard for him to distance himself from it, as the people around him spoke English, were Western and were smartly dressed. Like most of the Western world, the feeling of surreality swept over James – yet his basic photographic instincts did take over;

“Through the years my work has been fueled by anger at injustices and atrocities, but always in another country. Now it had happened in my own country, my own city, my own backyard, and the sense of anger had an edge that was even more personal.

I was surprised at how raw I still felt about that day. I realized I’d buried it and wanted to keep it buried. There must be plenty of reasons why, but they’re mostly unarticulated, and maybe they always will be. The sheer magnitude of it, the unreality, the horror, the futility, the insane, evil brilliance of the attack and the plain fact that it succeeded, the ways in which it changed the world, an overwhelming, unbearable sense of loss, because photography is a form of memory, a physical manifestation of it, and some memories want to be locked away, and I was unlocking them.”

You could argue that soldiers trained for battle in foreign countries are less effective when dealing with home horror – as they are trained to use alterity when abroad. For James Nachtwey to be open and honest about his work is not new, but what we see by his actions in only publishing the work now, show his pain. There is a distinct lack of dead bodies in the images – granted they were buried after the collapse – but not before as jumpers hit the Plaza. He can distance himself from this when shooting conflicts in other countries, he can investigate and press the shutter in the face of a mother clutching her TB diagnosed child in Cambodia, but as those first jumpers leapt from the World Trade Center in the USA, James mentally stepped out of alterity and became the victim.  The forth wall, through his eyes, had finally been broken.

See the Time piece here – Revisiting 9/11: Unpublished Photos by James Nachtwey

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One thought on “James Nachtwey and The Other

  1. Great post about an incredible photographer

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