I knew my pictures had a message, but what it was precisely I couldn’t have said.
-Don McCullin, Unreasonable Behaviour
I knew that of all the gory and heart-wrenching scenes I had already photographed that morning, this dead baby was the image that would show the insane cruelty of the attack. . . . But the light sucked.
-Greg Marinovich and João Silva, The Bang-Bang Club
DISCUSSED IN THIS ESSAY:
James Nachtwey: Testimony
An exhibition at the International Center of Photography,
New York City, May 23-July 23, 2000
by James Nachtwey. Phaidon, 2000 480 pp $125
Ground Level: Photographs by James Nachtwey
Exhibition catalogue. Massachusetts College of Art, 1997
The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War
by Greg Marinovich and João Silva. Perseus, 2000 254 pp $26
IN JAMES Nachtwey’s photographs, it’s a relief to come upon a squinting sniper in Bosnia or Chechnya, or Croatian mourners at a funeral, or even India’s “untouchables” performing their grueling, backbreaking work. The subjects of these photographs may be bereaved, terrorized, exhausted—they may even be killers—but at least they stand upright, they look reasonably fed, they wear clothes, and they seem to exist within some kind of coherent community. This is far more than can be said for many of the people Nachtwey has photographed over the past decade: stunned, rag-covered Somalis and Sudanese holding their heads as they writhe on the ground and slowly starve to death; Rwandans hacked to pieces by their compatriots or expiring of cholera in refugee camps; grotesquely deformed, sore-encrusted Romanian orphans (Ceausescu’s children, really) driven mad through abandonment or dying of AIDS. Welcome to the end of the twentieth century, to the post–cold war decade of the “peace dividend.”
Nachtwey—whose massive, imposing book Inferno has recently been published, and whose work was on view at the International Center of Photography (ICP) this past summer—is, along with Susan Meiselas, Gilles Peress, Eugene Richards, and Sebastião Salgado, among the preeminent photojournalists working today. But unlike most others, he concentrates almost exclusively on wars and their aftermaths—he has said that he wanted to become a war photographer, not a photographer per se—and his work is perhaps the most widely distributed. He is a prominent member of the Magnum collective and has a highly prized contract with Time magazine, which allows him an unusual amount of freedom. (“James Nachtwey chooses what he wants to do,” Time’s director of photography has said. “We trust his...
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