To Hell and Back

Award-Winning Photographer James Nachtwey Finds the Blood and Gore in Every War

In Robert Capa's scrappy, often blurry pictures of the Spanish Civil War and World War II, you can see where he stands in the political fight. Connected to those he memorializes, he is partisan in the best sense. He didn't dress himself up as an artist on the battlefield or in his books. Susan Meiselas's photographs from Nicaragua in the '80s are animated with that same spirit. Her encyclopedic and loving book on the Kurds shows her dogged concern for their unnewsworthy plight.

Nachtwey doesn't have causes. I doubt he knows anything about the hundreds of bodies in his pictures except their names, if that. He is the recording angel for the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, alighting at the sound of gunfire; then, after a week or two, flying off to a new bloodbath. He seems to care little how people live, only how they die.

You can't discount his courage in making these pictures, or his ambition. To be reminded of the daily chaos that is a way of life elsewhere is necessary for the imagination in a country sated on stock market news. Many photographers have aestheticized death, including Weegee and Joel-Peter Witkin. But their dirty-minded appetite for the topic can mitigate our squeamishness over their delight in the macabre. Nachtwey is far too guarded and humorless to say what his photographs proclaim: He loves his work and how saintly it makes him feel. Like Sebastiao Salgado, he wants to carry the world's agony on his shoulders and have us applaud his global compassion.

photos: © James Nachtwey/Phaidon Press, Inc.

No wonder Richard Avedon has called Inferno "the most painful and beautiful book in the history of photography." Both men need reassurance from publishers and museums to allay their fears that they're just guns for hire at glossy magazines. They need lavish productions like Inferno even if, like Avedon's series on the insane, the result is a hideous blot on a stellar career. They want to be artists who suffer for our sins, even if their photographs reveal their own tainted desires and the luckless beings trapped in their sights have done most of the suffering.


James Nachtwey's photographs are on exhibit at the International Center of Photography, 1130 Fifth Avenue, at 94th Street, through July 23.

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