To Hell and Back


To photograph war, famine, and disease for a living it helps to have a steel-plated mind as well as a cast-iron stomach. Not many people are eager to be shot at or to examine dead or hollow-eyed strangers through a lens, at least not for long. The risks to life and limb are obvious. Robert Capa’s brave and celebrated career, violently terminated in 1954 by a land mine in Indochina, underlined the bodily dangers of covering 20th-century wars on the front lines.

Less visible are the mental costs of prolonged exposure to human anguish. One war is enough for most people. Timothy O’Sullivan hauled his tripod and glass plates over the killing fields of America from 1861 through 1865. But after Appomattox he took off for the vacant spaces of the West and seems never to have photographed another corpse. The voyeurism and high-keyed monotony of the job, along with the hopeless feeling that you’re exposing conditions inside a slaughterhouse for a carnivorous world, prevent most photographers from making death and suffering their life’s work.

James Nachtwey is a freakish exception. Year after year, for roughly two decades, from Afghanistan to Zaire, he has chosen to be on the ground when the body count starts to climb. The most highly decorated veteran in his field—he has won the Robert Capa Gold Medal five times, Magazine Photographer of the Year six times—he is a legendary barometer for other photojournalists. The appearance of Time magazine’s grim reaper promises they are in a high-pressure zone.

Five years ago I began to write a profile of Nachtwey for Esquire. I had been intrigued by his 1989 book, Deeds of War, which has more Technicolor explosions than all the Lethal Weapon movies combined. We had a few amiable lunches before negotiations broke down: I wanted to go into the field with him; he couldn’t overcome his reluctance to have someone tailing him. What I didn’t understand then, and do now, is how private he wants his experience of these public catastrophes to be.

His new book, Inferno (Phaidon Press, $125), looks and feels like a somber onyx headstone on this phase of his career. Massive and black except for the cover type printed in faded red, the color of dried blood, with 320 black-and-white duotones on heavy matte stock, this chronicle of horror—culled from his last 10 years’ work in Somalia, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Kosovo, and other circles of Hell—may be the most pretentious group of news documents ever assembled. The book is disturbing, but for the wrong reasons.

“James Nachtwey has said that he was once a war photographer, but now he is an anti-war photographer,” critic Luc Sante writes in his introduction, although this pious self-definition (which Nachtwey repeated on Oprah) can be confusing once you look at the pictures. He is clearly obsessed by the consequences of war on the body, by maiming and facial disfigurement, by the abstract pattern of a desiccated corpse in the sand. His gaze is far more directed by aesthetic wonder than by anything that could be called a rage against violence. Nachtwey is about as anti-war as Herb Ritts is anti-fashion.

Sante notes with some discomfort that “Nachtwey’s pictures are always compositions.” But he sidesteps the question of what to do with the troubling fact that the photographer took his time in framing and lighting the victims. When the starving woman in a wheelbarrow reaches her hand toward us, or the child on his knees near death looks up at the camera, we know where Nachtwey was standing when he chose to click the shutter.

The incense of sanctimonious words around these pictures can’t disguise the odor of superiority that lingers as you turn the pages. The power that Nachtwey exercises over these helpless people in foreign lands is mirrored by his ruthless attitude toward the viewer. Only an anomic could be unmoved by the fate of children with AIDS abandoned in Romanian orphanages, or starving Sudanese villagers caught in a civil war they don’t understand.

But Nachtwey doesn’t give us a choice about what we should feel; the subject matter programs our response. He is holding a gun to our heads: Weep for humanity, or else you’re a monster. To hope to make art from this kind of material requires discretion and distance, and the graphic presentation here punishes us by lacking both. The prying eye of the camera is justified by luxurious printing that turns dead or mutilated flesh into something for our delectation.

Is he honoring these unknown people by entombing them in his expensive black slab? Should we be grateful? Admire his eye? How do we translate the relentless message of the book—hardly news—that war is hell? If we don’t send a check to Oxfam after a visit with these ghosts, are we complicit in their terrible lives? The condescending air in his—and our—pity for other countries’ tragedies may be inevitable when the photographer and the audience are American. But would the families of, say, the Columbine students appreciate a German or French photographer who offered exquisite close-ups of their slain children to Europe’s appraising eyes?

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.

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.