When military personnel speak of the “theater of operations,” they’re not necessarily referring to the subject of James Nachtwey’s photographs. But field hospitals are where key battles of war are fought—in triage tents and on operating tables, where medics working under almost inconceivable pressure try to save a leg or a life. Nachtwey, a distinguished combat photographer, was caught in a grenade blast while covering the war in Iraq in 2003. Last year he returned for the first time since his injury, drawn to this “sideshow” in the conflict.
If there were Purple Hearts for makers of images, surely he would merit one. The pictures at 401 Projects trace an arc, from the first, frantic rush of wounded pulled from the carnage to the gradual return of amputees to civilian life. They are political art of a very high order—at once intensely painful to look at and inspiring. With a director’s acute sense of gesture, Nachtwey clicks the shutter at just the moment when the urgent, crisscrossing welter of wires, arms, and gazes surrounding these bleeding bodies becomes legible as human drama. He captures a medic placing her hands upon a man’s armless torso, as if her very touch could put him back together; or a time when nothing could help, and beside a covered body someone displays a set of dog tags.
Further off, in a German hospital, an American mother caresses the hair of her enlisted son, who lies in a coma; it’s an image of heartbreaking tenderness. And still further off, on the shores of the Pacific, a man bends next to his surfboard to adjust his prosthesis. The camera makes him headless as well as one-legged, but the joke (if there is one) is on us—our definitions of living pale beside this man’s determination.