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The Boston Phoenix Shooting War

James Nachtwey's Inferno provides a strangely beautiful vision of hell

By Chris Wright

MARCH 13, 2000: 

When you first look at the picture, you see a dump: filthy clothes, bits of food, rotten fruit. Then you realize the food is putrefying flesh, the fruit is a scattering of human skulls, and the clothes are laid out in human form, as if the people inside them had simply melted.

The scene is Rwanda, and the photograph is just one of 382 black-and-white shots in Inferno (Phaidon Press, $125), the first collection in 10 years from photojournalist James Nachtwey. Inferno is not an easy book to look at. An intimate, often grisly record of conflicts in locations such as Somalia, India, Chechnya, and Indonesia, the book hammers home the harsh realities of the carnage that marked the closing decade of the 20th century. It also confirms Nachtwey's position as America's foremost war photographer.

In a 1997 edition of U.S. News & World Report, there's a photograph of Nachtwey himself. This time the scene is South Africa; a militiaman is half-crouched, machine gun at the ready. There are three photojournalists visible in the shot, their lenses trained on the gunman. Two of them are maybe 20 feet away, laid out on their bellies. Nachtwey is within a rifle butt's reach, sitting upright, his finger poised above the shutter as if on a trigger.

In his two decades reporting from the front line, Nachtwey -- who was raised in Leominster, Massachusetts -- has been shot at and hit by shrapnel; he has contracted dengue fever and been the target of mob fury. Nachtwey, 51, has become something of a legend in the world of photojournalism. He has won more awards than you can shake a machete at, he is a member of the prestigious co-op Magnum Photos, and for 16 years he has been Time magazine's top war photographer.

It's not just his intrepidity that has brought Nachtwey fame. His artistry is stunning -- particularly when you consider his subject matter. More important, he treats his subjects with respect and compassion; his work is not only shocking but touching -- even, in some roundabout way, hopeful. "I have witnessed people who have had everything taken from them -- their homes, their families, their arms and legs, their sanity," he writes in the afterword to Inferno. "And yet, each one still possessed dignity, the irreducible element of being human."

And though the photographs in the book are harrowing, they are also strangely graceful, compelling us to linger over images we'd otherwise block out. As Inferno reminds us on every page, we can't afford to avert our eyes from the horror of war; to do so would deny not only the victims' humanity, but our own. Implicit in the book, Nachtwey writes, "is an appeal to the reader's best instincts -- a spirit of generosity, a sense of right and wrong, the ability to identify with others, the refusal to accept the unacceptable."

James Nachtwey spoke with the Phoenix from his home in New York.


Q: What effect are you hoping your work will have on people?

A: I want to shake people up. I want to interrupt their day. I'm trying to create some awareness, to provoke some outrage, to evoke some sympathy, to create public opinion about issues that really need public opinion. I want people to feel, I suppose, what I feel, which is anger and compassion, a sense that what's happening is not acceptable.


Q: As blunt and brutal as your pictures are, they're also beautiful, maybe even works of art.

A: Whether or not they're works of art is not for me to say. Whether there's beauty in them is in the mind of the beholder. But I won't deny that beauty and tragedy can coexist. I think that's a paradox of life. Any beauty that's in my photographs is something that was there, that was perceived and recorded along with the tragedy, with the grief and the suffering.


Q: Someone wrote that your work leaves the viewer "repelled and captivated at the same time." Isn't captivation a vital element? Don't your pictures have to have some aesthetic value, something to overcome our revulsion?

A: Yes, there is a balance there. I suppose there are ways to make pictures that just repel or that just captivate. But if they were merely beautiful then they would lose their effect. If there is beauty there, it has to be seen with the tragedy. Maybe the beauty makes it more heartbreaking.


Q: When did you first become interested in photography?

A: I went to Dartmouth College in the late '60s, graduated in 1970. It was a time of upheaval in America: the civil-rights movement and the antiwar movement were in full swing. It took me a while to decide to become a photographer, but when I did, it was with a purpose. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the photographers who had gone to Vietnam and whose work was so influential in shaping my opinion about the war and the opinion of people around the country. The pictures were so dramatic. They altered our states of mind, they put us in a new place.


Q: One of your first jobs was closer to home, covering the Boston busing conflict.

A: It was an assignment I got from the Boston bureau of Time magazine. It was the first real assignment I had from a magazine. It was, as you know, a major event in contemporary history in New England, and it was a major national event. It was an echo of the civil-rights movement. Segregation was not institutionalized in New England, but it was de facto. It was violent, it was troubling, it was disturbing in every way.


Q: Of all the places you've been, I imagine the people of South Boston can be just as hostile to outsiders as anyone.

A: They were. I remember following a parade one day, an anti-busing parade. I was photographing it, and then I stupidly went off in a direction on my own and got surrounded by a gang of kids from South Boston. One of them punched me in the face. They were very threatening, and I had to really restrain myself from hitting back, because I realized if I did I was a goner. I managed to ease myself out of the situation, but it was very hostile.


Q: Then you covered an equally screwed-up situation in Northern Ireland.

A: That's right. It was the first international conflict that I became involved in. I went there in 1981 during the IRA hunger strike. Bobby Sands was already near death, and there was a lot of violence on the street. Ten IRA prisoners subsequently starved themselves to death. I went there very green and didn't know quite what to expect.


Q: Do you remember the first time you were confronted with a dead body and what effect it had on you?

A: It would have been in El Salvador, and it brought it home, is all I can say. It really showed me the price of violent conflict; it showed me the price that people are willing to pay to fight for things that I had been able to take for granted in my own life. Since then I've probably seen thousands of dead people, and it does not get any easier. It gets more difficult. You become more sensitized, not less sensitized. Suffering gets more difficult to witness.


Q: I imagine you'd have to distance yourself from the horror just to be able to operate.

A: I'm not sure that's the case. I have to exercise discipline. I have to cope with the dynamics of photography in conjunction with the emotions that I'm feeling, and the emotions are strong. They're sometimes almost overwhelming. I think that's something that a journalist has to train himself to cope with. You have to justify your existence in the middle of someone else's tragedy, and [the way to do] that is to report it in the most honest, most powerful way you can, to try to bring an awareness that can create an atmosphere in which change is possible. I think whatever anger I feel, whatever grief I feel, whatever disbelief that I feel, whatever depth of compassion I'm feeling, I have to channel it into my work. I can't let it paralyze me. I can't let it shut me down -- otherwise there's no reason to be there. I think that the discipline of photography in my case gives me a way to channel it, the way that a doctor channels it through the procedures that they have to perform, and the knowledge that they're trying to help in their own way. The way in which I help is less direct than a doctor or a humanitarian worker, but I think it counts for something. I do believe it can count for something important -- it can, in the end, save or help save thousands of people further grief.


Q: There is a lot of craft to your work, composition. How can you stand over somebody who's dying and compose a photograph?

A: I don't think it would serve anyone if I were to go into one of these situations and make bad pictures. I just don't see what the value of that would be. This requires me to think of things like composition. It's a tool; it's not for its own sake. Whatever tools I'm using I'm trying to put into the service of the subject.


Q: What is your primary responsibility to your subjects? To preserve their dignity?

A: The dignity is there. It's something that I can't deny. My responsibility is to be as truthful as I can, to be as eloquent a witness as I can, to be able to enter into the consciousness of someone who is far away and not involved in the same tragedy, to create awareness and create pressure to change. That is the only thing that would justify my being there.


Q: It must feel more like exploitation when there's a gang of photographers vying for the same image.

A: Sometimes there are a lot of cameras at the same place at the same time and it really looks bad, but that means awareness is being created on a large scale. I think it's important to remember that photographers are not performers, we are not dancers, we are not actors, we are not athletes. The way we look doing what we do is not our message, our physical being is not our expression. Our expression is in our images. So it's unfair to judge us by how we look. That's not the message.


Q: There's a measure of hope in your pictures, a tenderness. They're not high action, heads exploding and all that.

A: I try to create a balance between being truthful about what's happening and allowing compassion to come through. I don't want to be sensationalist with these images, but there's nothing in good taste about a famine or genocide or ethnic cleansing. It would be wrong to try to do something easy to look at. You have to be willing to upset people, because they should be upset.


Q: Of course, the urge for us is to turn away. That urge must be even stronger for you, when you're right there and the flies are buzzing around. Do you get the temptation to just put your camera away and leave?

A: Yes, yes. There are times when I don't even want to go because I know what I'm about to see. It's not easy.


Q: You mentioned earlier that the help you offer is not as immediate as that of a doctor or a peacekeeper. Is that frustrating? Is there an urge to want to offer more-tangible help?

A: Of course you wish that you could make it all go away by blinking your eyes. You want to make this go away as soon as possible. But it's not going to go away. Is there ever a time when we do offer immediate assistance? Those times do happen. Sometimes when I realize that I'm the only one who can help this person at this moment, when there's no combat medic here, there's no comrade here, it's now or never, and it's me or no one -- when those moments arrive, I put down my camera and intercede. There have been times I've witnessed people being attacked by mobs, and I've realized they were going to die and I might have a chance to intercede and stop that from happening.


Q: Wasn't there a situation like that in Indonesia?

A: The one in Indonesia, I was not able to help the man. I thought I could. I actually managed to get some of the people in the crowd to try to stop their comrades from proceeding, and they did stop it momentarily. Then the mob mentality took over again, I interceded again, and got violently pushed away. I couldn't save the man in the end.

In Haiti and in South Africa I did manage to save people from mobs. There have been times when I've carried the wounded in a battle because there weren't enough people to carry them and they would just perish there -- so I've put down my camera and done that. It's a decision you have to make. At certain points, your humanity, your own sense of right and wrong, overcomes any kind of abstract journalistic purity.


Q: Is there a situation you recall being in when you thought, this is it, this is the end?

A: There have been a couple of times where I wasn't sure I was going to make it out. I was ambushed once in my car in Bosnia, and it wasn't just a couple of shots, it was very heavy, ongoing machine-gun fire. It was late at night. I fully expected to get blown away. Every moment I was in this situation I expected to be hit by bullets. Somehow, miraculously, I got out of it. I don't know if I had a guardian angel looking over me, or if I was concentrating so hard that I created a force field around myself, or if the shooters were just dead drunk. It could be any combination of those.


Q: But you have been wounded.

A: Very lightly. I was wounded in a land-mine explosion. I got some shrapnel in my face in Lebanon. I've been wounded by the police a few times. But I've been very lucky.

Q: Is there an adventurer in you, maybe a part of you that relishes the danger and excitement?

A: I suppose there is. I think that was part of the initial attraction. It's worn off a lot because other things have eclipsed that. But it's still at play. It's still part of it.


Q: Besides sacrificing your safety and comfort, you must also have a social life that leaves something to be desired.

A: I don't live for a social life. I have friends. I have people I care about and who care about me, and we're together as much as we can be together. Otherwise I'm doing my work.


Q: You're unmarried?

A: I am unmarried. I've never been married. I just never thought I could do it properly, so I never went down that road.


Q: Is all this hardship secondary to the work? Are you happy just knowing that what you're doing is important?

A: It's not the kind of work you can ever say you feel happy about. It's just not appropriate. I think at best there's a kind of grim satisfaction if you feel that you've done good work, that you've done it as comprehensively and cohesively and truthfully as you can, with content and emotion and form. You do get a kind of grim satisfaction out of producing work like that. I guess that's enough.


Q: You've been doing this a long time. You've seen more horror, or at least a wider variety of horror, than most people on the planet. Doesn't that make you despair for the human race?

A: I don't think we can afford to despair. All we have is each other. There's no other way to turn.


Q: Do you foresee a time when you'll retire, maybe start shooting food or something?

A: I don't know. I mean, I'm sure that one day I'll feel like I'm not effective anymore or I can't handle it personally anymore. That hasn't happened yet. It may, and I hope I deal with it well if and when it does happen. I think right now that I have the experience and capability and credibility within the publishing world that makes me useful, and I'm not ready to turn my back yet.


Q: So no regrets about the career choice?

A: No, I can't say as I regret it. I regret that I couldn't have been more effective, that I couldn't have done a better job. But I do my best. I work as hard as I can. I don't exactly know what the answer is. Die with your boots on, because it doesn't do any good to give up.


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