‘War Photographer’—Chasing Peace through Horrors

Judith Gabriel

Journalists who cover war are often accused of being “adrenaline junkies,” parachuting into conflict zones as they chase their next high, bouncing from one global hot spot to another. Depicted as heartless voyeurs, they aim their cold zoom lenses at the faces of suffering humanity. Their saving grace is that they alone can capture images capable of shocking an indifferent world into responding. At least, they can if they have the dedication and mastery of James Nachtwey, who is the subject of the soon-to-be-released film “War Photographer,” nominated for a 2002 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Although my own experiences in the battlefield pale in contrast to the life work of Nachtwey, who is considered the world’s foremost war photographer, I know something of the inner turmoil and physical tensions he reveals. In covering regional conflicts for the national Pacifica Radio network and other news organizations, I always brought along a couple of cameras. Never could I have anticipated the horror and the raw pain of the scenes I would bring back on rolls of film – piles of corpses, maimed children and stricken mothers, as well as the very real fire of battle, sometimes directed straight at the camera.

Photography is extremely physical. The human body that wields the equipment must position itself within the observable range of action, the closer the better. Print reporters might get by with observations from the sidelines, but not photographers. If that lens doesn’t get within eyeshot of the line of fire, there’s no image of the flames. The photographer is an easy target, and sometimes there is little protection in the role. Often, the outsiders with their cameras face danger from all sides. During the early months of the first Intifada in 1988, Palestinian youths hurled stones, despite the makeshift “press” sign in the window, at my rental car which bore Israeli plates as I drove through the West Bank, and more than once I choked my way through stinging teargas fumes as Israeli soldiers fired at demonstrating Palestinians. Rubber bullets skimmed by my legs; I was too busy looking through the viewfinder to know where they came from. Soldiers, settlement guards, and border police have aimed their weapons at me. To this day, I shudder when I think of the many times the pursuit of the story put me and my colleagues in harm’s way – in Gaza, in Baghdad, in Vukovar. The world has become an even more dangerous place for journalists, with 37 killed worldwide in 2001, according to a recently released report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. 


So yes, there’s adrenaline, which will keep you alive, if you’re lucky. And there’s also empathy to keep you sensitive as you thrust the camera into the face of pain, aiming it at grieving, humiliated victims, shattering their privacy – in order to tell their extraordinary stories. Photographers are hellbent on replicating these telltale moments in order to evoke a response – shock, compassion, protection – from larger audiences. With all the peril, with all the invasion of privacy, there is a sense of mission.


“War Photographer,” scheduled for a June 19 opening in New York City before it hits other cities, eloquently and graphically takes up these issues. Veteran photographer James Nachtwey, whose work and ideas provide the film’s framework, has probably thought more about these questions than anyone. The feature-length film follows Nachtwey during a two-year period to hot spots such as Kosovo and the Palestinian Territories, as well as famine-stricken Rwanda. A miniature movie camera attached to Nachtwey brings the subjects close as the photographer makes his rounds. We see him in the thick of the action as Palestinian youths swing their slings from rooftops in Ramallah; he is within arm’s distance of grieving survivors in Kosovo, and close enough for the cinematographer to record the hacking sound of workers’ coughs as they grope through the hellish sulfur mines in Indonesia, and the slosh of garbage as children forage through a Jakarta dump. 

Nachtwey’s work has chronicled some of the most intense situations on the planet: he hasn’t missed a single war in 20 years, witnessing an entire generation of devastation and tragedy without losing his vulnerability, as the film testifies. The filmmakers show journalists such as Christiane Amanpour, chief international correspondent for CNN, in the field with Nachtwey, and conduct office-based interviews with colleagues such as Hans-Hermann Klare, Stern Magazine foreign editor, and others who speak about Nachtwey’s life and work. “He has a library of suffering in his head,” one explains.


“War Photographer,” produced and directed by Christian Frei, portrays a committed, almost shy man, who moves with agility and care through the scenarios he is recording. The musical score emphasizes the dignified yet urgent nature of the subject matter, and despite the images of horror and tragedy, the film is a work of somber beauty. Scenes shift from actual arenas of action to the dark room, the editor’s desk, and the photographer in transit. We hear Nachtwey narrate his thoughts, giving voice to the philosophical issues that arise.

In his running commentary he reveals that he believes he has remained a humane participant, with the marked ability to document horror and grief while remaining compassionate. Throughout the film, the award-winning photographer speaks without cynicism about war and poverty, about the images he has captured, and about the role of the photographer within tragic situations. “I attempt to become as totally responsible to the subject as I possibly can,” he notes in the film. “The act of being an outsider aiming a camera can be a violation of humanity. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person’s predicament. The extent to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other, and to that extent I can accept myself.”

Acknowledging that it would be unthinkable in normal times to go into the home of a grieving family member and photograph them, Nachtwey says, “The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise.” In the film, we see him working quietly to strike up a bond of trust with his subjects, and often, he is immediately accepted. Under the circumstances in which he works, no matter how tragic or disturbing the situation may be, or how much the subjects are suffering, the photographer is usually welcomed “as a stranger who comes to give them a voice to the outside world that they otherwise wouldn’t have.”

It is precisely because everyone else can’t be at these scenes that Nachtwey continues to pursue his pictures with an urgent sense of mission. Photographers have to be there because everyone else cannot be, Nachtwey once wrote, in what stands as his credo about the relevance of his work. The photographer has “to show them, to reach out and grab them and make them stop what they are doing and pay attention to what is going on – to create pictures powerful enough to overcome the diluting effects of the mass media and shake people out of their indifference – to protest and by the strength of that protest to make others protest.”


“It has occurred to me that if everyone could be there just once to see for themselves what white phosphorous does to the face of a child, or what unspeakable pain is caused by the impact of a single bullet or how a jagged piece of shrapnel can rip someone’s leg off – if everyone could be there to see for themselves the fear and the grief, just one time, then they would understand that nothing is worth letting things get to the point where that happens to even one person, let alone thousands.” His aim is to create pictures powerful enough to shake people up. “In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war in order to communicate to the rest of the world what is happening, he is trying to negotiate for peace. Perhaps that is the reason why those in charge of perpetuating a war do not like to have photographers around,” Nachtwey says.

A member of the exclusive Magnum Photos agency since 1986, Nachtwey’s photos have reached vast audiences, appearing in magazines such as Time, Life, National Geographic, The New Yorker, and Paris Match, as well as other national and international publications. He has produced extensive photographic essays on Lebanon, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Somalia, South Africa, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and other locales. He has been named Magazine Photographer of the Year six times, won the Robert Capa Gold Medal five times, and the World Press Photo Award twice.

Scenes in “War Photographer” depict the trajectory of the image, from actual event to the darkroom, stopping off in the sterile editorial offices of publications, where editors analyze Nachtwey’s moving testaments with the cool detachment of brain surgeons examining an x-ray. This is no indictment of the men and women who decide which photos to run in their publications, but another aspect of the professionalism necessary to the entire process. The point is to get the most effective images out to as many people as possible. 

That is part of what motivates Nachtwey, who clings to the hope that pictures of war’s destruction might lead to a shift in global consciousness. “There has always been war. War is raging throughout the world at the present moment. And there is little reason to believe that war will cease to exist in the future. Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me. For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war, and if it is used well, it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.”

Few options are open to a person who comes within palpable camera range of human suffering, violence, and chaos. One choice is to sound the alarm – to rouse a slumbering planet by thrusting compelling images into their field of vision. These same images have been tormenting and driving Nachtwey for the past 25 years. He doesn’t like what he has seen, and that is why he keeps on looking for it, believing that if he can share his horror, the world will one day do something about it.  Ultimately, the war photographer is an anti-war photographer. 

This essay appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 8, no. 38 (Winter 2002) 
Copyright (c) 2002 by Al Jadid