"I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated." These meaningful words were spoken by one of the top wartime photographers, James Nachtwey.
James Nachtwey was born in Syracuse New York on March 14, 1948. Nachtwey spent much of his youth in Massachusetts and is a graduate of Dartmouth College, with a degree in art history and political science.
Nachtwey credits his exposure to photos taken during the Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights movement as the reason he decided to pursue a photographic career. Nachtwey set out to teach himself photography while working various jobs as a Merchant Marine, assistant news editor and truck driver. Nachtwey decided to focus on photojournalism.
His Photographic Career Begins
In 1976 Nachtwey started working as a newspaper photographer in New Mexico at the Albuquerque Jorunal. Four years later he moved to New York to begin a career as a freelance magazine photographer. One of his first foreign assignments was to cover the civil strife occurring in Northern Ireland during the IRA hunger strike. After his first taste of news photography Nachtwey decided to dedicate his career to documenting social issues, wars and political conflicts. This line of work lead him to numerous war torn nations including; El Salvador, Afghanistan, Guatema, Nicaragua, Lebanon, South Korea, Rwanda and Thailand, just to name a few.
No Family Life
Nachtwey decided early on that he would dedicate his life to his work. This meant that there would be no marriage or family, since he knew his career was a dangerous one and wanted to be able to dedicate all of his energy to covering wars without a pull from a family waiting at home for his safe return. Nachtwey also felt that he could not live the contradiction of photographing a starving child and then returning home to a healthy well fed child of his own.
As a result of his dedication, there are few historical events which took place in the past thirty years that Nachtwey has not been present to chronicle through his photographs. He was in New York on September 11, 2001 during the attacks on the World Trade Center and is noted for some of the most recognizable photos that came out of this tragic event.
His awards are almost too numerous to list, including winning Magazine Photographer of the Year for seven years, The Robert Capa Gold Medal, The Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, The Canon Photo Essayist award, and the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant in Humanistic Photography. He also holds the distinction of being a Fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and has an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Massachusetts College of art. These are not even a complete list of the awards he has received for his prestigious career in photojournalism.
A Life Threatening Injury
Photography of this type has always been dangerous, and Nachtwey has received numerous injuries during his career. His most serious one occurred during his extensive coverage of the US invasion of Iraq. This is where he received his first combat related injury. He and Time Correspondent Michael Weisskopf were riding in the back of a humvee with the US Army “Tomb Raiders” Survey Platoon when an insurgent threw a grenade into the vehicle. Weisskopf took swift action grabbing the grenade and attempting to throw it out of the Humvee. Unfortunately, before he completed the action the grenade exploded in his hand injuring two soldiers and the two Times correspondents. In his inexorable spirit Nachtwey managed to take several photographs of medic Billie Grimes treating Weisskopf before passing out himself. Both Times correspondents were airlifted to Germany and then to U.S. hospitals. Nachtwey managed to recover sufficiently to return overseas to document the tsunami in Southeast Asia.
His Work Continues
In 1999 Nachtwey published his book, Inferno, which included 382 photographs made during the past decade. This is Nachtwey’s record of the terrible costs of 20th century conflict and disaster all crammed into 480 pages.
In 2001, a documentary entitled War Photographer was released which highlighted Nachtwey and his career as a war photographer. This documentary received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary film.
In 2007 Nachtwey was one of three winners of the TED prize, receiving $100,000 and “one world changing wish.” Results of this work include coverage of the problem of extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis, a disease caused by bacteria that are resistant to the most effective anti-TB drugs. This disease afflicts one in three people in the world and Nachtwey took up the cause to inform the world of this terrible affliction.
This is not the only life threatening disease that Nachtwey has taken up as a cause. In 2008, he exhibited a series of original photographs at Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. The show was entitled “Struggle for Life,” which documented the human toll of TB and AIDS. The text that accompanied the exhibit was by Dr. Anne Goldfield with whom he began working in Cambodia in 2003. The exhibit included photos taken in Thailand, Africa and Siberia.
The Anti-war Wartime Photographer
Although James Nachtwey has spent most of his career photographing war he considers himself an anti-war photographer. Living in the midst of wars and natural disasters has taken its toll on Nachtwey. Nevertheless, he continues working because of his strong belief that his photographs can make a difference. Nachtwey, convinced of the effect his pictures have on viewers, has never stopped hoping to fight the horrors of war, hunger and poverty through his work.
James Nachtwey official site
Time Magazine-James Nachtwey
James Nachtwey:Five Questions
National Geographic James Nachtwey