James Nachtwey

Art Around: A Local Look at Global Art

By: Sara Lee Burd

The Maison Européenne de la Photographie in Paris, France recently featured the exhibition Memoria, Photographs by James Nachtwey. Within the centuries-old building, the contemporary galleries span multiple floors, where the large-scale, starkly lit photographs captured viewers’ attention and did not let go. At Nachtwey’s show at the MEP, I felt stunned, covered with chill bumps, disillusioned, and inspired. I was struck by his skill, content, and story-telling. I thought that if I were a doctor, aid worker, or philanthropist I could do something to help directly. As a writer, though, I can aspire to prompt discussions and activity by translating my perspective and experience with this powerful art into words.

USA, New York, 2001 The south tower of the World Trade Center was ablaze, but its collapse was still unimaginable. People were evacuating but not fleeing wildly, while onlookers took their time viewing the scene.

Nachtwey’s work reveals his relentless journey to document some of the world’s most impacting issues. The artist has dedicated his career to moving toward the pain, sorrows, and tragedies that affect societies, traveling constantly to share the stories of the people affected. Curated by themes and geographic locations, the show presented 139 photographs divided into 20 sections: “Berlin Wall”, “Balkans”, “Chechnya”, “Famines”, “Romania”, “Rwanda”, “Pollution in Eastern Europe”, “The Sacrifice”, “War Medicine”, “Iraq”, “South Africa”, “Homeless in Indonesia”, “9/11”, “Afghanistan”, “Crime and Punishment in America”, “Tuberculosis and AIDS”, “Heroin Addicts”, “Agent Orange”, “Natural Disasters”, and “Refugees”. The juxtaposition of images created a thematic context for approaching the intensely poignant photographs, but nothing can prepare a person to see what Nachtwey has witnessed.

The subjects of Nachtwey’s photographs unknowingly usher us into their world. He relates a compelling history by capturing up close what the people in his works see around them and how they react to those conditions. Considering the collection’s interwoven presentation, we find that people across time and space share common expressions of grief, fear, disillusion, and hopelessness. Moving through the show, questions abounded. Why is violence happening over and over? How can we withstand the suffering that befalls humanity? What can we do to help? What can we learn that will make a difference? The exhibition evokes compassion and drives awareness of issues for which there is no easy solution.

Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mostar, 1993 The battle for control of Mostar took place from house to house, room to room, neighbor against neighbor. A bedroom, the place of rest for the weary, the place where life itself is conceived, had become a battleground. Croatian militiamen seized an apartment building, driving out Muslim residents.

A businessman covered in dust clasps his briefcase as he extends his body through his upward gaze. The man seems to be in disbelief of what he sees, one of the Twin Towers standing just after the other was felled through a terrorist attack on September 11, 2001. Nearly 3,000 people were killed and 6,000 more were injured that day. For those who know the history of the event, the tragedy captured in this photograph from the “9/11” series strikes hard, as they know that it was less than two hours before both 110-story towers crashed to the ground. Whether the man pictured survived is supremely unclear. His stance reveals his awareness that he is in danger, and the viewer is all too aware that his life was in more jeopardy than he knew. The tension presented here, which simultaneously concentrates on certainty and uncertainty, is a hallmark of Nachtwey’s photography.

The accompanying exhibition brochure reminds the viewers that the 9/11 attack had a broader impact outside of the United States: “Civil wars, ongoing terrorist attacks, and the rise of organizations such as ISIS have been some of the consequences of the day.” This perspective fits with what Nachtwey’s photographs exemplify—the world is interconnected through death and destruction. In West Bank, Ramallah the artist captured a moment of violence enacted by Palestinian and Israeli soldiers. Throwing Molotovs and stones, the Palestinian protesters were met by Israeli soldiers’ live ammunition and steel balls coated with rubber. The horrific scene and the annihilated city both suggest the possibility of continued violence and fatalities.

Nachtwey presents an unafraid perspective on corporal death and bereavement as he has seen it across cultures. Viewing these images is difficult because while everyone will eventually die, witnessing fatality in photographs is not common in daily life. Compounding the uncomfortable confrontation with mortality is the realization that comes from engaging Nachtwey’s photographs—that many people around the world pass away in unimaginable conditions. In Sudan, Darfur, the photographer captures a tender moment in which a man gently touches the bodies of two people prepared for burial, their relationship nameless. While the cause of their demise is unknown, the emaciated state of all three of them suggests famine. According to the exhibition brochure, “Death by starvation is the oldest, most primitive weapon of mass destruction known to man, and it is highly effective.” Sudan, where the photograph was taken, experienced severe famines brought from political unrest and drought. Grief is clearly presented, and the pain shown in this photograph goes beyond physical to deeply personal anguish.

In Nachtwey’s photographs the context in which the action takes place is often as important as the action. The bombed-out city featured in Afghanistan, Kabul contrasts with the billowing dress worn by the woman walking through it. The city appears otherworldly, dark, and without shape or life. The woman’s fabric flies in the wind, transforming her into an exaggerated organic form … a flower … a mushroom … a force of life in white. The caption for this photograph offers a reminder of the history of Kabul: “During the war against Soviet occupation the capital city was spared. During the bloody Afghan Civil War, however, it became the main battleground. By 1995, one-third of Kabul had been reduced to rubble.” The visual tension presented in Nachtwey’s photograph provides a stunning way to contemplate life in the shadow of war.

The art by Nachtwey in Memoria required endurance to experience. The photographer’s journeys to witness instances of immense human suffering are heartbreaking to see and imagine living. His technical skill, eye for the exact moment, and mindfulness when exploring issues threatening humanity create a powerful viewing experience. There are many lessons to learn from Nachtwey’s work. One of those is that it is imperative that we continue engaging with the past and present to break cycles of pain, destruction, and apathy. 

See more of James Nachtwey’s work at www.jamesnachtwey.com.


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