Photography legend James Nachtwey on the enduring power of photojournalism

"I think photography is as powerful now as it has ever been." The prolific documentarian discusses how photographs can shed light on social issues and transform public consciousness into a public conscience.
A person holds a hot steel rod, the end of which is glowing red. Only the silhouette of the person is visible as shafts of light shine through thick carcinogenic dust on the left side of the room. This photograph was captured by James Nachtwey in Czechoslovakia in 1990.

James Nachtwey is one of the world's most respected photojournalists. Committed to documenting wars and critical social issues, his images, captured over 40 years with compassion and humility, focus on the impact of injustice and violence. This photograph was taken at an aluminium factory in 1990 in what was then Czechoslovakia for a series about industrial pollution. In this image, shafts of light shine through thick carcinogenic dust which ultimately had a lethal impact on the workers' health. © James Nachtwey

All great photographers start somewhere. Widely regarded as one of the world's most eminent image-makers, James Nachtwey began his career in the early 1970s. Fresh out of university, the American art history and political science graduate embarked on a journey that would see him document some of the most impactful global events of the past four decades.

The young photographer did not have any formal photographic training. All he had was a deep, unwavering conviction that photography was his calling. "I believed in it, and I believed I could do it," James told budding photojournalists during a talk at a Canon Student Development Programme seminar at the 2022 Visa pour l'Image International Festival of Journalism. "So, I began to teach myself. I rented a darkroom space, I borrowed a camera, I learnt how to develop a film and make prints.

"I would go to bookshops and stand in the aisles looking at books by great photographers, putting them back on the shelves because I didn't have enough money to buy them. I had great mentors who I'd never met, and I learnt from them by studying their work."

It took 10 years, he says, "before I felt the least bit qualified to become a war photographer, which was my ambition". James has since been awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal by the Overseas Press Club of America five times, the World Press Photo of the Year award twice, and has been recognised with numerous other accolades for his exceptional coverage of the events that shape our world.

After cutting his teeth as a newspaper photographer, James went freelance in 1980, spurred on by images of the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement. LIFE photographer Larry Burrows was a huge inspiration for James, as he found his images to be "tremendously moving and informative".

James' belief now, as it was early in his career, is that photojournalism is a powerful tool that can bring about positive change in the world. "I was driven by the idea that a war photograph could become an anti-war photograph," he explains. "An image of social injustice could become an indictment crying out for change. I believed people would care if photographers showed them something worth caring about. My motivation was to use photography to say something about, and to ask questions about, what's happening to people."

A group of five people stand against the blue sky, dressed in black burqas. The person closest to the camera raises their right hand. This photograph was captured by James Nachtwey in Karbala, Iraq in 2003.

"As a photographer, my goal is to create public awareness about crucial, unresolved social issues of the time they're happening so that the images help a mass audience make the human connection to the people being affected by those issues," says James. This image was taken by James in Karbala, Iraq in 2003. © James Nachtwey

In this photograph captured by James Nachtwey in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1996, two people on bicycles can be seen on either side of the damaged pillars of a building.

Taken in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1996. James believes that photographers are subjective witnesses working on the frontlines of history. "The best photographs, for me, have that personal element embedded in the images," he says. © James Nachtwey

Photojournalism and the press

If creating public awareness about crucial social issues is and always has been his goal, he concedes that the press is the most effective way to do this. And yet, having autonomy is vital. "I choose the subjects I photograph, and the way I photograph is my own," says James, who has been a contract photographer with TIME Magazine since 1984. "It's not dictated or influenced by editors or by any third party. It's based on an immediate, spontaneous personal response to the people I've encountered."

Public consciousness of an issue can evolve into a public conscience, maintains James, and it is photojournalism's ability to bring about this shift that makes it such a powerful and valuable vehicle for social change. Indeed, images from the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement helped to turn the tide of public opinion, he infers. "Politicians and military leaders were telling people one thing. The photographers were showing us something very different. I believed the photographers, and so did millions of others."

Individual photojournalists have an important role to play in creating a body of information and "truth" that can make a difference, he adds. "Journalists often put their lives on the line because they believe that an aware population is essential, that people's voices must be heard, that society cannot function properly without the information they provide or without the stories they tell.

"Their work is aimed at people's best instincts of fairness, compassion, a sense of right and wrong, and a willingness to identify with others on a human level across cultures and beyond the borders of nationality. They create a connection between the people they encounter in the field and millions of other individual minds and sensibilities – those of their readers and viewers."

In short, journalism and photojournalism, James believes, are crucial for a democracy to thrive. "Access to accurate, timely and unbiased information is fundamental to freedom. It enables citizens to hold public officials accountable for the consequences of both their words and actions," he says. "To be effective, the information provided by journalists must be factual and reliable, and it must be perceived that way by the public. Public trust is built on truthfulness and transparency."

A black and white self portrait of photographer James Nachtwey.

Photographing history in the making

Veteran photojournalist James Nachtwey reveals the stories behind his most powerful shots, having documented historical events in conflict zones and his home city of New York.

Somewhat sceptical of social media, James is at pains to draw a distinction between 'the media' – the press – and the former. "The press is obligated by a code of professional ethics to report facts as truthfully as possible. Social media is under no such obligation." At its best, however, "social media has a fresh point of view and creativity", he acknowledges. "It's a forum for debate and a cross-fertilisation of ideas that can help unite us."

Four people stand on a beach in South Africa. Three of them stand together, as two of the people hold the person in the middle. There is a fourth person in the background. This photograph was captured by James Nachtwey.

James' images depict intimate moments of humanity within large-scale historical events that shape our world. He is motivated by the belief that images can show people what's actually going on. "It's a profession that takes a lot of commitment and perseverance," he says. "You must deeply believe in it if you want to get through." This photograph sees a member of a South African Zionist church being baptised in the Indian Ocean. © James Nachtwey

Three little girls dressed in white, blue and pink clothes stand by a tree, covering their eyes to shield themselves from the dust displaced by a helicopter flying in the distance. This photograph was captured by James Nachtwey in San Luis de la Reina, El Salvador in 1984.

The ability of images to inform is one of the reasons James keeps doing what he does. "Images cut through the cynical language created by politicians to divert public attention away from reality," he says. "The citizenship that is aware can better judge the relative merits of political policies." Taken by James in San Luis de la Reina, El Salvador in 1984. © James Nachtwey

Photographers as historians

Convinced by photography's ability to tell intimate human stories powerfully and with compassion in conflict and disaster zones, James believes that photojournalists "record the first draft of history". Photographers are historians, he says, "but they're not looking backwards to analyse the past; they work right on the edge of time itself as the present continuously unfolds into the future."

Photography can also, he muses, "humanise issues that might otherwise appear abstract or ideological or a matter of statistics," while "photographs have the power to make human connections across time and space and to allow a fleeting moment to live on in our collective memory."

Speaking candidly about his experiences of photographing grief, James admits it is the hardest thing to do and only works when people want the photographer to be there, to show their side of the story and reclaim some of the balance of power. "It can only be done with sympathy, respect and humility," he says. "Many of the people I photographed were exploited and victimised. The powers that be tried to silence them, to render them invisible. But a photographer focuses attention on their story."

In this way, photography can provide "a means of reaching out to the rest of the world, even in moments of profound personal grief and sadness, as if to say, this cruelty, this suffering, this injustice, happened here, in this place, to us."

There is an imperative to respect his subjects' dignity, says James, who will show a person's power and strength even in extreme circumstances, such as that of a starving woman he photographed during Somalia's 1992 famine. The skeletal woman, too weak to stand, lies in a hand cart but proudly raises her head and her eyes to meet the viewer's gaze, compelling you to connect with her. "This woman had virtually nothing left except her will to live. As frail and emaciated as she was, she refused to surrender life. Even in the face of all the tragedy and loss she must have suffered, she had not given up hope. Why should anyone else give up hope for her?"

Bearing witness to such suffering is not easy, but James does what he does because he fervently believes in the importance of his work. "What sees me through it is a sense of purpose. It's not even idealism. It's just empirical observation at the effect that journalism – and visual journalism – can have on public opinion, and how it can help to empower change."

Asked whether the longer he spends in a place – or if visiting the same place multiple times – leads to greater or better understanding, he is emphatic. "Absolutely. The more time spent, the greater the understanding. The greater your knowledge of the complexities."

So what impels him to keep going back? "It requires never-ending engagement," he replies. "One crisis is replaced by another. One conflict ends, another begins. Photography has a powerful, positive effect on change. It never happens as quickly as we would like, but it does happen."

"Will photography continue to exist? Absolutely," he concludes. "I think photography is as powerful now as it has ever been."

Gemma Padley

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