|A CONVERSATION WITH...|
May 16, 2000
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Fidon Press has published a new book, "Inferno," that records photojournalist James Nachtwey's personal journey through the war, pestilence and famine of the last decade. Inferno begins with a quote from Dante: Nachtwey's photographs "There sighs, lamentations and loud wailings resounded through the starless air, so that from the beginning it made me weep." Nachtwey's photographs for "Time," the "New York Times" Magazine, and other publications have won an unprecedented five Robert Kappa Gold Medals from the Overseas Press Clubs. Thank you for being with us.
JAMES NACHTWEY, "Inferno:" Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What brought you to do this book? These are not easy pictures to look at.
JAMES NACHTWEY: "Inferno" is a record of crimes against humanity that occurred during the final decade of the 20th century. I began in 1990, and followed stories as they evolved throughout the decade up to cost slow. -- Kosovo. It's meant to be a kind of visual archive, so that this work will enter into our collective conscience and our collective memory.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Let's start with a picture from Somalia. Tell us about this picture.
JAMES NACHTWEY: This was a picture that was made in a small town in the town of Barbera in the intensive care tent that was set up by a humanitarian organization that had gone there to help relieve the victims of the famine. It's a boy who is near death. His father is trying to comfort him, give him some water. And in the next frame, the boy dies. It's a moment of tenderness and connection and love of a father for his son that is expressed in the direst circumstances. And it's moments like these that I've seen own over and over again that give me faith in humanity.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little bit about this picture.
JAMES NACHTWEY: This is in one of the orphanages in Romania just after the fall of the Ceausescu regime. As I traveled through Romania, I discovered a kind of gulag of dozens of these inhuman institutions, and it's a stark, graphic representation of the kind of conditions that children and old people and especially anyone who was perceived to have a mental or physical handicap were being kept quite often throughout their entire life.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You said when you were taking these pictures of Romania, you just wanted to leave, but you didn't leave. Why? What is the value? What is it you're trying to do?
JAMES NACHTWEY: If I cave in, if I fold up because of the emotional obstacles that are in front of me, I'm useless. There is no point in me being there in the first place. And I think if you go to places where people are experiencing these kinds of tragedies with a camera, you have a responsibility. The value of it is to make an appeal to the rest of the world, to create an impetus where change is possible through public opinion. Public opinion is created through awareness. My job is to help create the awareness.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: When did you start doing this? When did you know that you wanted to do this work?
JAMES NACHTWEY: I became a photographer in order to be a war photographer, and a photographer involved in what I thought were critical social issues. From the very beginning this was my goal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Long ago, in the 70's, right? You taught yourself to do it?
JAMES NACHTWEY: Yes. I began after college, about 1972. I began to teach myself photography. I went to work for a local newspaper for four years as a kind of basic training. But this kind of work was always my goal.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you do certainly shoot war... I mean, I think of this picture, for example, which is from Bosnia, right?
JAMES NACHTWEY: That's from the fighting in Mostar. I managed to get access through a group of Croatian militiamen in the very first days of the fighting as they were trying to ethnically cleanse the city of Mostar. They were fighting from house to house, from street to street, sometimes from apartment to apartment, pushing their own neighbors out of the city. What's very poignant to me about this particular picture is that it's a bedroom. It's where life itself is conceived, where people share love and intimacy. And now it's become a battlefield and a killing ground.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you've written that you used to think of yourself as a war photographer, but now you think of yourself as an anti-war photographer. Explain the distinction.
JAMES NACHTWEY: At the very beginning, I think I was still interested in the dynamics of war itself as a kind of fascinating study. And it evolved into more of a mission whereby I think to present pictures of situations that are unacceptable in human terms became a form of protest. So I found that my pictures were actually specifically trying to mitigate against the war itself.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You've written that you used to look for the moment of highest drama, a picture that would tell the whole story in one image, but in this book, here, for example, you've got consecutive pictures, almost like... it's almost cinematic. Explain what you're doing here.
JAMES NACHTWEY: I became interested in portraying reality in a kind of cinematic way through a variety of moments and angles so that the viewer could piece together a reality that was in a way beyond the presence of the photographer, that had a relentlessness and ongoing quality to it -- that became a reality beyond my own pictures.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And you've written that all your pictures are a combination of what is inside of you and what is in front of you. Explain that, too.
JAMES NACHTWEY: It's a confluence. I don't believe there's any such thing as objective reality. It's only reality as we experience it. And whatever emotions I'm feeling, for whatever reason I'm feeling them, get channeled into my work. If I'm feeling outraged, grief, disbelief, frustration, sympathy, that gets channeled through me and into my pictures and hopefully transmitted to the viewer.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what do you specifically hope that people are do after they see these pictures? Let's take just this one, for example, this is Rwanda.
JAMES NACHTWEY: This is a picture of a man who had just been liberated from a Hutu death camp where mainly members of the Tutsi tribe were being incarcerated, being starved, beaten, abused and systematically killed. This man happened to be a Hutu himself, but because he didn't support the genocide, he was subjected to the same treatment. On the most basic level, I hope that people when they look at this work will engage themselves with it and not shut down, not turn away from it, but realize that their opinion counts for something, that they become part of a constituency, and people who have the power to make decisions that affect the lives of thousands of people know that there's a constituency forming out there, and they have to do something about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, James Nachtwey, thank you very much for being with us.
JAMES NACHTWEY: You're welcome.