"Every minute I was there, I wanted to flee. I did not want to see this. Would I cut and run, or would I deal with the responsibility of being there with a camera?" James Nachtwey. In one of the world's countless crisis areas, surrounded by suffering, death, and chaos, award-winning photographer James Nachtwey searches for the picture he thinks he can publish. He's a shy man who is considered one of the bravest and most important war photographers of our time, but he hardly fits the cliché of the hard-boiled war veteran. If we believe Hollywood pictures, war photographers are all macho men and cynical old troupers. How can they think about "exposure time" in the very moment of dread? Nachtwey is no rumbling swaggerer, but an unobtrusive man with gray hair and the deliberation of a lecturer in philosophy. 2002 Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary From The New York Times
Witnessing the Witness: Looking Over a Shoulder at War's Deprivation
by A.O. Scott June 19, 2002 Even if you have never heard of James Nachtwey, the award-winning photojournalist who is the subject of Christian Frei's new documentary ''War Photographer,'' it is likely that you are familiar with his work. For more than two decades Mr. Nachtwey has traveled to places in the world devastated by war, famine and poverty and documented the cruelty and suffering he has found with a devastating, eloquent clarity. He was in Nicaragua at the height of the contra war, in South Africa during the bloody mid-1980's and in Rwanda in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide.
Mr. Frei shows video clips from those places, and many of Mr. Nachtwey's memorable pictures, some of which are all the more haunting for suggesting, rather than showing, the extent of the cruelty and suffering he has seen. The most terrible image from Rwanda may be one in which neither killers nor victims appear, but one whose frame is filled by a pile of machetes. The film is less a retrospective than a profile of the photographer in action. It begins in the eerie silence of Kosovo in 1999 with Mr. Natchtwey turning his camera on burning farmhouses, grieving families and grave sites and follows him into the poorest sections of Jakarta, where homeless families live beside railroad tracks, and to the West Bank city of Ramallah in the early months of the current intifada.
In some ways Mr. Frei's portrait is exceptionally intimate, allowing us almost literally to see the world through Mr. Nachtwey's eyes. Much of ''War Photographer,'' which opens today at Film Forum, was recorded by a tiny video camera fastened to the body of Mr. Nachtwey's still camera, putting the audience somewhere near his right ear with an excellent view of his busy right index finger. This startling effect of immediacy is necessarily accompanied by a sense of detachment, not only from the people and objects Mr. Nachtwey sees, but from the man himself. On camera Mr. Nachtwey reflects soberly and thoughtfully about his career, and he comes across as a man of deep seriousness and even deeper reserve. Thin and soft-spoken, he has the manner of an ascetic who has subsumed all his ego and passion into his morally and physically demanding work. Following him into the field, we are at a double remove, witnesses, as it were, to his witnessing.
The paradox of being immersed in the horrors of war and deprivation while at the same time remaining outside them, is central to the work he does. Mr. Frei's documentary begins with a well-known quote from Robert Capa: ''If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.'' Mr. Nachtwey, choking on tear gas in Ramallah and on sulfur fumes at an Indonesian mine, helping a fatally wounded colleague in South Africa or following Rwandan Hutus into the refugee camps of what was then Zaire, could hardly be closer to the action. And yet as he himself observes, he must also remain an outsider, a sympathetic observer of what is happening to other people.
This sympathy may be what distinguishes Mr. Nachtwey from many of his colleagues. He acknowledges that recording grief, injury, death and distress is potentially a form of exploitation, but he makes it clear that the alternative -- allowing man-made misery to remain invisible beyond the reach of those whose consciences should be shocked by it -- is worse.
Several friends -- including the CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour and Hans-Hermann Klare, the foreign editor of the German magazine Stern -- attest to his immunity to the cynicism that is, like the risk of death, disease or injury, one of the inherent dangers of his profession. Mr. Natchtwey has, for most of his working life, exposed himself to the very worst of humanity and at the same time retained an almost idealistic sense of purpose, based on his faith that documenting war is a small, partial but indispensable step toward its eventual eradication. Mr. Frei's quiet, engrossing film is a sad and stirring testimony to this vision and to the quiet, self-effacing heroism with which Mr. Nachtwey has pursued it.
War Photographer - Viewers Guide
Check out HRW's Photo Essays at www.hrw.org/photos
Visit the International Center of Photography (ICP) website at
Read a statement from James Nachtwey regarding his work at www.frif.com/new2002/warp3.html
Read (or listen to) an interview with HRW's Emergencies researcher Peter Bouckaert - who has worked in many of the same areas as Nachtwey - at www.hrw.org/audio/2002/peter
Check out the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights website to see a list of international human rights instruments used in our work www.unhchr.ch/html/intlinst.htm
Interview with Christian Frei, director of War Photographer
- Can you tell us a bit about the history of the film and how you met James Nachtwey? It all began in April 1997. I was on a plane on my way to a film festival in Chicago looking through a magazine I had bought at the airport and saw pictures of this American war photographer James Nachtwey. And, I couldn't get these pictures out of my mind. I started to do research on this photographer and the more information about him I found, the more clearly I could see him and his work as a theme for my new film. Because the fascinating thing about this man is that he in no way resembles the clichee of a hardboiled and cynical war correspondent. Nachtwey is a pondering loner who doesn't like to make a fuss about his work.
- Was it easy to persuade James Nachtwey to collaborate on a documentary? "Photography is a lonely journey," the famous Swiss photographer Robert Frank once wrote. And I had to learn quickly that the idea of surrounding a photographer - who by nature wants to be invisible, looking for authentic moments - with a film crew was a bad idea. And this was exactly what James Nachtwey told me when I asked him to think about the idea of making a documentary feature about him and his work: "It's too dangerous and I don't want to be responsible for you," he said. "You and your crew would disturb my work and I am not used to being accompanied to war by anybody. Thank you for your interest."
- What was the solution then? I kept looking for a solution to this problem and I found it in the idea of a small micro camera, which we attached to Nachtwey's camera and which allowed us, sometimes entirely without a crew, to record the photographer's every move, every breath. The audience becomes an immediate witness to James Nachtwey's quest for pictures of war and social misery. However, this high-tech-equipment, without which we never could have done this movie, took almost half a year to create and build. Specialists at the company SWISS EFFECTS in Zurich meticulously worked for weeks, and in their determination, they often reminded me of the very early Swiss clock makers.
But they did it! Never before had it been done and this new equipment had to work in the roughest environments and under the most extreme conditions: At war in Kosovo, in clouds of tear gas in Indonesia, under attacks from Israeli snipers in Ramallah. For two years I followed James Nachtwey everywhere. For two years I went to war.
- Going into war zones? What did you expect? What did you experience? War is so very different from war movies. The adventure, the action, which we are led to believe is the reality of war, is hard to find. The heroes are hard to find. Happy endings and glorious victories are also hard to find. From a very close point of view, it is often very difficult to tell the good from the bad. Simple categories and explanations we use to keep the brutal realities of armed conflicts at a distance are of little use. War is complicated, often boring and horribly banal, terrifying, frustrating and sad.
- When Nachtwey speaks about his philosophy on photography and the subjects he chooses, do you feel that there are similar questions in filmmaking? What similarities and differences do you see between the two? I think we both believe in the potential of photography to influence opinions and better our world.
- How do they arbitrate the question: what is photography and what is "pornography"? Is this exploitative? It's a question Nachtwey wrestles with in the film. For me, the incredible thing is that not only did no one ever reject him, but I never found anybody who was obviously uncomfortable. Not a glance, not a gesture. I never expected that, after two years and the pure agony in front of the camera. It has to do with a lot of intelligence and showing respect. The greatest lesson I learned on this film is that attitude of respect.
- Do you feel you know Nachtwey better than most people now? Nachtwey has the calm, centered demeanor of a Zen philosopher. He is a documentarian's dream subject, but he is not always easy to 'handle'. Both of us needed a lot of time to get to know and to respect each other.
- What are you working on now? I am still very much involved as a producer in the promotion of "War Photographer". I get up to 30 requests for this film every day. I am overwhelmed by this fact. But I also look forward to starting a new project.