Notes from War Photographer

_War Photographer_ ([Netflix](, [Amazon]( is the story of [James Nachtwey](, a [photographer]( of wars, famine, and poverty for over 20 years who [recently received the 2007 TED Prize]( ([acceptance speech](

Despite his life in extreme situations and places, Nachtwey reminds me in many ways of Mr. Rogers, one of my heroes. His personality and even his appearance evoke the comparison. The greatest similarity, though, is both men’s motivation to change the world through the media, and their compassion for the people they feature. As his best friend says late in the film, “I think he thinks that good will triumph eventually over evil…I think that keeps him straight in his own head about what he’s doing. I think his optimism keeps him from being cynical, finally.” (1:19:40)

Not every war photographer seems to have the same motivation. Des Wright, from Reuters, said “I’ve got no idea why we’re doing this” (55:50). Nachtway’s decision to become a war photographer was made when he saw the photographs coming back from Vietnam, and how they showed things in conflict with what the politicians were saying.

He doesn’t speak onscreen at any point during the first 27 minutes; he provides voiceover narration once. He does greet people when he first sees them; after that it’s strictly into photo mode. But his silence isn’t out of shyness or an attempt to distance himself from the situation. Rather, he just seems very thoughtful, and reticent to speak out of respect for the voices of the people he photographs. Sometimes he even steps in, trying to help and protect the people. Wright tells a story about how Jim was on his hands and knees begging a mob not to kill a man in Palestine. (59:00)

There’s a story told by a German publisher about being in Rwandan refugee camps and seeing the cholera epidemic, and how while everyone else was traumatized by the horrors they’d seen, Nachtwey was calm, organized, and able to sleep. At first blush this seems to paint him as callous and uncaring, but I realized that when you are overcome with emotion and trauma, you’re unable to act. You need to be calm and rational in order to do something about it. And indeed, Jim has been able to photograph and share these scenes of struggle for 20 years, which most people can handle only for short and infrequent visits.

Interestingly, for a film titled _War Photographer_, many of the people featured are not actively engaged in fighting, but suffering from poverty. Nachtwey mentions that often the poverty (especially famines) is a result of war, but I saw his blending of the issues as a reflection of [Naqoyqatsi](, or “life as war.” The gap between the rich and the poor, for instance, is also a war, and a difficult one that doesn’t have a clear measure of peace or an easily-identified face.

In that vein, watching the lives of the Indonesian people living between the railroad tracks (~38:00), and working in the sulfur mines, made me even more convinced that the current way we work is limited. We need to find new ways of working, that scale better, that are less dependent on physical ability and attractiveness, that are fairer internationally, and that value people’s true worth. As we’ve seen time and time again, people in developing countries just want to work. They just want to have the same opportunities to work a long, hard week like we do. Helping them do so is a form of making peace as well.

### Interesting quotes from the film

A quote early on, paraphrased: “After the fall of the Berlin Wall, wars stopped being country against country, and started being people against people.”

> It was like theatre, only…I was on the stage, and the script was being written minute by minute. (19:00)

> In a war, the normal codes of civilized behavior are suspended…It would be unthinkable in so called normal life to go into someone’s home where the family is grieving over the death of a loved one and spend long moments photographing them. It simply wouldn’t be done. Those pictures could not have been made unless I was accepted by the people I’m photographing…they wanted me to be there. They understand that a stranger who’s come there with a camera to show the rest of the world what is happening to them gives them a voice in the outside world that they otherwise wouldn’t have. They realize that they are the victims of some kind of injustice…by allowing me there to photograph it, they’re making their own appeal to the outside world and to everyone’s sense of right and wrong. (28:00)

> The most incomprehensible situation i’ve ever witnessed was Rwanda…I just do not understand how people can do that to each other. (31:30)

> [When the Hutus fled to refugee camps and were dying of cholera] I realized that many of the people we were photographing might have been the very ones who commited the massacres I had witnessed just a few weeks before…and it was like taking the express elevator to hell. (33:00)

> [Talking about people living on the dumps in Jakarta] I find it incredible that people are forced to work this way, in order to make about 85 cents US a day (50:00)

> It’s a very competitive business; the most dramatic images are always the ones that get used. And there are a lot of people in the business who are very brutal in the way that they operate. They’re there to get the worst of the worst of the worst, and they do not help. They say, ‘I’m a journalist, I’m sorry, I’m not part of this.’ But I say, ‘But you are part of it’…it is a sick business, to a certain extent. – Des Wright (55:00)

> Fear is not what’s important; it’s how you deal with it, It would be like asking a marathon runner if they feel pain. It’s not if you feel it; it’s how you manage it. (1:06:50, in between several shots of him suffering from tear gas)

> Most of the pictures people see of famine victims are in feeding centers…we’re not turning our back on them and walking away (1:13:00)

> In the last few years it’s gotten more and more difficult [to get famine and suffering shown in the media], as society becomes more and more obsessed with society and entertainment and fashion. Advertisers are tired of having their products displayed next to images of human tragedy; it somehow detracts from the salability of their products. (1:14:00)

> The main purpose of my work is to appear in the mass media. It’s not so much that I want my pictures to be looked upon as art objects as it is a form of communication (1:14:40)

> I’ve ben talking too much; I’m pretty talked out…when this is over, we should head to the Sierras (1:17:45)

> It’s more difficult to get publications to focus on issues that are more critical, that do not provide people with an escape from reality but attempt to get them deeper into reality; to get them concerned about something much greater than themselves. And I think people are concerned. I think quite often publications don’t give their audience enough credit for that…at the end of the day, I believe people do want to know when a major tragedy happens. (1:22:00)

> Why photograph war? Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography?…that very idea has motivated me. For me the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. if war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war. And if it’s used well, it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war. (~1:28:00)