War Photographer: James Nachtwey

Yes, yes, I know… James Nachtwey is every shooter’s idol. With good fucking reason.

We all know who James Nachtwey is, and we’ve all seen his absolutely amazing work. A lot of us even know about his background, and his philosophies about photojournalism, and why he does what he does.

For me, Nachtwey has always been an enigma. I’ve been following his work since I was a photojournalism student in the mid-nineties, and I am just as enamored with his images today as I was then.

I’m bringing up Nachtwey now because tonight I once again watched War Photographer, a documentary about Nachtwey. The program contains a lot of footage shot alongside Nachtwey when he was shooting at various locations from the mid-nineties through 2004 or so. Most of the clips are compilations, with some of the later stuff having been shot by the doc’s director, Christian Frei. I’m bringing it up because all you young shooters out there really need to see it, if you haven’t already.

Look, the point is, it’s a pretty famous film, and with good reason. It’s simply an amazing piece of work, and a virtual gold mine of information for all shooters, young and old. If you haven’t seen it, consider it mandatory that you run out and find it.

There is a lot of interview time with Nachtwey himself, but the most amazing part to me was all of the footage that was shot with two tiny video cameras that were mounted to the chassis of Nachtwey’s camera. One recorded the view looking over his camera (Canon EOS-1V), just behind the top LCD, and the other recorded the view looking up at the front of his camera from the lower right. Thanks to these little cameras, the viewer gets to see what James Nachtwey is shooting as he’s actually shooting it. You see his subject, and you see his finger turn the primary dial to adjust exposure, and then shoot. You hear the click of the wheel and the whir of his motor drive. Yes, I said motor drive because he was shooting film. Remember that stuff?!

Essentially, I equate this experience for shooters to something like – oh, I don’t know – maybe if all the physicists of the world were able to peer over Einstein’s shoulder as he was penning his Theory of Relativity. It’s that important. You can learn a lot just by watching Nachtwey in action.

I know it sounds like I’m lipping his ass by gushing about Nachtwey’s immeasurable talent, but the fact is that his photographs alone are not what make him the best in my eyes. It is his mentality and attitude toward what it is he does. The man is humble. On a regular basis, he sees the very worst this world has to offer. He tells the story because it needs to be told. Someone has to be there to let the rest of the world know what is going on. That is the fundamental driving force behind what it means to be a shooter. I’ve always believed this, and I’ve often felt like some kind of fruit cake when people (non-shooters) give me funny looks after I tell them why it is that I do what I do. Usually they can’t understand why I would want to see a dead body, but then I have to explain that no, I don’t want to see the dead bodies, but chances are that, if there is a body, then there is also a story that should be told.

Luckily I don’t really see that stuff any more. Now it’s all pro sports and street shots. I tell you though, I feel the need to be shooting something a little more… meaningful. We’ll see where the future takes me.

Here is some of my recent work for your viewing pleasure:


Late Afternoon in San Patricio

Three Shades of Macy

A Day of Rights


~ by peakaction on August 13, 2006.

7 Responses to “War Photographer: James Nachtwey”

  1. nachtwey.. i was just thinking about him this morning. i’ll be going to the vii seminar in nyc in september and its going to be a religious/emotional experience to be in his presence. it makes my skin tingle right now thinking about it. he’s that important.

    his work extends the means and motives of photojournalism.. into this overwhelming effort by a single human being to make a difference.. whether by taking an image.. or putting his cameras down and helping a wounded commrade, Ken Osterboork, in south africa. he’s been an inspiration, to say the least, more of a formulative figure in my life that will never be forgotten.

    i’ve seen war photographer numerous times, and i can say that it changed my life, easily. it was so important to hear nachtwey say things that had been running through my mind for the past few years.. all the times i had questioned my path.. what the fuck was i doing trying to be a photographer.. all those questions were silenced. someone DID understand.

    that second frame with the horse is stunning. gorgeous light.

    hope this finds you well,

    ps.. didnt know you did conflict? where?

  2. I have that film on DVD and have watched it a number of times, its very inspirational stuff. Nachtwey is just in a different level, it takes a truley unique and incredibly strong individual to do what he does for a living. And the sacrifices he has made to do it, ie, love life, friends, family etc. he cant have any of those things in a normal context.

    Amazing man.

  3. james nachtwey is amazing. i own that DVD.

    it has been an inspiration to everyone.

  4. Hearing Nachtwey in War Photographer made me realize you don’t have to try and photograph someone without them knowing you’re doing it. As as an expat living in the Philippines, that’s been pretty liberating!

    Your first shot reminds me a lot of the Eugene Richards.

  5. Today was the first time I have viewed the documentary. I’m not a big fan of documentaries but this one captured my attention from start to finish. At the end of the film, I was so inspired…so impassioned with a new fire, a fresh dedication and love for photography. Seeing his awe-inspiring photographs made me realize how sick and tired I am with taking mere “pretty pictures.” It reopened my eyes to the true task of a photographer. I consider it a mission to awaken others to the issues to which they blind themselves, crucial issues that if not addressed will result in humanity’s complete and utter degradation…all by the hand of ignorance.

  6. I have to say, I recently dicovered James Nachtwey and when I say my first picture of his “Rwanda, 1994 – Survivor of Hutu death camp.” I was immediatly inspired! What an amazing artist. Who knew someone who taught themself could be more amazing than anyone else?!

  7. i’ve seen that movie as well, and i totally agree with you. i found the film highly inspirational not only for the level of work that we see nachtwey comes up with but more so because of his reasons/philosophies behind his work.

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