James Nachtwey – The Improviser

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Starting in the streets of Belfast in the days of Bobby Sands, James Natchwey has become one of the defining war reporters alive today. At the Nordic Lights Festival in Norway, he talks religion, purpose, the meaning of his work, and facing up to the prospect of death.

James Nachtwey stretches his arms across the sofa and pauses to think. He’s just declined to answer whether he ever has nightmares, and now he’s fielding a question that ever war reporter has faced; has he ever truly feared for his life?

He recalls covering the civil war in Sri Lanka. He was embedded with one of five rebel groups, but the Tamil Tigers, the main insurgent group, were taking out their opposition one by one. He was on an island off the Jaffna peninsula, hiding out. The position was being over-run, and the native New Yorker was completely isolated, unable to get out.

He found a Catholic monastery, and hid. In a church in outer Sri Lanka, he found a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and he read it. He stayed there for three weeks, trying to focus on Shakespeare, until he found the chance to escape back to the mainland and to safety.

“That was the first time I really thought I wasn’t going to make it,” Nachtwey says, his voice even. “Parts of my life I’d thought I’d forgotten came back to me. I started to think about things I hadn’t thought about for years. My childhood. The life I’ve lived. But I never once questioned why I was there, or why I needed to be there.”

As Nachtwey tells the story, he knows he could not be further from the frontline. “I get very calm when I’m in a firefight,” says the man who took a bullet during a violent protest in Thailand last year, and was fragged by a grenade in Baghdad in 2003. “But I get really nervous about speaking in front of an audience in Kristiansund.”

He’s treated like royalty at the Nordic Lights Festival, an organisation whom have nominated the war photographer for the Nobel Peace Prize every year for the ten years of their existence, and are treating him this evening to a 90-minute ‘face to face’ on-stage interview with the festival’s founder. In the next building, Natchwey’s photojournalism is given the full gallery treatment; an inarguable showcase of this softly-spoken man’s ability to get so close to people so close to death.

Yet the 67-year-old does his best to puncture the reverence. He refers to ‘we’, the war reporter community. He places a lot of significance on washing dishes on commercial liners straight out of an Art History and Political Science degree, for it allowed him to see Europe. “Francisco Goya is the patriarch of war photographers,” he says of seeing Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Prado museum in Madrid. “It was the first time I’d seen a portrayal of war by an artist that showed the barbarity, not the glory.”

He talks about how many mistakes he’s made – “and I’ve invented a few as well” – of how, as a war reporter, you fail to get an image more than 99 percent of the time. He resists, again and again, the moderators’ invites to talk about composition, framing, the expressionism that is applied, by others and in retrospect, to images taken from the fog of war. “Photography, for me, is instinctive, improvisational and reflexive,” he says. “I believe in the basic elements of photography. I’m not interested in making a statement about photography. I’m interested in using photography to make statements about people.”

Nachtwey has spent 34-years in conflict zones. Inspired by Larry Borrows’ images of Vietnam, his early jobs came up and down the eastern seaboard of America, photographing – amongst other things  – Norwegian emigre fisherman off the coast of New England.

But his first chance came in Belfast in ’81. Bobby Sands, the IRA militant voted to the British parliament, had started his hunger strike in H-block of HM Prison Maze, and violent protests were flaring up throughout the city.

Nachtwey had gained representation at Black Star Photo Agency. Howard Chapnick, Black Star’s director, put Nachtwey on a flight. “I was greener than the grass,” Nachtwey says now. “But I wasn’t scared of the situation. I just circulated the city, looking for trouble – and I found plenty.”

Nachtwey learnt every alleyway and shortcut the city had to offer. “I roamed around the city, and I got to know the hot spots. I felt fluid, like I was operating well, and nothing frightened me.”

Chapnick showed the images to Newsweek, and they gave Nachtwey a six-page spread.

He returned to New York, but he couldn’t settle. He was soon on a plane again, heading to another conflict zone. “I was so fired up. I had to be back in that environment. After two weeks, I was on a flight to Lebanon. And I’ve kept going for 30 years. That’s all I’ve done with my life. And I’ve never looked back.”

Although he does slip into hyperbole on occasion – “I believe in the heroic nature of autonomous people,” he says at one point; “I believe in history with a small ‘h’” – there’s a sense here that this photographer is compelled by a very basic sense of purpose.

“When you go into a life threatening situation, you have to be prepared for the consequences,” he says. “You shouldn’t think you’re automatically get away. Because you might not. You never want to be in a position where you ask yourself ‘why am I here?’ That’s something I understood before I entered into war photography. It’s worth it, and whatever happens to me, it’s always been worth it, and it’s still worth it.”

When he’s pressed to define the sense of purpose he feels, he eventually settles on anger.

“You are photographing people that have been marginalised, that are often invisible even within their own societies,” he says. “And you’re taking that to an audience whose opinions and awareness have the potential to change these peoples’ lives. And so you have a responsibility to make those images eloquent.”

In a deeply religious country, he’s asked about his sense of faith, and he pushes back at the question. Eventually he says: “I believe I’m trying to photograph the source of where religion comes from, why people turn to religion.”

He shows a picture of a woman, covered from head to foot, walking through the bombed out remains of Kabul after the Taliban had taken the city in 1995. Then he shows the audience his iconic image of 9/11, a Christian cross and an American flag, the south tower collapsing behind. Girders are flying like matchsticks through the air towards Nachtwey. It was the 36th image in a roll of 36 images; the last one he took before running behind a building and escaping the rubble as it scattered around him.

Natchwey could see The Twin Towers from his home in New York. He knew, as soon as the smoke started billowing, that Al Qaida, the guests of the Taliban, were responsible. The contrast between the images is obvious, yet he says it anyway. “One of the final great battles of the twentieth century set the stage for all the battles of the 21st century. Everyone paid attention to 9/11 but, at the time, no-one paid that much attention to Kabul. That’s why we do what we do.”

See more of James Natchwey’s work here.

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Source Article from http://www.bjp-online.com/2015/04/james-nachtwey-war-reporter-photography/