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Friday, September 19, 2008

War Photographer

...i first saw War Photographer four years ago. With another viewing, i am ready to offer my thoughts.

James Nachtwey documents people ravaged by war, famine, racial conflict, and abject poverty. Nachtwey’s persona is very much the Zen stoic, yet his photojournalism ranks among the most expressive images ever published. It’s this paradox that makes War Photographer such a fascinating documentary. It’s as if Nachtwey must deaden a part of himself emotionally in order to stay physically present while among the ruins of humanity.

War Photographer is not only a story of Nachtwey’s high-risk work in devastated conflict zones, it also takes up some of the difficult questions raised by Susan Sontag in the seminal On Photography—namely, what does it mean to document someone’s suffering? and where is the line between a photojournalist’s genuine compassion and personal ambition?

Christian Frei directs the film, and he’s at pains to reveal (and thereby tacitly comment) on Nachtwey’s process. Thus, a micro-videorecorder sits atop Nachtwey’s camera. This feature allows the audience to see what Nachtwey’s final prints exclude: the way he gains access to such intimate suffering. At times, we are galled by Nachtwey’s seeming intrusion upon the pain of others; and yet, how else to direct 1st World attention to 3rd World suffering?

The film also takes up the ethical uncertainty of war photography as fine art. We see Nachtwey’s prints being meticulously micro-managed during the darkroom process (darkening for drama here, lightening for effect there), and we see white urban professionals sipping wine and casually chatting at the opening of Testimony, a retrospective of Nachtwey’s most poignant photo essays.

It would be easy to demonize Nachtwey as an ambulance-chasing photographer, a vampire behind the lens. But such easy caricature would be to willfully ignore Nachtwey’s bravery and heart in the face of violent unrest, and it would be to willfully ignore the dignity of his photographs that, ultimately, suggest his work is not war photography, but anti-war photography.

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