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Matinee: 'James Nachtwey' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

12 April 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the twenty-eighth in our series of Saturday matinees today: James Nachtwey: Let My Photographs Bear Witness.

As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act this year, it's worth reflecting on the role photojournalists play in documenting the world we inhabit.

And James Nachtwey's 24-minute 2007 TED talk is a great way to do that because it bridges the gap between then and now.

The photojournalists of the '60s, in fact, motivated Nachtwey to follow in their footsteps. He became a newspaper photographer in 1976 before launching a career as a freelance photojournalist.

He has worked on contract for Time magazine since 1984, was a member of Magnum Photos from 1986 to 2001 and a founding member of the VII Photo Agency, with which he was associated through August 2011.

His assignments have taken him all over the world, including South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. And when, lacking a formal assignment, he felt compelled to cover a story, he paid his own way.

The talk begins at the beginning with Nachtwey explaining what motivated him to pursue documentary photography in the 1960s. "Our political and military leaders were telling us one thing, and photographers were telling us another," he recalls. "I believed the photographers and so did millions of other Americans."

Documentary photography is, he saw, wasn't just an argument. It presented the evidence. It didn't just tell the story, it put you in the story.

So he became a war photographer with the understanding that any photograph that showed what war is had to also be an anti-war photograph.

During the talk he shows his most significant images from that career covering conflicts all over the world.

Some of the images are disturbing. Some are charming, some poetic, some intimate. You see the dead, the grieving, the fighting, the aftermath. You see children at play, children starving. You see genocide.

Not from a distance. At your feet.

"I'm a witness," he says, "and I want my testimony to be honest and uncensored. I also want it to be powerful and eloquent and to do as much justice as possible to the experience of the people I'm photographing."

From covering conflicts he moved on to social issues, he continues. He goes to Rumania where he finds a "gulag of children." He photographs the legacy of the East European regimes and the effects of industrial pollution. And more.

At the time of the TED talk, he had been working on a series about crime and punishment in America. It raises a lot of questions, he admits.

He had covered the Islamic world, as he calls it (referring to a cultural that spreads beyond the Middle East), since 1981. So he saw the attack on the World Trade Center in that context, photographing it from his window. The separate stories of immense suffering he had been covering in the Middle East, Africa and Asia now seemed to be all part of the same story as the attack in New York.

Just as the photojournalists of the '60s inspired him, his talk inspires us to tell the stories of our age honestly and without censorship, powerfully and eloquently, doing justice to the experience of the people in front of our lenses.

The job is not yet done.

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