"I believe in the power of information": James Nachtwey in conversation with Hilary Roberts

A young Hutu man's profile reveals several long, deep scars across his scalp and face in Rwanda.
A survivor of a Hutu death camp poses for James, at the height of the 1994 Rwandan troubles. © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

A hero of photojournalism, James Nachtwey has spent more than four decades documenting conflicts, disasters and disease across the globe.

Born in 1948, in New York, James is one of the industry's most highly-respected documentary reporters. After teaching himself photography, he worked as a freelancer for Time magazine, before landing his first job, in 1976, at the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico. His work has shocked, awed and inspired ever since.

At the launch of Memoria, his globe-touring retrospective exhibition beginning in Milan, James spoke at length with Canon Ambassador Hilary Roberts, Research Curator of Photography at London's Imperial War Museum. They discussed breaking into photography, whether images can make a difference, and the emotional impact of witnessing worldwide tragedies. He shares his experiences of covering Romanian orphanages, the Rwandan genocide, 9/11, the European refugee crisis, and offers his thoughts on the current state of the photojournalism industry.

Hilary Roberts: The poster image for your Memoria exhibition shows the head of a young Hutu man in Rwanda (above). He's badly scarred, and clearly traumatised. It's an image that needs no caption in terms of what it says about man's inhumanity to man. I imagine that was one of many horrible sights that you saw in Rwanda, but does this have particular significance for you?

James Nachtwey: Very much so. He'd just been liberated from a Hutu concentration camp where people were being tortured and killed, and they were brought to quite rudimentary medical stations. I was there photographing and he came in. He couldn't speak and I didn't speak his language anyway, but I made eye contact with him and through body language asked if I could photograph him. He implicitly agreed and at one point even turned his face towards the light. That's when I made that picture. I think he understood what his scars would say to the rest of the world. I think he, at that point, designated me to be his messenger.

You came to my attention when you covered the hunger strikes in Northern Ireland in 1981, but before then you worked as a press photographer in the United States. What first attracted you to photography?

There's nothing in my background growing up that would have indicated any interest or aptitude in photography. It's something that I decided to do after I graduated. I was inspired by photography from the Vietnam War, and the American Civil Rights Movement. These pictures had a great impact on me personally and changed my opinion about what was going on in reality. Our politicians and military leaders were telling us one thing and photographers were telling us another – they were telling us what was actually happening.

You taught yourself photography – how?

I didn't have enough money to enrol in photography school. I began taking pictures on a borrowed camera. I'd read books about how to expose and develop film, how to make prints – I would rent darkroom space to practise. Wherever I happened to be, I'd make believe I had a magazine assignment – I would go out on my own and try to produce pictures that I might show to an editor. Over the course of years, I built a portfolio and eventually took it to Time magazine's Boston bureau. They liked what they saw and began to give me assignments.

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After a couple of years of that, I was making a living, but I decided the assignments weren't enough, and I thought that working for a newspaper would be the way to get that intense daily experience. I applied to newspapers in parts of America that I was unfamiliar with. I got a job offer from the Albuquerque Journal in New Mexico, so I got on a plane and flew out there. I spent four years learning the craft of photojournalism, making every mistake known to man and inventing a few that never existed before, and slowly gained experience and confidence. A couple of the Journal's photographers on the staff were very good, and they mentored me.

After four years at the paper, I woke up in the middle of the night, realising that I'd learned everything I could from the experience so it was time to move on. The next day I quit my job, packed up my Volkswagen Beetle and drove to New York. I began a freelance career there. I became associated with Black Star photo agency. It was run by a fantastic man named Howard Chapnick, who is a scholar and a gentleman and a real believer in photography. He was so supportive of me that when the hunger strike began and turmoil hit the streets in Belfast and Derry, I just told Howard, 'I want to go there'. I had no assignment, I just got on a plane and began.

Palestinians throw flaming molotovs at Israeli soldiers in the West Bank in 2000.
During the second Palestinian Intifada, violence was intense on both sides as demonstrators threw missiles at soldiers, who shoot real ammunition and rubber bullets, often with fatal results. Taken in Ramallah, West Bank in 2000. © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

Do you think it's essential for young photographers to take risks to get started in their careers today?

You take risks to get started and you take risks every step of the way, as long as you're a photographer. But you should never be reckless, because the consequences can be very serious – beyond just failure. If your pictures are going to be seen by the public, you want to make sure you're doing your best to get the story right. We're experiencing history in real time. We don't know what everything means. That's why we're photographing it [but] we have to use our instincts and our knowledge of the past to try to project an image that has some kind of truth in it.

Take risks every step of the way... but you should never be reckless.

Does the label 'war photographer' help or hinder you? Some photographers feel it unduly narrows people's perceptions of what they do.

I don't think it matters that much. It's just a label of convenience. Portrait photographers are called portrait photographers, and landscape photographers are called landscape photographers, although at heart they're doing something much more than that.

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Social documentary work is part of what you do, alongside conflict photography, is that right?

Yes. I began concentrating on war and conflict, and did that for 10 years, almost exclusively. I'd go from war to war throughout the world. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the breakup of the East European block, I was curious about Romania because it had been the least accessible of all the East European countries. Suddenly, it was open. I just went there, without an assignment. I heard there were these orphanages throughout the country, but nobody could tell me where. I found an interpreter, hired a car, drove around looking for them and discovered a gulag of children.

It was different from the kind of violence I had witnessed in wars. It was state sanctioned, institutionalised cruelty to completely innocent human beings and it really shook me up. I spent several weeks documenting this crime against humanity. I think that broadened my focus – I could see the value in photographing critical social issues and injustices that were crying out to be corrected, but needed to be revealed first. For the next 10 years I worked on a project that became the book Inferno.

A famine victim in Sudan lies huddled on the ground in a feeding centre, shrouded in a blanket with one eye looking out, waiting to be given water from a bowl.
James spent more than three decades photographing human disaster around the world, including the famine in Darfur, Sudan in the 1990s. Here, a famine victim in a feeding centre is too weak to drink from the water that lies within arm's reach and must wait for assistance. Taken in 1993. © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

Don McCullin has said that he doesn't believe his photographs have made a difference. What are your thoughts about your work? Have you seen how photographs bring change for the better, or inform people?

I believe in the power of information in the mind of the public. [Information stops people simply being] monopolised by the powers that be. The process of change is dependent upon that. There's empirical evidence that the work of the press – not my work, or the work of any one journalist, but the work of all of us together – creates a critical mass of information that helps create change. There are wars that people think are hopeless and will never end, but they do, and one of the reasons for this is because of information and the collective conscience it creates. When the war in Iraq began, the American public was overwhelmingly in favour. Fast forward a few years and the majority of Americans are overwhelmingly against it. What made that difference but information?

Moving on to your latest project, Memoria, a major retrospective exhibition, which is also going to be a book. What do you hope it will deliver?

I took this as an opportunity to communicate on another platform, not in the press, but in an exhibition space. My work is intended to be in the mass media at the time these events are taking place, so it becomes part of people's daily dialogue. But a secondary use for the pictures is to be contemplated outside of that context. As much as photography is about a single moment, it's also timeless. When you see pictures isolated from the news, you contemplate them in a different way.

My pictures aren't intended to confirm what I already know.

I absolutely agree. Going around the exhibition, there was a strong element of spirituality in some of those photographs, which invited you to reflect. I wondered what you thought about the difficulties of juxtaposing beauty with the more graphic horror of conflict. How do you frame an image in your mind? Is it instinctive?

I work in the moment. It's a personal reaction to what I'm seeing. There's no template. My pictures are not intended to confirm what I already know. The process of photography is a way of exploring reality in real time, and real space. Everything is a result of an improvisation. If beauty does exist or coexists with tragedy, it's part of life, not something I or any other photographer is imposing. I don't make pictures for the sake of beauty. It might be an element of what's happening and I don't exactly know why that is. It could be a mechanism within human nature that allows us to contemplate tragedy without turning away, maybe that's the purpose of it. But if someone looks at any of my pictures and all they see is something beautiful, the picture fails.

In a battle-scarred bedroom, a Croat militiaman leans out of the window and fires on his Muslim neighbours with a rifle.
The battle for the control of Mostar took place from house to house, from room to room, between neighbours. Here, a bedroom has become a battlefield. Taken in Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1993. © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

I'd like to talk about some specific examples from the exhibition. Some are extremely well known but they still leap out at you. The first image is from the battle from Mostar in Bosnia, in 1993, showing a Croat fighter firing his weapon out of a window (above)...

I'd just arrived in Bosnia for the first time. I got there on the second day of the battle. I was with another photographer, and we managed to attach ourselves to a group of Croatian militiamen who were fighting from house to house, from room to room, trying to expel their Muslim neighbours who they'd lived with for generations in peace. With this post-national civil war that broke Yugoslavia apart, ordinary citizens were forming themselves into militias to create sovereign entities for their own ethnic groups.

One of the militiamen was shot right in the hallway moments before I took that picture, and the other photographer I was with actually administered first aid to him. It didn't seem like anyone else in their group knew how to do it. To me, that picture [of the fighter taking aim] has resonance because it takes place in the bedroom. A bedroom is where people rest and dream, where life itself is conceived, and there it was a battlefield.

You've met many victims of conflict. Do you ever go back, or do you remain in contact with any of the people that you photographed in these circumstances?

It's not the role I play. I go into places where there's conflict and chaos, and things are moving quickly. I have established relationships at the time, but I move on. People move on.

Dust and debris fly skywards as the south tower of the World Trade Center collapses in New York on 11 September 2001. In the foreground is a rusted cross on the roof of a building.
"I got to New York at about 11:30pm on 10 September, and the World Trade Center towers were visible from my window. When I looked out of the window in the morning, I saw the first tower spewing black smoke." Taken in New York, United States on 11 September 2001. © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

You were right at ground zero in New York on 11 September 2001, when the south tower went down. I sense that body of work is one of the most personal for you. What are your memories of that day and how do you feel about it looking back now?

I don't think I've ever gotten over it. I got to New York at about 11:30pm on 10 September from a trip to France, and the World Trade Center towers were visible from my window. When I looked out of the window in the morning, I saw the first tower spewing black smoke. I had no idea what it was. I thought it might have been an accident, but [I realised it] was something important, so I assembled my camera gear. By the time I was ready to leave, I looked out of the window again and the second tower was burning. I realised America was under attack.

I ran over there and began to photograph. As I was framing the south tower, I came upon a church that had a cross and used it a framing device – a foreground element that instinctively seemed right. As I was photographing, the tower collapsed in front of my eyes. It was astonishing. My mind went into slow motion and all of those huge pieces of metal that were flying through the air like matchsticks were floating in slow motion. I thought I had all the time in the world.

I realised I had about five seconds. If I took a picture, I wouldn't survive.

I hit the last frame (I was shooting film) and my camera stopped. At that point, things went into real time and I realised I was about to get hit. I managed to find shelter and everything came down around me. I was compelled to get to that spot [where the first tower had fallen] to see what it looked like. There were fire trucks destroyed, police cars destroyed, a scene that looked like something from the apocalypse. I was so compelled to get there I didn't put together that if the first tower fell, then probably the second tower would fall as well, and when it did I was standing right under it. I realised I had about five seconds before everything hit the ground and that if I took a picture of it, I wouldn't have time to survive. I went into complete survival instinct, and somehow found shelter again.

At first I thought I was buried under it because everything was in total blackness. I was suffocating because I was in the midst of all that smoke and dust. Eventually, I found my way out and then went down to ground zero and spent the rest of the day there. I realised many people had been killed and the sympathy and the anger I felt was no different to what I'd felt for the victims of war in other places I had been. My feelings had nothing to do with my nationality. Survivors were not found. We realised they were all buried and that there weren't survivors.

It was chilling. I knew how to handle myself in this situation because I've been on many battlefields and I knew how to operate in that situation. There were ambulances lined up to take away the wounded, but there weren't any wounded.

People mill around the war-ravaged streets of Kabul, Afghanistan, some on bicycles, while two men sit on the barrel of a tank gun.
The aftermath of war in urban areas means that survivors have no choice but to live in the ruins of their homes and neighbourhoods – to live as normally as possible, despite the fact that the architecture that defined their lives has collapsed. Taken in Kabul, Afghanistan in 1996. © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

Photographers are not only doing a job, they're witnesses, and we know that they are not immune to the consequences. You've had such a long, distinguished career in this field. You've seen some dreadful things. How do you manage those memories?

As gracefully as I can, hopefully. With difficulty.

Do you find it's easier to discuss them, or to just focus on the next thing?

I don't discuss it with people who haven't been in those situations because it's really impossible to make them understand. Not through any fault of their own. With my colleagues, a remarkable band of people, we share these memories and feelings... and implicitly understand each other. We don't actually have to talk about it and, when we do, we know what each other is talking about. It's something you carry with you. You have to be willing not only to face physical risks and dangers and hardships, but also the emotional obstacles. That comes with the territory.

Coming on to your more recent work, there's a photograph from Cambodia of a mother with her son who's suffering from tuberculosis (TB) and meningitis. It's almost a Pietà-like composition. It lingers in the memory, perhaps because of that association. That highlights for me how modern medical science can do wonders, but in third-world countries or the less well-resourced countries, there is still suffering. Was that assignment done on your own initiative again?

The first time I ever actually concentrated on tuberculosis was during a partnership with the Cambodian Health Committee, an NGO founded by Dr Anne Goldfeld from Harvard, who went to Cambodia to try to help people with TB. That was a state-run medical facility that had very little medication and doctors without much training. The families of the patients did most of the care themselves because there was such a shortage of staff. I think it's a picture of love.

It is.

I think love was keeping that boy alive as much as anything else.

Did he have access to any drugs or treatment?

Very little.

The outcome was probably not a good one?

I don't know. I hope he survived. His mother, at that point, had not given up. She was full of hope, as desperate as that situation was.

A man carries his son in his arms across a raging river as he tries to cross the border from Greece into Macedonia in 2016.
Taken in 2016, this refugee carries his son to protect him from the torrential river as he tries to cross the border from Greece to Macedonia. "You want to make sure you're doing your best to get the story right," says James. "We're experiencing history in real time. We don't know what everything means and that's why we photograph it." © James Nachtwey / Contrasto

Coming right up-to date, you were in Greece photographing the European refugee crisis, along with many other photographers. What was your experience of that event?

I made three trips to Europe during that time. During the first trip, I arrived in Belgrade just as the Hungarian border was being closed. The refugees were now redirecting themselves towards Croatia and Slovenia. I got picked up at the airport by the man who was going to be my interpreter and guide, and we just headed straight out in that direction, not knowing what we'd find.

I saw a group of people walking through farm fields. I just got out of the car and started following them. I told my guide, "I don't know where I'm going. See if you can find me by the end of the day." People didn't even know what country they were in. I don't think they really knew where they were going. They were propelled by desperation and drawn by hope. They made their way through farm fields and finally got to a train station. Nobody knew if a train was coming or where it would take them.

From there, I went to Lesbos in Greece to photograph the people coming across the strait from Turkey, landing on the beach. Then, finally I went to Idomeni on the Greek-Macedonian border. The border had been closed and people were stranded in squalid tent camps in the mud and the rain. This was happening in the 21st century in Europe. If it had been animal skins, as opposed to high-tech tents, it could have been the Middle Ages.

These days, fake news is very much part of the agenda, and people seem bewildered about how to distinguish fact from fiction, and what photography can offer them. What do you think about fake news and the dilemma about veracity and believability in photography?

Journalism depends on integrity. Organisations or individuals who are knowingly spinning something the wrong way, or just outright lying, are casting a shadow over the profession that isn't warranted. The best newspapers and magazines, the best television stations and wire services, are adhering to a code of ethics and standards. People can really depend on those organisations with a proven track record. If politicians accuse those organisations of fake news, it's probably because the truth doesn't suit their purpose. I think we have to give people credit for being able to sort those things out for themselves.

Do you think journalism in the 21st century is in a healthy situation?

Yes, I think it's very healthy and it's evolving. Journalism is necessary for society to function properly. It's not going to go away. It will get stronger. Whatever tools are currently being used, we will use those tools properly. Then, when something else comes up, we'll adapt to that. I can't speak much about the economics of running a news organisation because I know nothing about it, but I'm sure the people who do know about it are finding ways to adapt.

Written by Rachel Segal Hamilton

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