I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the talk Jim Nachtwey gave at PhotoPlus Expo, and the photographs he showed. Pretty much everyone acknowledges him as a singular figure in the world of photography (although I would argue the same for Sebastiao Salgado, and the breadth of his work is truly extraordinary. From Northern Ireland to the tuberculosis wards of Northern Thailand, Nachtwey has borne witness to the worst of the world’s conflicts and social issues.
As Nachtwey himself said, he “gives a voice to people who have endured immense suffering, who have no voice.” His classic composition recalls the paintings of such masters as Caravaggio and Goya, and in his photographs I have seen an incredible palette of black and grey, with more variations on those colors than I thought possible. Rather than making suffering beautiful, Nachtwey shows the incredible, inherent beauty of people, even at the worst moments of their lives.
It would be impossible to witness what Nachtwey has witnessed and remain uninvolved, so he took advantage of winning the T.E.D.. award and started a campaign against Extremely Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis (XDRTB). He turns his anger into “something that can clarify my vision, not cloud it.”
To simply see Nachtwey’s work as depressing would be missing so much. “My mission as a photographer has always been to have the pictures published in the mass media while the situation is unfolding.” It is because he knows the power of images to move people to action. That was the case with the famine he photographed in Somalia in 1992. After the photographs ran as a cover story in The New York Times Magazine the outcry made it possible for the ICRC to mobilize the largest aid effort it had undertaken since WW II and saved 1.5 million lives. Can there be any greater achievement than that?
I think everyone left Nachtwey’s presentation wondering what they had done and what they are doing with their lives. I know I did. And it’s going to take me a lot more time to sort that out. I am inspired by his example, and glad that he is working so hard to bring light to darkness.