There are two ways to react to a lecture and slide show by James Nachtwey. One is to feel like you’re accomplishing nothing in this world, even if you ARE trying to add something good through your work or personal interests. Another is to accept your limitations, recognize that Mr. Nachtwey is some sort of a God, and simply try to emulate him in whatever humble ways you can. I’m choosing the latter.
It’s hard to retain faith in this day and age that photos really can and do make a difference to better our world and affect legislation like they did during the Vietnam war or for that matter the turn of the century when Lewis Hine and Jacob Riis’ photos were instrumental in helping to bring about child labor laws. But when you’re operating at the level of Nachtwey and his “comrades at VII” as he calls them, you really can and do have an impact on issues because there are editors who will believe in your images enough to take a risk and put them in print. Nachtwey mentioned three in particular who had been crucial to helping get the word out originally about the atrocities in Rwanda, Somalia and his current work on Extreme Drug Resistant Tuberculosis (XDRTB) – they are Kathy Ryan (NYTimes), Michele Stephenson and MaryAnne Golon (both were at TIME until recently).
In case you didn’t know (as I didn’t), the man won the TED prize in 2007 (http://www.tedprize.org/2007-winners/). This is huge. Check out the video (http://www.tedprize.org/video-1-year-later-james-nachtwey/) to see what he was able to accomplish with the $100K and mobilized resources to help him carry out his wish to bring awareness to XDRTB or Extreme Drug-Resistant Tuberculosis.
I’ve been very curious about this issue since reading Mountains Beyond Mountains by Tracey Kidder, about Dr. Paul Farmer and the work he has done, now worldwide, to stop the spread of TB, a disease that is completely preventable, but incurable if people develop the most dangerous strain.
Other things Mr. Nachtwey mentioned that are worth repeating:
"Photojournalism is a service industry and awareness is the service".
"What we call daily life has an imperative to go on." -This said to the backdrop of his photo of a couple in the warzone of Northern Ireland walking their baby in a stroller, glimmers of a burning car just behind them.
In tackling the difficult theory of religion being a cause of so much suffering he suggested that God is the justification for war, everyone thinking THEIR God is the only right one. No argument there as far as I'm concerned.
He enlightened the audience to the fact that famine is often not a natural occurence, as I had naiively thought. Rather it's a deliberate genocidal weapon.
To rejeuvenate our faith in the power of images he explained that relief organizations can seriously mobilize their donors in a time of crisis based on photographs. As an example, after his story about the famine in Somalia ran on the cover of the NY Times Magazine, phone calls and letters poured in to such an extreme and coverage of he story was increased around the world to such an extent that the Red Cross told him 1.5 million lives were ultimately saved in that country. Because of HIS images. He said he was not telling us this story from an egotistical perspective but rather an inspirational one because he'd like everyone with a story to know they can have an impact. "I'm a witness," he said. " [my anger must] clarify, not cloud my vision."
He ended by showing his most recent work about the TB crisis in Cambodia and said that in the caretaking he saw by families and volunteers, he witnessed "love on an epic scale."
Thank God there's goodness out there somewhere.