As someone who has spent his entire career trying to be invisible, standing in front of an audience is a cross between an out-of-body experience and a deer caught in the headlights, so please forgive me for violating one of the TED commandments by relying on words on paper, and I only hope I'm not struck by lightning bolts before I'm done. I'd like to begin by talking about some of the ideas that motivated me to become a documentary photographer.
I was a student in the '60s, a time of social upheaval and questioning, and on a personal level, an awakening sense of idealism. The war in Vietnam was raging; the Civil Rights Movement was under way; and pictures had a powerful influence on me. Our political and military leaders were telling us one thing, and photographers were telling us another. I believed the photographers, and so did millions of other Americans. Their images fueled resistance to the war and to racism. They not only recorded history; they helped change the course of history. Their pictures became part of our collective consciousness and, as consciousness evolved into a shared sense of conscience, change became not only possible, but inevitable.
I saw that the free flow of information represented by journalism, specifically visual journalism, can bring into focus both the benefits and the cost of political policies. It can give credit to sound decision-making, adding momentum to success. In the face of poor political judgment or political inaction, it becomes a kind of intervention, assessing the damage and asking us to reassess our behavior. It puts a human face on issues which from afar can appear abstract or ideological or monumental in their global impact. What happens at ground level, far from the halls of power, happens to ordinary citizens one by one.
And I understood that documentary photography has the ability to interpret events from their point of view. It gives a voice to those who otherwise would not have a voice. And as a reaction, it stimulates public opinion and gives impetus to public debate, thereby preventing the interested parties from totally controlling the agenda, much as they would like to. Coming of age in those days made real the concept that the free flow of information is absolutely vital for a free and dynamic society to function properly. The press is certainly a business, and in order to survive it must be a successful business, but the right balance must be found between marketing considerations and journalistic responsibility.
Society's problems can't be solved until they're identified. On a higher plane, the press is a service industry, and the service it provides is awareness. Every story does not have to sell something. There's also a time to give. That was a tradition I wanted to follow. Seeing the war created such incredibly high stakes for everyone involved and that visual journalism could actually become a factor in conflict resolution -- I wanted to be a photographer in order to be a war photographer. But I was driven by an inherent sense that a picture that revealed the true face of war would almost by definition be an anti-war photograph.
I'd like to take you on a visual journey through some of the events and issues I've been involved in over the past 25 years. In 1981, I went to Northern Ireland. 10 IRA prisoners were in the process of starving themselves to death in protest against conditions in jail. The reaction on the streets was violent confrontation. I saw that the front lines of contemporary wars are not on isolated battlefields, but right where people live. During the early '80s, I spent a lot of time in Central America, which was engulfed by civil wars that straddled the ideological divide of the Cold War.
In Guatemala, the central government -- controlled by a oligarchy of European decent -- was waging a scorched Earth campaign against an indigenous rebellion, and I saw an image that reflected the history of Latin America: conquest through a combination of the Bible and the sword. An anti-Sandinista guerrilla was mortally wounded as Commander Zero attacked a town in Southern Nicaragua. A destroyed tank belonging to Somoza's national guard was left as a monument in a park in Managua, and was transformed by the energy and spirit of a child. At the same time, a civil war was taking place in El Salvador, and again, the civilian population was caught up in the conflict.
I've been covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 1981. This is a moment from the beginning of the second intifada, in 2000, when it was still stones and Molotovs against an army. In 2001, the uprising escalated into an armed conflict, and one of the major incidents was the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin. Without the political will to find common ground, the continual friction of tactic and counter-tactic only creates suspicion and hatred and vengeance, and perpetuates the cycle of violence.
In the '90s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia fractured along ethnic fault lines, and civil war broke out between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. This is a scene of house-to-house fighting in Mostar, neighbor against neighbor. A bedroom, the place where people share intimacy, where life itself is conceived, became a battlefield. A mosque in northern Bosnia was destroyed by Serbian artillery and was used as a makeshift morgue. Dead Serbian soldiers were collected after a battle and used as barter for the return of prisoners or Bosnian soldiers killed in action. This was once a park. The Bosnian soldier who guided me told me that all of his friends were there now.
At the same time in South Africa, after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, the black population commenced the final phase of liberation from apartheid. One of the things I had to learn as a journalist was what to do with my anger. I had to use it, channel its energy, turn it into something that would clarify my vision, instead of clouding it. In Transkei, I witnessed a rite of passage into manhood, of the Xhosa tribe. Teenage boys lived in isolation, their bodies covered with white clay. After several weeks, they washed off the white and took on the full responsibilities of men. It was a very old ritual that seemed symbolic of the political struggle that was changing the face of South Africa.
Children in Soweto playing on a trampoline. Elsewhere in Africa there was famine. In Somalia, the central government collapsed and clan warfare broke out. Farmers were driven off their land, and crops and livestock were destroyed or stolen. Starvation was being used as a weapon of mass destruction -- primitive but extremely effective. Hundreds of thousands of people were exterminated, slowly and painfully. The international community responded with massive humanitarian relief, and hundreds of thousands of more lives were saved. American troops were sent to protect the relief shipments, but they were eventually drawn into the conflict, and after the tragic battle in Mogadishu, they were withdrawn. In southern Sudan, another civil war saw similar use of starvation as a means of genocide.
Again, international NGOs, united under the umbrella of the U.N., staged a massive relief operation and thousands of lives were saved. I'm a witness, 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. This man was in an NGO feeding center, being helped as much as he could be helped. He literally had nothing. He was a virtual skeleton, yet he could still summon the courage and the will to move. He had not given up, and if he didn't give up, how could anyone in the outside world ever dream of losing hope? In 1994, after three months of covering the South African election, I saw the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, and it was the most uplifting thing I've ever seen. It exemplified the best that humanity has to offer. The next day I left for Rwanda, and it was like taking the express elevator to hell.
This man had just been liberated from a Hutu death camp. He allowed me to photograph him for quite a long time, and he even turned his face toward the light, as if he wanted me to see him better. I think he knew what the scars on his face would say to the rest of the world. This time, maybe confused or discouraged by the military disaster in Somalia, the international community remained silent, and somewhere around 800,000 people were slaughtered by their own countrymen -- sometimes their own neighbors -- using farm implements as weapons.
Perhaps because a lesson had been learned by the weak response to the war in Bosnia and the failure in Rwanda, when Serbia attacked Kosovo, international action was taken much more decisively. NATO forces went in, and the Serbian army withdrew. Ethnic Albanians had been murdered, their farms destroyed and a huge number of people forcibly deported. They were received in refugee camps set up by NGOs in Albania and Macedonia. The imprint of a man who had been burned inside his own home. The image reminded me of a cave painting, and echoed how primitive we still are in so many ways.
Between 1995 and '96, I covered the first two wars in Chechnya from inside Grozny. This is a Chechen rebel on the front line against the Russian army. The Russians bombarded Grozny constantly for weeks, killing mainly the civilians who were still trapped inside. I found a boy from the local orphanage wandering around the front line. My work has evolved from being concerned mainly with war to a focus on critical social issues as well. After the fall of Ceausescu, I went to Romania and discovered a kind of gulag of children, where thousands of orphans were being kept in medieval conditions. Ceausescu had imposed a quota on the number of children to be produced by each family, thereby making women's bodies an instrument of state economic policy. Children who couldn't be supported by their families were raised in government orphanages. Children with birth defects were labeled incurables, and confined for life to inhuman conditions.
As reports began to surface, again international aid went in. Going deeper into the legacy of the Eastern European regimes, I worked for several months on a story about the effects of industrial pollution, where there had been no regard for the environment or the health of either workers or the general population. An aluminum factory in Czechoslovakia was filled with carcinogenic smoke and dust, and four out of five workers came down with cancer.
After the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, I began to explore conditions of poverty in a country that was on its way towards modernization. I spent a good deal of time with a man who lived with his family on a railway embankment and had lost an arm and a leg in a train accident. When the story was published, unsolicited donations poured in. A trust fund was established, and the family now lives in a house in the countryside and all their basic necessities are taken care of. It was a story that wasn't trying to sell anything. Journalism had provided a channel for people's natural sense of generosity, and the readers responded. I met a band of homeless children who'd come to Jakarta from the countryside, and ended up living in a train station. By the age of 12 or 14, they'd become beggars and drug addicts. The rural poor had become the urban poor, and in the process, they'd become invisible.
These heroin addicts in detox in Pakistan reminded me of figures in a play by Beckett: isolated, waiting in the dark, but drawn to the light. Agent Orange was a defoliant used during the Vietnam War to deny cover to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army. The active ingredient was dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical that was sprayed in vast quantities, and whose effects passed through the genes to the next generation. In 2000, I began documenting global health issues, concentrating first on AIDS in Africa. I tried to tell the story through the work of caregivers. I thought it was important to emphasize that people were being helped, whether by international NGOs or by local grassroots organizations.
So many children have been orphaned by the epidemic that grandmothers have taken the place of parents, and a lot of children had been born with HIV. A hospital in Zambia. I began documenting the close connection between HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. This is an MSF hospital in Cambodia. My pictures can play a supporting role to the work of NGOs by shedding light on the critical social problems they're trying to deal with. I went to Congo with MSF, and contributed to a book and an exhibition that focused attention on a forgotten war in which millions of people have died, and exposure to disease without treatment is used as a weapon. A malnourished child being measured as part of the supplemental feeding program.
In the fall of 2004 I went to Darfur. This time I was on assignment for a magazine, but again worked closely with MSF. The international community still hasn't found a way to create the pressure necessary to stop this genocide. An MSF hospital in a camp for displaced people. I've been working on a long project on crime and punishment in America. This is a scene from New Orleans. A prisoner on a chain gang in Alabama was punished by being handcuffed to a post in the midday sun. This experience raised a lot of questions, among them questions about race and equality and for whom in our country opportunities and options are available. In the yard of a chain gang in Alabama.
I didn't see either of the planes hit, and when I glanced out my window, I saw the first tower burning, and I thought it might have been an accident. A few minutes later when I looked again and saw the second tower burning, I knew we were at war. In the midst of the wreckage at Ground Zero, I had a realization. I'd been photographing in the Islamic world since 1981 -- not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia and Europe. At the time I was photographing in these different places, I thought I was covering separate stories, but on 9/11 history crystallized, and I understood I'd actually been covering a single story for more than 20 years, and the attack on New York was its latest manifestation.
The central commercial district of Kabul, Afghanistan at the end of the civil war, shortly before the city fell to the Taliban. Land mine victims being helped at the Red Cross rehab center being run by Alberto Cairo. A boy who lost a leg to a leftover mine. I'd witnessed immense suffering in the Islamic world from political oppression, civil war, foreign invasions, poverty, famine. I understood that in its suffering, the Islamic world had been crying out. Why weren't we listening? A Taliban fighter shot during a battle as the Northern Alliance entered the city of Kunduz. When war with Iraq was imminent, I realized the American troops would be very well covered, so I decided to cover the invasion from inside Baghdad. A marketplace was hit by a mortar shell that killed several members of a single family. A day after American forces entered Baghdad, a company of Marines began rounding up bank robbers and were cheered on by the crowds -- a hopeful moment that was short lived.
For the first time in years, Shi'ites were allowed to make the pilgrimage to Karbala to observe Ashura, and I was amazed by the sheer number of people and how fervently they practiced their religion. A group of men march through the streets cutting themselves with knives. It was obvious that the Shi'ites were a force to be reckoned with, and we would do well to understand them and learn how to deal with them. Last year I spent several months documenting our wounded troops, from the battlefield in Iraq all the way home.
This is a helicopter medic giving CPR to a soldier who had been shot in the head. Military medicine has become so efficient that the percentage of troops who survive after being wounded is much higher in this war than in any other war in our history. The signature weapon of the war is the IED, and the signature wound is severe leg damage. After enduring extreme pain and trauma, the wounded face a grueling physical and psychological struggle in rehab. The spirit they displayed was absolutely remarkable. I tried to imagine myself in their place, and I was totally humbled by their courage and determination in the face of such catastrophic loss. Good people had been put in a very bad situation for questionable results. One day in rehab someone, started talking about surfing and all these guys who'd never surfed before said, "Hey, let's go." And they went surfing.
Photographers go to the extreme edges of human experience to show people what's going on. Sometimes they put their lives on the line, because they believe your opinions and your influence matter. They aim their pictures at your best instincts, generosity, a sense of right and wrong, the ability and the willingness to identify with others, the refusal to accept the unacceptable. My TED wish: there's a vital story that needs to be told, and I wish for TED to help me gain access to it and then to help me come up with innovative and exciting ways to use news photography in the digital era. Thank you very much.
James Nachtwey (born March 14, 1948) is an American photojournalist and war photographer.
He grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Dartmouth College, where he studied Art History and Political Science (1966–70).
He has been awarded the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal five times. In 2003, he was injured by a grenade in an attack on his convoy while serving as a Time contributing correspondent in Baghdad, from which he has made a full recovery.
Nachtwey started working as a newspaper photographer in 1976 at the Albuquerque Journal. In 1980, he moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer. In 1981, Nachtwey covered his first overseas assignment in Northern Ireland illustrating civil strife. He has documented a variety of armed conflicts and social issues, spending time in South Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, Russia, Eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union shooting pictures of war, conflict and famine, and images of socio-political issues (pollution, crime and punishment) in Western Europe and the United States. He currently lives in New York City.
In 1994, Nachtwey was covering the upcoming elections in South Africa, the first non-racial ones in decades. As an associate of the Bang-Bang Club, he was at the scene when Ken Oosterbroek was killed and Greg Marinovich was seriously injured.
Nachtwey had been injured previously in his work, but it was during his extensive coverage of the United States invasion of Iraq that he received his first combat injury. As Nachtwey, along with Time correspondent Michael Weisskopf rode in the back of a Humvee with the United States Army "Tomb Raiders" Survey Platoon, an insurgent threw a grenade into the vehicle. Weisskopf grabbed the grenade to throw it out of the humvee, but it exploded in his hand. Two soldiers were injured in the explosion, along with the Time journalists. Nachtwey managed to take several photographs of medic Billie Grimes treating Weisskopf before passing out. Both journalists were airlifted to Germany and later to hospitals in the United States. Nachtwey recovered sufficiently to return overseas to cover the tsunami in Southeast Asia of December 26, 2004.
Nachtwey has worked with Time as a contract photographer since 1984. He worked for Black Star from 1980 until 1985 and was a member of Magnum Photos from 1986 until 2001. In 2001, he was a founding member of the VII Photo Agency (he disassociated from VII in August 2011)
Nachtwey was present during the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center, and produced a well known related body of work. He also compiled a photo essay on the effects of the Sudan conflict on civilians.
In February 2011, Nachtwey contributed to a controversial piece for Vogue Magazine, which shone a favorable light on Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad and his family. The article and the photo series were particularly controversial as a peaceful protest movement in the context of the Arab Spring that was gathering steam at the same time, was brutally put down by the Syrian regime's military and secret police services. By December 2011, death toll estimates of the uprising ranged between 3,500 and 5,000, while an approximate 30,000 civilians were imprisoned and, in many cases, tortured severely. Vogue later decided to remove the article from its pages. Nevertheless, the article can still be accessed on the Syrian presidency's own website.
Awards, honors and films
Nachtwey photographs have been exhibited throughout Europe and the United States and he has received numerous prizes and awards including the World Press Photo award in 1994. Nachtwey has also been awarded the Overseas Press Club's Robert Capa Gold Medal in 1983, 1984, 1986, 1994 and 1998. In 2001, the documentary War Photographer was released, focusing on Nachtwey and his work. Directed by Christian Frei, the film received an Academy Award nomination for best documentary film.
Nachtwey received the prestigious Dan David Prize in 2002 for his haunting photos aimed to burden viewers with an uncomfortable awareness that will force them to seek justice and change.
In 2006, Nachtwey was awarded the 12th Annual Heinz Award in Arts and Humanities from the Heinz Family Foundation for his body of work, an honor that includes a monetary prize of US $250,000. Nachtwey is one of three winners of the 2007 TED Prize. Each recipient was granted $100,000 and one "world-changing wish" to be revealed at the 2007 TED conference, in Monterey, California. Many members of the TED Community, and a group of world-class companies, have pledged support to help fulfill the wishes. Nachtwey's wish, revealed March 8, 2007, is this: "There's a vital story that needs to be told, and I wish for TED to help me gain access to it and then to help me come up with innovative and exciting ways to use news photography in the digital era." Those who wish to help him will sign an NDA and help him "gain access to a place in the world where a critical situation is occurring and fully document it with photography; set a date to unveil the pictures and find a series of innovative ways to create powerful impact with them, using novel display technologies and the power of the Internet as well as media; and use the campaign to generate resources for organizations that are working to address and transform the situation." Early results of this work have been unveiled at XDRTB.org to document extensively drug-resistant tuberculosis throughout the world.
In 2008, Nachtwey exhibited a series of original photographs at Le Laboratoire in Paris, France. The exhibit entitled "Struggle For Life" documented the human toll of TB and AIDS presented the work of Nachtwey with text by Dr. Anne Goldfeld of work they began together in Cambodia in 2003 as well as photos from Thailand, Africa and Siberia. The work was accompanied by film portraits of Nachtwey and several leading medical scientists participating in the Attention! Symposium by American filmmaker Asa Mader.