James Nachtwey – Bosnia

Guest staring Sean van der Steen, good man, stout fellow, backbone of the Netherlands. He’s also a friend and colleague attending the MA programe at The Swedish School of Photojournalism.

Hopefully this will be the  first in a series of similar text  based blogs dealing with photojournalism, ethics and aesthetics, time will tell…


Are the aesthetics of war pictures important, taking in regard the reality of horror and suffering?

G.: Aesthetics are always important, and if you can make people more squeamish by making something pretty than all the better, they’ll be haunted even more by it. Gore has been done to death (get it?), but poetry lives forever.

S: But do you want those pictures to haunt the viewer forever? Don’t you have a responsibility towards the viewer to keep their psychological state intact? Still, I definitely agree that the aesthetics of war pictures are important. I think that the aesthetics could speed up the need to act on horror and suffering anywhere in the world.

G: But they can also have a backlash towards the photographer, making the viewer feel offended about seeing suffering and horror in such a pretty package. I think that antithesis is a good thing that truly makes the difference, but still, people are offended by it.

S: You are talking about famous war photographers, like Capa, Nachtwey and McCullin.

G: Both Nachtwey and Salgado have had to answer for their beautiful images of human suffering. Capa was famous for being so close to his subjects, physically and ideologically, he always had a side.

S: Yes, and the result of that physical and ideological closeness were very strong pictures like the Falling Soldier. Pictures we’ll never forget.

G: If your pictures aren’t good enough you aren’t close enough. I personally took that to heart, and have always thought it did not mean a simple physical distance to your subjects, I see it as a clear statement about a photographer’s feelings towards his subjects. Never distance yourself too much, be in touch, feel.

S: And combine that with aesthetics, and you have the ultimate package.


Are war images needed? Is there a point to them?

G: Yes. Yes. Though realistically it may be less humanistic than we would want. The sick curiosity humans have of seeing others suffer is also a good (yet maybe not moral) reason to have photographs of such things. It’s a living. If it can also influence events, than all the better.

S: Simply put, yes. People should always know about these kind of life-changing events. The question that remains, is whether these pictures should show all the ‘gore’ of war you mentioned above.

G: Let’s think of it like this: Has the world been made better by the existence of war photography, or has it only had to suffer? Morally, does it have a place in the world?

S: Well, I think, just like McCullin, that war pictures have, if done correctly, the power to help end a war. Like McCullin’s photographs of Vietnam. It was when these photographs reached the American public, that more voices arose to end the whole thing.

G: And not only that. War photographs provide a witness to the suffering that is inherently seen as ‘’honest’’. Ron Haviv shows us that with his pictures from Bosnia, now used as evidence against war crimes. War photographers are there to fight propaganda, even when they spread it. There are people out there who claim the Holocaust never happened. How many of them would there be if we wouldn’t have photographs and we would have to take dead people’s words for granted? Truth is fickle, and it changes with the times. The side that wins, rarely admits to genocide and cruelty.

S: So in fact, what you’re saying, is that the winning side writes history, and photography allows for a means to give an alternate perspective (however partially) to history?

G: Yes.


What makes Nachtwey tick, why did he become a war photographer?

G: Because he wanted to show people so much horror that he would change at least the occasional person’s life. Nachtwey seems to be the quintessential humanist.

S: I agree. His motives are very clear. It is interesting though, how his experiences made him the way he is today. But that is something for later in this talk.


And how about McCullin?

G: Probably the same thing. I think all war photographers start with a combination of adventure wanderlust and a wish to make the world better while maintaining their badass status. In the end the wanderlust goes away and you’re left with deep sympathy for humanity’s suffering. Maybe add a bit of adrenaline addiction to it. I think Nachtwey said that ‘’you’re never as alive as when you expose yourself to sniper fire.’’

S: After seeing Contact and War Photographer, I tend to think that McCullin is more of a ‘victim’ in the whole war photography business then Nachtwey. Or at least, that’s how McCullin talks about his work himself. McCullin sort of found himself in the middle of those wars, where Nachtwey has more of a personal drive to report on the horrors of war.


How were both photographers influenced by war?


S: Well, I think that ‘War Photographer’ clearly shows some sort of obsession in the way Nachtwey lives his life. It would be plausible to deduct that war influenced his life in that way. For instance, when he cleans his gear, or packs his stuff at home. You don’t see him relax that much, he’s always working. Maybe he is obsessed by war and suffering. Wanting to keep on working, as to make right for all the suffering people he has photographed.

G: He is indeed much like Batman in that regard. The obsession he has for justice and for the slight nudges he can make towards helping out humanity. He doesn’t have superpowers, he’s suffered on the front lines. He got shot, had new and curious diseases and kept on going. It’s fair to say that his work is his life, at least from what we can see in the documentary. Batman.


Would you be willing to work as a war photographer?

G: Sadly I would. Because I’m young and stupid and because chicks dig scars.

S: So you would not mind having PTSD?

G: I am not a clever man. And I do have enough sick curiosity and silly concepts of heroism and making a difference to disregard the possibility. Fuck future me, he’s an asshole.

S: When I was young, I wanted to change the world, but anthropology made me realize, if anything, that this is quite impossible. However, all the small things help – so there is certainly a point in war photography. People need to know what is going on, always. Like Pieter Ten Hoopen told me: “There is always a need for the general subjects, like war and sport events and such, but there are always other interesting subjects to investigate. Both are tasks of the photojournalists.”

G: War itself proves that people aren’t as reasonable as to stop doing something merely because it is impossible. Why should trying to stop it be any more reasonable?

S: Actually, before I forget, it is very interesting to see that in this assignment, we were drawn to this very last question immediately. It is the first subject to be answered by us. Apparently it hits a nerve…

G: So, would you do it?

S: Good question. I think so, but I would not look it up myself. If the circumstances would put me in the position where I could, I probably would. Yes.

G: Capa once said ‘’You have to pick a side in war, a good guy and a bad guy, otherwise you’ll never stand to see all the horror and injustice.’’ While I tend to agree in this one-sided view of things, I can’t help but feel that war photography’s recent siding with the victims of every conflict (at least as far as the photographers are concerned) is really the right and moral way to go about it. While life is never fair it somehow does seem to have gotten considerably more unfair for war correspondents everywhere.

Important note: While I have used J. Nachtwey’s awesome picture I have simply borrowed it from the Burn Magazine website which is still hosting it. Tehnically I’m just taking some bandwidth and I hope they do not mind. The photo links you over there and you should check it out because it is awesome.


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