Documentary, Festivals, Photojournalism

James Nachtwey – The Improviser

All images © James Nachtwey

Starting in the streets of Belfast in the days of Bobby Sands, James Nachtwey has become one of the defining war reporters alive today. At the Nordic Lights Festival in Norway, he talks religion, purpose, the meaning of his work, and facing up to the prospect of death.

James Nachtwey stretches his arms across the sofa and pauses to think. He’s just declined to answer whether he ever has nightmares, and now he’s fielding a question that every war reporter has faced; has he ever truly feared for his life?

He recalls covering the civil war in Sri Lanka. He was embedded with one of five rebel groups, but the Tamil Tigers, the main insurgent group, were taking out their opposition one by one. He was on an island off the Jaffna peninsula, hiding out. The position was being over-run, and the native New Yorker was completely isolated, unable to get out.

He found a Catholic monastery, and hid. In a church in outer Sri Lanka, he found a copy of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and he read it. He stayed there for three weeks, trying to focus on Shakespeare, until he found the chance to escape back to the mainland and to safety.

“That was the first time I really thought I wasn’t going to make it,” Nachtwey says, his voice even. “Parts of my life I’d thought I’d forgotten came back to me. I started to think about things I hadn’t thought about for years. My childhood. The life I’ve lived. But I never once questioned why I was there, or why I needed to be there.”

As Nachtwey tells the story, he knows he could not be further from the frontline. “I get very calm when I’m in a firefight,” says the man who took a bullet during a violent protest in Thailand last year, and was fragged by a grenade in Baghdad in 2003. “But I get really nervous about speaking in front of an audience in Kristiansund.”

He’s treated like royalty at the Nordic Lights Festival, an organisation that has nominated the war photographer for the Nobel Peace Prize every year for the 10 years of its existence, and is treating him this evening to a 90-minute ‘face to face’ on-stage interview with the festival’s founder. In the next building, Nachtwey’s photojournalism is given the full gallery treatment; an inarguable showcase of this softly-spoken man’s ability to get so close to people so close to death.

Yet the 67-year-old does his best to puncture the reverence. He refers to ‘we’, the war reporter community. He places a lot of significance on washing dishes on commercial liners straight out of an Art History and Political Science degree, for it allowed him to see Europe. “Francisco Goya is the patriarch of war photographers,” he says of seeing Goya’s The Disasters of War at the Prado in Madrid. “It was the first time I’d seen a portrayal of war by an artist that showed the barbarity, not the glory.”

He talks about how many mistakes he’s made – “and I’ve invented a few as well” – of how, as a war reporter, you fail to get an image more than 99 percent of the time. He resists, again and again, the moderators’ invites to talk about composition, framing, the expressionism that is applied, by others and in retrospect, to images taken from the fog of war. “Photography, for me, is instinctive, improvisational and reflexive,” he says. “I believe in the basic elements of photography. I’m not interested in making a statement about photography. I’m interested in using photography to make statements about people.”

Nachtwey has spent 34-years in conflict zones. Inspired by Larry Burrows’ images of Vietnam, his early jobs came up and down the eastern seaboard of America, photographing – amongst other things  – Norwegian emigre fisherman off the coast of New England.

But his first chance came in Belfast in 1981. Bobby Sands, the IRA militant voted to the British parliament, had started his hunger strike in H-block of HM Prison Maze, and violent protests were flaring up throughout the city.