Witness to War: Gratified to see James Nachtwey’s work in a museum, where it belongs

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James Nachtwey, during an artists reception at the Currier Museum to introduce his photo exhibition.
James Nachtwey, during an artists reception at the Currier Museum to introduce his photo exhibition.

MANCHESTER, NH – The Currier Museum opened a new exhibit of images by photojournalist James Nachtwey on Friday, and held a special members-only preview and talk with James Nachtwey the night before, on Sept. 10, which I was fortunate to attend. The Manchester museum is growing their photography collection, which is nice to hear about, and have added 17 of his images.

Nachtwey’s photos are truly historical and artistic artifacts – they represent important world events in both gorgeously artistic and photojournalistic ways, and can be discussed at length multiple ways. I’m not surprised by this, given his academic background in art history and political science.

Photography brings those areas together beautifully.

James Nachtwey talking about his experiences behind the lens.
James Nachtwey talking about his experiences behind the lens.

The exhibit is titled “Witness to History: James Nachtwey – Afghanistan, Ground Zero, Iraq.” It runs through  Dec. 14, and there will be other opportunities to hear and see Nachtwey speaking in person there. The exhibit is free to the public today and all weekend, as well. You can learn more here.

It’s nice to see photography in a museum setting. There was a time when museums didn’t believe photography was art. That has changed, thankfully. These photos are striking and graphic, mostly black-and-white, but some in color and gorgeously composed, printed, matted and framed. I like to look very closely at prints, especially when they’re from film, which some are. You can see so much detail, down to the grain. Because digital photography these days is so often seen only on computer screens, and shared that way, mostly electronically, it’s really refreshing to be able to look closely at a nice large print on a wall and just examine it. I sometimes get too close at museums but I keep on doing it.

While many aspects of the exhibit seem graphic, and people could be disturbed by the content, I get the feeling that Nachtwey isn’t overly bothered by those things. I have photographed some graphic scenes (though not war situations) over the years on a very local level and am really not bothered that much by it. People ask me about this all the time. For me, it’s clinical. I busy myself with the composition, the expression of people in the photo, the action and activity, all kinds of criteria that go into the photo, so that it’s explaining so much inside one frame, and I get the sense that he might be doing the same thing.

“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated." - James Nachtwey
“I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” – James Nachtwey

I’m sure on top of all that, he also had to concern himself with the safety aspects of his surroundings, making sure he “had all his antennae up,” as he said at one point during his talk.

I know for me, I would have to try extra hard to do that because when I’m taking photos, I sometimes realize I focus so hard on the subject at hand that I can’t hear what is going on around me.

There is a lot of beauty in his subjects. People in mourning do beautiful things, which he captures in a lovely way, seen in many of his photographs – a subject gently touching a headstone, hugging a shrouded loved one before burial, carrying a fallen buddy. People in pain are reacting in extremely expressive ways, which he captures, and the people treating the wounded and dying are working so hard you can palpably feel it in the image, too. These kinds of completely real and engaged reactions and expressions are what we, as photographers, are always looking for and pay attention to most, and those things tell the story most immediately, and engage the viewer fastest.

James Nachtwey chats with attendees during a preview of a collection of his photographs, on display at the Currier through Dec. 4.
James Nachtwey chats with attendees during a preview of a collection of his photographs, on display at the Currier through Dec. 14.

Seeing a selection of curated photos about war, suffering, violence, death, and recovery in a museum setting can feel incongruous but it becomes a space in which there is room to think about it, reflect, and look quietly at what was a noisy, unpredictable chaotic, dangerous, deadly series of situations over the course of several years.

It becomes a place of peace and where these larger issues can be explored and examined at your own pace, before you are ready to step back into the rest of your day with a little more insight and depth – and maybe a little more inspiration. It shouldn’t be forgotten or cast aside. People should talk about what they’ve seen afterward, and share. I would encourage others to go see the exhibit while it’s there, to learn more – not only about the topics explored, but the photography work itself.

Nachtwey mingled in the exhibit space for a little while before the talk; it was nice to know that he was an active part of the show and selection process of the images. Some of the images are ones that haven’t been in print or seen before.

Several veterans, including one in uniform, attended. They were visibly moved at times, commenting on a dramatic 30-foot-long collage/mural of prints of soldiers getting medical treatment, carefully examining and discussing the expressions of the medical people walking on the soldiers in the photos. They were accompanied by family and friends who were looking on sympathetically with them. One veteran excitedly discussed the way he could tell exactly what the medics in the photos were thinking, by their expressions.

Michele Stephenson, who worked closely with James Nachtwey at Time Magazine.
Michele Stephenson, who worked closely with James Nachtwey at Time Magazine.

Joining Nachtwey at the event was his longtime photo editor Michele Stephenson from Time Magazine. They talked together and with the audience about what it was like on Sept. 11, 2001, and in the weeks that followed, putting out a special edition of the magazine that week, and handling lines of people who came to the magazine’s officers with photos to share.

Neither of them were supposed to be back in New York when the attacks happened – Nachtwey was at home by chance, and Stephenson was also just coming back from being in France with Nachtwey, and was on vacation in Maine.

She described how she tried to get back to New York but the city was basically closed. Another photo editor was in New Jersey and tried to get in from another direction at some point and was able to convince EMTs to give her a ride with their ambulance. Recounting that day, and the days after, working together on putting out their publications, was something they spoke of with the affection that longtime close and creative colleagues have, and I really enjoyed seeing that interaction that I know so well. There were well over 200 visitors at the Currier, the auditorium was full and there was a room for overflow.

James Nachtwey, Collapse of the South Tower, Church of St. Peter on Church St. and Barclay, September 11, 2001 (printed 2014), digital chromogenic print, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. Museum Purchase: The Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund, 2014.22.3. James Nachtwey.
James Nachtwey, Collapse of the South Tower, Church of St. Peter on Church St. and Barclay, September 11, 2001 (printed 2014), digital chromogenic print, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. Museum Purchase: The Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund, 2014.22.3. James Nachtwey.

Nachtwey said he awoke that morning and saw one tower on fire from his home, got his gear and film ready and just went there and started working because, like most photojournalists and first responders, they run toward, not away from, danger and emergencies.

Once the towers were hit, cell service was out. He hadn’t told anyone he was back yet, but worked anyway. He didn’t realize it at the time, but at some point he was under the second tower and realized it was going to fall, and he described a surreal, almost out-of-body experience he felt as he sprinted away from the site to some kind of safety. He said he became aware of a kind of strength he didn’t know he possessed. But it was so dark, he didn’t know what was going on or where he was. Eventually, he could make out tiny points of light that turned out to be the emergency lights of fire engines and police cars punctuating the thick dark clouds of smoke. He moved north, where it grew lighter, and walked uptown for quite a way until he reached the Time magazine offices. Later, he would make the long walk home, exhausted.

Nachtwey also talked about his experiences in Afghanistan,  the first major conflict to be photographed using digital cameras. Nachtwey recounted his crash course with Canon, on an early digital camera they’d given him, and the satellite phone he was given to transmit with, and how daunting it was to take that kind of equipment into a place like Afghanistan, a place that barely had electricity.  Once situated he then had to get a generator and a lightbulb and, as he described it, work through the night in a rustic farm in the mountains, where the farmers would watch him and his colleagues as if they were from another planet, as they tried to transmit images and other information.

James Nachtwey, Firefighters at Ground Zero, 2001 (printed 2014), digital chromogenic print, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. Museum Purchase: The Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund, 2014.22.4. James Nachtwey.
James Nachtwey, Firefighters at Ground Zero, 2001 (printed 2014), digital chromogenic print, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. Museum Purchase: The Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund, 2014.22.4. James Nachtwey.

I would have liked to hear more about the logistics of getting photos in on time, especially when he had to be on the move while embedded with troops, or just in unpredictable situations. I also was interested in how gear stays clean and running in these environments, so full of dust and sand.

For photographers, being present and being able to get in, get out and get somewhere safely away from danger to process and ship out the images is key – and when it’s in places where nothing is stable, I’m always interested in hearing how people make do. We as photographers know the photos will happen – that’s never a problem –  no matter what, we’ll get the photos taken and the results will be good,  if not great, as we see from professionals like Nachtwey.

James Nachtwey.
James Nachtwey

It’s the rest of the housekeeping that needs to take place, with deadlines to be met, that is even more critical. Nachtwey was also often in situations of extreme danger with shifting conditions. He discussed that.  It’s up to individual journalists how “close to the edge” they wanted to go in covering things, he said. He recommended always having one’s “antennae finely tuned” to things going on around you. This is relevant, no matter where you are, I’d say.

Also interesting was that with digital photography, at that time, this was the first time photographers for magazines like Time could do the first edit on their own images, choose and then transmit them. In the past, in other places and situations, they were more set up to ship their film to their editors from where they were, but as a result they would not see the images until they were in the magazine, for better or for worse, whether they agreed with the choices their editors made or not. That was a change for Stephenson, too, as a photo editor who would normally have the first look.

I have long been able to review my own images, for the most part,  both in film and digital and select my favorite photos. I like editors to look with me, when they have time, and choose the best shots with me. Once in a while, I would have that situation where I would drop off my film and have the photo editor handle the images and choose for me. It didn’t happen that often. Occasionally, with digital images now, sometimes I hand off cards during a big event, like a university commencement or large scale announcement/press conference, to the creative director and that team will help select and process images and get them online rapidly while I keep shooting with others who are doing the same.

This is not necessarily an everyday activity but when it works smoothly it is a beautiful thing to see images going live on the web from an event as a slideshow right away. I do help with live blogging for some political or other events for New Hampshire Public Radio, and I’ll select some images and send them to be put online rapidly, too, but I’m still selecting the images, taking a moment to check a few things, make an edit to the image. I can lighten it a bit on the phone, crop and and then I can text it or email it to the editor. This is all very different than what was possible in 2001, for sure.

James Nachtwey at the lectern during a preview of his photo exhibition at the Currier Museum.
James Nachtwey at the lectern during a preview of his photo exhibition at the Currier Museum.

One veteran asked Nachtwey what he “does for his head,” and the trauma of being in a war zone. I would have liked to know what he does with his downtime, what he does to kind of rest his eyes and if he can focus on other things sometimes to take a break,  perhaps the question could have been asked more clearly.

Nachtway said he doesn’t drink or do drugs. He simply said he just has a sense of purpose and believes in what he’s doing. He firmly believes that “photography is unique in its ability to make a human connection,” and with the stories he’s able to tell, it helps people form an opinion, help their consciousness to evolve and eventually, make change happen. Even on the local level in community journalism,  like what I do, this is also relevant and critical.

Local photo documentarian Matthew Lomanno of Manchester, was also in attendance, on assignment. I asked him what he thought of the exhibition.

“Nachtwey continues to inspire as an artist, as an activist, and as a person. He has ordered his life to show us what we must see: suffering, injustice, and the consequences of action and inaction. That goal is clear to him; thus he must be level-headed and courageous in the harshest and most dangerous conditions. Above this, his results are no less than beautiful – a seemingly contradictory judgment, given his subject matter. But who could gaze upon ugly photographs? They would be rejected and ignored. So, if he does not possess all of these attributes, his work fails. Clearly, he succeeds,” Lomanno said.


Allegra_BovermanAllegra Boverman enjoys documenting the special, candid moments of everyday life. As a photojournalist, she is ready to photograph a wide range of topics in a wide variety of unpredictable and unexpected conditions, in a compressed amount of time, with lots of improvisation. Her work – which sometimes includes writing –  has appeared in a number of publications in New Hampshire and Massachusetts since 2004 including the Eagle-Tribune’s family of newspapers and magazines, the Boston Globe, Nashua Telegraph, and the Lowell Sun.  She now works with the Union Leader and New Hampshire Public Radio, as well as Howl in Lowell Magazine, as part of her freelance photography business, and with area universities and colleges, organizations, people and small businesses. She also presents photography workshops.
About Carol Robidoux 5504 Articles
Journalist and editor of ManchesterInkLink.com, a hyperlocal news and information site for Manchester, NH.