Sonali Pahwa watches a documentary on the work of war photographer James Nachtwey
In the age of the digital image, the impact of the photojournalist's art has increased exponentially even as he remains largely anonymous. Christian Frei's documentary about veteran American photojournalist James Nachtwey, titled War Photographer, seeks to remedy this imbalance. If you are unconvinced that documentary is the right genre with which to approach someone who speaks through his photographs this remarkable film will urge you at least to begin pondering the persona of the photojournalist. At its best it makes skilful use of its subject to refocus conceptions of the artist as visionary.
Nachtwey appears disarmingly unheroic: tidy, of unexceptional appearance he is far from verbally effusive. He is represented most often by his index finger, pressing the button of his camera. Director Frei attached a tiny video camera onto Nachtwey's camera and alternated parts of the resulting footage with the photographs taken by Nachtwey. This technique provides an effective frame in which to examine the photographer's seemingly spontaneous art. The opening scenes of a gutted house in Kosovo and its weeping owner are softened by a wide green landscape in the film footage. But Nachtwey's astonishing close-ups in black and white sharpen the human drama by magnifying particular details. The photographed scene acquires a unique narrative in his staging.
The film's portrayal of Nachtwey's technique of moving very close to his subject can be unnerving at first. The photographer's method is guided by Robert Capa's dictum: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough." This runs counter to the instinct of flight away from the horrible. Nachtwey's colleague Des Wright, interviewed in the film, relates the story of a group of photographers who covered an Indonesian mob's chase and eventual murder of a member of an ethnic minority. Most of them took pictures from a distance because they did not want to be involved in and culpable for what was happening. Nachtwey, on the other hand, ran with the mob and pleaded for the man's life, taking pictures all the while.
It gradually becomes clear that Nachtwey's proximity to the tragedies he documents is a form of unrelenting engagement. Grieving victims of war crimes project their formless agony and he translates, without reducing, into his photojournalistic language. He began his career as a photographer knowing that he wanted to cover wars and other human tragedies. Photographs of the Vietnam War, which exploded official narratives of the conflict in the US, first impelled him into the profession. His politics are unconcealed: the pictures inspired him because they provided "a powerful indictment of the war". Nachtwey's clear-cut assessment of his mission is remarkable when you consider that he has been at it for years -- enough to grow cynical or even bitter at history's cycles of violence. But being there seems to offer rewards in itself.
"In a way, it's a lot like theatre," he comments. "Except that you're on stage rather than in the audience."
Nachtwey's quiet and rather uncharismatic screen presence contrasts briefly with that of CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour, who is interviewed in the film. More accustomed than he to being at the other end of the camera, Amanpour makes all the right expressions of dismay when confronted with a mass grave or memories of wartime horrors. And yet Nachtwey's lack of studio-ready emotion seems more credible. It is precisely his stolid commitment that allows you to imagine him photographing away through unthinkable situations and saving his outrage for the right moment. Among the film's few false steps is an attempt to humanise Nachtwey by interviewing an ex-girlfriend, a photo editor, who recalls how his work made all other commitments secondary. This attempt to follow a more conventional biographical narrative is amusingly superfluous -- it has already been established that Nachtwey is unlike the vaguely tragic celluloid image of the rootless reporter. Rather, the documentary explores how the photojournalist can humanise technology by using it to bring us closer to the tragedies of others.
The scope of a war photographer covers more ground for Nachtwey than immediate combat zones. He has photographed a family of poor Indonesians who live next to railway tracks, several famines in Africa and young stone-throwers in Ramallah, for instance. He has a wholesome American sense of outrage at the inhuman living conditions which persist in these regions. Later, when the opening of his exhibit at New York's International Center of Photography is filmed, it is revealed that he has turned his camera on misery in his own country too. The photographs of a chain gang in Alabama or of brutality by racist policemen hang next to his other pictures in ironic harmony.
For all his commitment, Nachtwey does work in a media industry that is notoriously jaded and run according to the demands of its own hectic pace. "It has got more difficult to get critical work published," he acknowledges. Entertainment is so much more saleable, particularly when advertisers shrink from having their images displayed next to those of human tragedy. Yet Nachtwey affirms that the focus of his work is the mass media. His photography is "a form of communication rather than art". He seems uncomfortable, in fact, when asked to play the role of the artist among wine-sipping crowds at the opening of his gallery exhibit. Later, reading from a letter he received from a pensioner who was moved by his pictures of the Indonesian family and wanted to send them a modest monthly sum of money, Nachtwey seems more satisfied.
"People do want to know when there is a tragedy, an unacceptable situation," he asserts. The photojournalist's role is to be there to show them what is happening. When the question of exploiting human suffering for the sake of career success is posed near the end of the documentary, it seems beside the point. The war photographer, dodging bullets and tear gas, stands to lose far more on the job than success can compensate.
Nachtwey remains an elliptical documentary subject even as evidence of his personal courage builds. Perhaps this is because he poses simply as a moving lens, an attentive pair of eyes. The hero of the story, as he tells it, is photography itself. It can serve as the opposite of war, he contends, because of its ability to awaken the sense of humanity that war negates. Nachtwey obliquely acknowledges that there is all too much evidence to the contrary in the news media by stating that his photographs are an antidote to the media's "diluting effects". The photographer can take some credit for making good use of a medium that is often abused. And yet the idea of photojournalism as a technical rather than an artistic medium seems to restrict Nachtwey to a self-effacing role in the documentary. Even in the moments when the film fails in the terms of conventional documentary, it provokes important questions on the idea of the contemporary artist and documentary subject.
Distributor info: First Run- Icarus films 2001 www.firstrunfeatures.com