James Nachtwey – The Improviser

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Nachtwey had gained representation at Black Star Photo Agency. Howard Chapnick, Black Star’s director, put Nachtwey on a flight. “I was greener than the grass,” Nachtwey says now. “But I wasn’t scared of the situation. I just circulated the city, looking for trouble – and I found plenty.”

Nachtwey learnt every alleyway and shortcut the city had to offer. “I roamed around the city, and I got to know the hot spots. I felt fluid, like I was operating well, and nothing frightened me.”

Chapnick showed the images to Newsweek, and they gave Nachtwey a six-page spread.

He returned to New York, but he couldn’t settle. He was soon on a plane again, heading to another conflict zone. “I was so fired up. I had to be back in that environment. After two weeks, I was on a flight to Lebanon. And I’ve kept going for 30 years. That’s all I’ve done with my life. And I’ve never looked back.”

Although he does slip into hyperbole on occasion – “I believe in the heroic nature of autonomous people,” he says at one point; “I believe in history with a small ‘h'” – there’s a sense here that this photographer is compelled by a very basic sense of purpose.

“When you go into a life threatening situation, you have to be prepared for the consequences,” he says. “You shouldn’t think you’re automatically going to get away. Because you might not. You never want to be in a position where you ask yourself ‘why am I here?’ That’s something I understood before I entered into war photography. It’s worth it, and whatever happens to me, it’s always been worth it, and it’s still worth it.”

When he’s pressed to define the sense of purpose he feels, he eventually settles on anger.

“You are photographing people that have been marginalised, that are often invisible even within their own societies,” he says. “And you’re taking that to an audience whose opinions and awareness have the potential to change these peoples’ lives. And so you have a responsibility to make those images eloquent.”

In a deeply religious country, he’s asked about his sense of faith, and he pushes back at the question. Eventually he says: “I believe I’m trying to photograph the source of where religion comes from, why people turn to religion.”

He shows a picture of a woman, covered from head to foot, walking through the bombed out remains of Kabul after the Taliban had taken the city in 1995. Then he shows the audience his iconic image of 9/11, a Christian cross and an American flag, the south tower collapsing behind. Girders are flying like matchsticks through the air towards Nachtwey. It was the 36th image in a roll of 36 images; the last one he took before running behind a building and escaping the rubble as it scattered around him.

Nachtwey could see The Twin Towers from his home in New York. He knew, as soon as the smoke started billowing, that Al Qaida, the guests of the Taliban, were responsible. The contrast between the images is obvious, yet he says it anyway. “One of the final great battles of the 20th century set the stage for all the battles of the 21st century. Everyone paid attention to 9/11 but, at the time, no-one paid that much attention to Kabul. That’s why we do what we do.”

See more of James Nachtwey’s work here.

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Tom Seymour

Tom Seymour is an Associate Editor at The Art Newspaper and an Associate Lecturer at London College of Communication. His words have been published in The Guardian, The Observer, The New York Times, Financial Times, Wallpaper* and The Telegraph. He has won Writer of the Year and Specialist Writer of the year on three separate occassions at the PPA Awards for his work with The Royal Photographic Society.