“War Photographer” both begins and ends with quiet, atmospheric images of world-famous photographer James ‘Jim’ Nachtwey taking pictures amongst fire and smoke and collapsing buildings. This, with the use of slow music, the sounds of the crackling fire and the photographer coughing as he struggles to breathe amongst the billowing smoke, introduces the first-person character of Christian Frei’s 96 minute 2001 documentary film, which follows Nachtwey’s work over two years.
The use of interviews, samples of Nachtwey’s black-and-white still photography, and first-person scenes shot on the single-system video camera that was fastened to Nachtwey’s body whilst he was shooting, make up a documentary that appears more compelling than those on other photographers such as Annie Leibovitz (Leibovitz, 2007) and Henri Cartier-Bresson (Butler, 2003). As the film follows Nachtwey across four war zones – Kosovo, Rwanda, Jakarta, and South Africa – and during the editing process at STERN magazine headquarters in Hamburg, Germany – it is “effective in allowing others, especially other photographer’s, to see how Nachtwey sees. The first person camera allows photographers to see what his eye is hunting for and his sense of timing” (Sone, 2011). The use of the camera attached to Nachtwey, alongside scenes which follow him as he travels between five main locations, creates a personal, informal diary format film, which focuses on the photographer and his work, and thus affirms the statement that “it’s not the camera, but the man that makes the photograph” (Sone, 2011).
Interviews with those who know or have worked closely with Nachtwey provide a similarly personal insight into the life and work of the serial award-winning photographer, who is described as being a ‘loner’ and someone who has given up the possibility of a ‘normal’ life or romantic relationships for the sake of dedication to his work and his vision. It is insights such as this which have lead critics to describe the “quiet, engrossing film” as “a sad and stirring testimony to this vision and to the quiet, self-effacing heroism with which Mr. Nachtwey has pursued it” (Scott, 2002). The insights revealed by the personal approach of the film create an understanding of Nachtwey’s ‘simple’ approach to photojournalism, along the lines of Robert Capa’s philosophy, illustrated in a quote of his from the beginning of the film: “if your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough”.
Frei’s documentary reveals the motivations and intentions behind the photographer’s frequently life-threatening work. First motivated to start war photography by seeing the truths revealed in first-hand stills of the Vietnam War, which contradicted popular news accounts of the time, Nachtwey reveals that he wishes to in some way help bring about the end of war, through the ‘antidote’ of photography. Nachtwey is attempting to “shake people out of indifference” by evoking a sense of humanity in his stills, in stark contrast to the inhumanity of what is portrayed within them, by illustrating the reality of war zones, where “normal codes of civilized behaviour are suspended” (Nachtwey, 2001).
In touching on relationships of power and domination, Nachtwey’s work introduces one of the key themes of visual anthropology, that of photography and sociality. The uncompromising truth behind any photographic work in war zones is revealed by “the very fact that people are photographed is part of their history, their changing existence in a broadening world” (Edwards, 1992:12), and that, throughout history, photography and colonialism have supported and subverted each other. Behind the frontiers of the documentary film is the question of to what extent photography alienates us from our collective social experience. If photography is a form of mirroring, reflection and analysis of our selves, does that mean that photography is never a reflection of our true selves? The social comment and distance from sociality implied in photography, makes us consider the deeper meaning of Nachtwey’s work, as well as its position as a mediator or negotiator for peace.
Nachtwey’s mediatory role as a war zone photographer mirrors that of anthropologists such as Pierre Bourdieu, whose influential work on the ‘depeasantization’ and ‘proletarianization’ of agrarian peasant communities during the 1954-1962 Algerian War (Bourdieu and Sayad, 2004) illustrates cultural bias and the reality that in visual anthropology, as in anthropology, “by telling the story, you define the story”. Edwards refers to this bias as the ‘photographic moment’, that “the cultural circumscription which enabled an image and determined and validated the photographic moment expresses at least a cultural ‘partiality’, a conception of what is ‘photographable’” (Edwards, 1992:7). It brings into question the role of photography in war, as it has with the role of anthropologists in war. Do visual or social anthropologists have a role in war zones? If so, what is it? Such work might ultimately be seen in terms of colonial aims, of a ‘them’ and ‘us’ approach.
Frei’s approach to this issue is a reflexive one. He lets Nachtwey’s personal journey as a photographer tell the story of war and leaves the rest up to us. Frei’s documentation of two years of the photographer’s work, cut with insights into his life from the photographer himself and those close to him, is its own narrative. Subtitling is merely used a tool to aid the audiences understanding of the audio. This, I believe, gives “War Photographer” ethnographic integrity and realness, the evocation of deep emotion and empathy caused by the ethnographic subject and not by synthetic narrative. Thus Frei’s documentary reveals how the location of ethnographicness in the ‘event’ (the subject), and not in ‘intention’, has the power to create powerful anthropological film and give meaning to the hopefully developing use of visual anthropology as cultural translation.
Bourdieu, P. and Sayad, A. (2004), “Colonial rule and cultural sabir”, Ethnography 5:4, pp.445-486
Butler, H. (2003), “Henri Cartier-Bresson: The Impassioned Eye” documentary, director Heinz Butler
Edwards, E. (1992), Introduction, “Anthropology and photography (1860-1920)”, Yale University Press: New Haven and London
Leibovitz, B. (2007), “Annie Leibovitz: Life Through a Lens” documentary, director Barbara Leibovitz
Nachtwey, J. (2001), “War Photographer” documentary, director Christian Frei
Scott, A.O. (2002), ‘War Photographer (2001) FILM REVIEW; Witnessing the Witness: Looking Over a Shoulder at War's Deprivation’, New York Times, A.O. Scott (19/06/2002), available at http://movies.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9905EEDA113BF93AA25755C0A9649C8B63 , [accessed 25/10/2012]
Sone, D. (2011), ‘Review: “War Photographer”’, Daniel Sone (16/07/2011), available at http://blog.danielsone.com/?p=158, [accessed 28/10/2012]