Last night I watched War Photographer, a film documenting the photographic techniques and methodology of renowned photographer James Nachtwey. I found his images striking and depressing, as necessarily dictated by his chosen subject: war-ravaged individuals, families and cities. But his method is certainly the only way to go about photographing such a subject. He is imbedded not as a journalist, but as a protestor, victim, and active participator in the conflicts he documents, and in being so immersed he is permitted by those involved to capture incredibly personal images.
To say his work, and I mean all of it, is 'emotional' would be a horrible understatement. It has to be, war is always emotional, but I feel that that is the essential part of all of his photos. Technically speaking the images are superb, flawless even, but what makes them exceptional war photos is the readily accessible dose of heavy, disturbing emotion that comes through to the viewer. Be it agony or distress, hatred or longing, it's usually quite obvious what the person is feeling, and what Nachtwey sought to capture by opening the shutter. Shooting in black and white 35mm film, usually with a shallow depth of field, helps to isolate the expressions of the subjects against the usually chaotic backgrounds of his war-tattered locations.
While I find his ability to capture images of war in a respectful way astonishing, I know for a fact that I am incapable of doing so. There is absolutely no way I could be present during a battle, any battle, and not trade my camera for a firearm. I feel that while right and wrong are not always clearly distinguishable, degrees of right and wrong are, and were I in the streets surrounded by gunfire, the scale of injustice from my perspective would be tipped to one side or the other and thus my camera would become deadweight. Because I know this, and because I like breathing, I will never becoming a war photographer by choice.
Even though I never intend on doing specifically what he does, I feel there is a lot I can learn from James Nachtwey that would help me in any documentary photographic endeavor. In order to capture his images he is required to be friendly, honest and most importantly careful. By 'careful' I don't mean cautious for his own safety's sake, I mean he acts with great concern for all those involved. He approaches his subjects empathetically, taking nothing for granted, which I feel is not only the sole way to respectfully capture an image of someone who lives in spite of unspeakable hardship, but is the best way to capture an image of any event or individual.