War has been an important photographic subject since Matthew Brady first toured the battlefields of the Civil War, but our image of the war photographer is mostly a creation of the movies. Like Nick Nolte’s character in Under Fire, the war photographer is a macho daredevil who is not only willing, but eager, to risk his (I think it’s always his, in the movies) life in pursuit of both the “truth” of war and the ultimate adrenaline rush. He’s an “extreme journalist,” and often the horrors that he confronts for a living get the best of him. He’s killed in action, or he crumbles morally and psychologically, like Dennis Hopper’s photographer in Apocalypse Now. Once in a great while he’s ennobled by suffering, like James Woods’ character in Salvador.
The fact that James Nachtwey is both all of the above and none of the above accounts for much of the fascination of the documentary War Photographer, which was nominated for an Academy Award last year. Nachtwey, the subject of the film, is certainly drawn to danger zones. According to Nachtwey’s telling of his own story, he was attracted to the war photography of Vietnam photojournalists because their images were powerful enough to prove that the U.S. government was lying about the war, and he gave himself the task of becoming a war photographer himself. By the early 1980s he was at work in Central America and the Middle East, among other shooting zones of the day. (How he went about preparing himself for this unique calling is left unclear.) Since then Nachtwey has covered war in Kosovo and Rwanda, and the violence attending the fall of the Suharto regime in Indonesia.
But Nachtwey breaks with the popular image of his profession more often than he observes it. Far from being a hard-bitten thrill-junkie, Nachtwey is almost painfully introspective. He scarcely speaks through the first third or so of the film. Instead he wordlessly goes about the business of photographing the anguish of Kosovo mothers looking upon their dead sons. Taking his cue from his subject, director Christian Frei, a Swiss documentarian, at first seems intent on producing an almost literally silent film.
Frei’s camera, filming Nachtwey, picks up the cries of the women, while a minicam attached to Nachtwey’s camera takes the viewer almost too close to the wrenching scene. The minicam is a brilliant, if unsettling stroke. We’re perched on Nachtwey’s shoulder as he frames a shot, but we, like Nachtwey himself, are obviously intruding on abject grief. The movie finally gets around to the question of whether or not war photography is a ghoulish profession, but only long after viewers have been asking the question themselves.
There’s also a kind of macabre beauty to the opening scenes, as well as to later images of human distress. Or if not beauty, at least a visual fascination to watching Nachtwey work, as we watch his camera hunt for the right image while his fingers adjust its lens.
I can’t say that I wanted the wordless (there are no words in English, that is–no doubt the women are speaking plainly enough) portion of the film to last forever, despite the grotesque fascination it provides. But it’s still a jolt when Christiane Amanpour appears on screen to praise Nachtwey’s fearlessness, proclaim him the world’s greatest war photographer, and articulate the reasons a person might be drawn to such a terrible job. Amanpour’s exploits get some screen time as well, as we follow her, sans Nachtwey, into a putrid Kosovo mass grave. The viewer might wonder why Amanpour gets so much screen time in a film ostensibly about Nachtwey–but only until the camera joins Nachtwey in his New York apartment. Here the man has nothing to photograph, so he finally has to speak, but when his words come so haltingly you realize that Frei simply had to find someone who could talk.
Nachtwey’s near silence, and his inward-focused gaze, raise compelling questions about the man and his line of work. (In general, the questions the film raises are personal: Why do people let him photograph their pain? How can he stand to photograph their pain? rather than How can governments be so cruel?) For his sake, you almost wish he were the hard-living journalist of folklore, so that he’d have a way of releasing the tremendous pressure he must live with. Instead he seems to absorb the pain of the world, and, for all his Zen mannerisms, to become a sort of Christ figure in that limited respect.
Once the film has more or less introduced us to this man of sorrows, we get a wider view of his work. There’s video footage of him at various war zones. Frei himself filmed the scenes from recent years, but it’s not clear who captured Nachtwey at work in Nicaragua, or during the late-1980s intifada, which, with its images of Palestinian boys launching rocks with slingshots, looks almost quaint. We also see still images from Rwanda, which seems to be the bloodletting that pained Nachtwey most deeply. His difficulty with speech becomes comprehensible as we look on with him at his photographs of piles of the fragments of bodies, and at a photo of a crawling starving man who is as emaciated as any Buchenwald survivor.
What, we might ask, do we expect Nachtwey to say about his work? His job after all is to record acts that go beyond the power of words to describe.
Actually, Nachtwey’s real subject is broader than war–he’s after all human suffering that is directly caused by other humans. Poverty, and man-made famine, in other words, goad him too. In fact the most moving sequence of the film shows Nachtwey interacting with a crippled Indonesian man he documented for Life. In Indonesia Nachtwey found a large homeless community, consisting of entire families, living in the narrow right-of-way alongside railroad tracks. Many families, including the one he chronicled (the father of which has a single arm and a single leg, and makes his meager living by begging on the streets) actually lived in the narrow strip between two tracks. Nachtwey’s photo spread on the family was published some time ago, but he and Frei revisited the family while shooting War Photographer.
The question of whether or not Nachtwey is a vampire, drawing his living from the blood of others, is answered as well as it can be in this sequence. First of all, we see that the question does in fact haunt Nachtwey–he tells us so himself. But his interactions with, and photographs of, the Indonesian family are more eloquent than his words. His pictures of the father bathing his children as best he can, given his physical condition and the dirty water he has available, are deeply moving.
The film’s most striking moments are all set in Indonesia, in fact. Besides the railroad-tracks family, we learn of his work during the overthrow of the Suharto government. He and other photographers followed a mob in pursuit of a lone informant. The mob was intent on killing the man, and when they got their hands on him, that’s what they did. But unlike the other newsmen, Nachtwey actually put his camera down and pleaded for the man’s life. (This act was not recorded, but we know it happened because Reuter’s cameraman Des Wright–who fits the war-correspondent-as-ultimate-adventurer mode–recounts the scene.) Finally, in the film’s closing, and most visually striking moment, we see Nachtwey photographing a group of Indonesian workers in a sulphur mine. As extremely foul-looking green and yellow smoke billows around the faces of the workers, and of Nachtwey himself, we see the foreign correspondent is willing to suffer the same horrible conditions he documents. We sense, in fact, that Nachtwey’s identification with the wretched of the earth is such that he welcomes the chance to breathe literally sulphurous fumes and ease his conscience a little.
The film isn’t uniformly successful. Because Nachtwey is so enigmatic, I would have appreciated some more biographical detail about him. And too much time is spent on an art exhibit of Nachtwey’s work, even though he plainly states that he doesn’t consider his work to be art in any useful sense. Finally, the pacing of the film is off, so that it feels considerably longer than its 96-minute running time would suggest.
I suspect each viewer will have to decide what to make of Nachtwey’s final optimism. No cynic, he’s able to keep plunging back into the mouth of hell because he actually believes that he’s doing some good, and that his work is a small contribution to world peace. Whether he’s right or not only time will tell. After watching this film it’s hard to be optimistic.
David Theis is the author of Rio Ganges (Winedale Publishing). He lives in Houston.