James Nachtway - ethics of war photography

Discussion in 'Philosophy' started by the_macman, Dec 1, 2003.

  1. "War Photographer", the documentary about James Hachtway's work is finally
    available.

    http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/B0000C825I/102-2676812-
    0317769?v=glance
     
  2. its good
     
  3. Just now? I'd seen a video of it more than half a year ago. Odd, that.

    Christian Frei is a competent filmmaker, but he seemed disinclined to deal effectively with the fact that Nachtwey profits from the misery of others. I think it was mentioned in passing.
     
  4. "he seemed disinclined to deal effectively with the fact that Nachtwey profits from the misery of others" How would you deal with it? Do you think Nachtwey is doing anything wrong? If so, what? He isn't creating the misery. He is documenting it. I believe bringing the horrors of war to light is an important first step in reducing military conflict.
     
  5. I'm not sure the original "question" really belongs in this forum, but I think the discussion that Christopher suggests probably does, so I'm inclined to leave the thread here with a slight change in the title.
     
  6. Where is the ethical or moral conflict? Does he create these miseries or is he "guilty"
    of reporting they exist?

    In general you are going to have to do a very persuasive job of explaining your
    comment.
     
  7. The notion that Frei doesn't deal with the ethical question is nonsense. It is not mentioned "in passing"; it is mentioned repeatedly. Including in the film's closing statement by Nachtwey -- but perhaps you weren't paying attention? Or perhaps the film failed to reach the conclusion you wanted, so we get this silly straw man?

    This has been hashed over before, and will attract the same old lame arguments. But the fact is that Nachtwey (and others) do not cause the suffering they photograph. They are simply earning a living; they no more cause war than doctors cause disease.

    It's particularly silly to direct these arguments against Nachtwey, who among the war photographers I'm familiar with seems uniquely quixotic. He somehow persists in believing that his work can make a difference, despite the mountain of evidence to the contrary provided by his own files. If you want to criticize someone, I suggest you read Peter Howe's "Shooting Under Fire" and direct your attacks at Patrick Chauvel.

    Or not. You and I profit from the suffering of others almost daily. Do you drive a car, for example? Do you know what the demand for oil does to countries such as Nigeria or Sudan? Our participation in the consumer economy does far more to perpetuate dirty little wars in countries such as those than all the photographs Nachtwey and his colleagues ever took.

    But hey, the good news is that you don't have to drive a car; you can ride around on your ethical high horse. If you can catch it, that is. I think it went thataway.
     
  8. I watched part of an interesting documentary on the beginning phase of the war in Iraq yesterday and one of the things they were discussing (with journalists) was about the thrill of war corresponding. They were pretty frank about the reasons for wanting to be a war journalist including the right to forever label yourself as one. The main thing they all agreed on was that they are adrenaline junkies and like the thrill of covering the wars. One said that they've found that no matter how much gross footage or images you show, the viewing public can deal with it and instead of making them rise up and protest - as war PJ supporters have us think - they usually just turn the channel. That's why CNN does not show much of the horrors - because it's bad for ratings. Inevitably the footage comes out later in the mulititude of documentaries etc. which are always after the fact and have little real impact. I think the whole Vietnam coverage phenomenon was just that; it worked at a single point in time. But these days showing the horrors of war does not make much of a difference. These guys are doing it for themselves in most cases.
     
  9. For those of you who are interested; in yesterday's (Sunday) NY Times, Week in Review section, there was an article entitled, "Good as a Gun: When Cameras Define a War"...an interesting read.
     
  10. >>>>>>> Christian Frei is a competent filmmaker, but he seemed disinclined
    to deal effectively with the fact that Nachtwey profits from the misery of others.
    I think it was mentioned in passing.

    Well, I suppose we're all a bunch of people who like photography. In such
    case, when seeing a documentary about something which is our passion (at
    various levels), I really wonder how come someone can still pay attention to
    the artistic side of the subject's treatment. I must be limited on that matter, I
    suppose, since I didn't seem to bother me :) Who cares about Nachtway
    specifically at all ? This is only a (too rare) red carpet entrance in the world of
    courageous men who do this kind of job. Nachtway or someone else, this
    think is simply an ode which may apply to any of them... including that guy (I
    forgot his name) who hara-kiri-ed himself after a depression following a pic he
    took during a drought in Sudan. Anyone remembers? How's that for a profit?
     
  11. Frei raises the question "Is this exploitative?" and answers it "Well, Nachtwey seems like a good guy." Doing this multiple times doesn't lend any more depth to the argument.

    The heart of the matter is that Nachtwey isn't making strictly documentary photographs; he's making art. His images are often meticulously composed -- in fact, some of his images rank among the most beautiful pictures I've seen. Making art is different than making a document; when one makes art, one says, "This is mine. I am its author." When one creates a document there is no such claim. One says, "This is a dead child," or "this is a burning home." Nachtwey's work is exhibited in galleries and compiled into luxuriously-printed books; it clearly has value as art. He clearly has value as an artist. I can't help but think that taking someone else's pain and making it yours, making "art" out of it, is exploitative.

    I agree with Frei, though; Nachtwey is a good guy. He certainly means well. It's just that I think his role in society is becoming rightfully obsolete; why send a foreigner to document war and famine when you can give video cameras to the oppressed peoples and let them document themselves? THEY know what they want to say, and the technology is simple enough that anyone can use it with an hour of training. There are actually a number of programs doing this on a small scale -- I think it's probably the future of documentary media, at least in the sorts of situations Nachtwey tends to photograph.
     
  12. well, i didn't see the documentary, but a friend of mine mentioned it, and not knowing who Nachtwey was...........sorry, i think i've looked at Time Mag maybe twice in my life.........i went to good old Google and took a look.

    What ever Nachtwey is doing with his war photography, it is not the normal run of the mill garbage. This is truely amazing stuff. I personally couldn't tell you why, verbal/written...........don't have the written skills or the artistic critique abilities to do it. But, i know when something is extraordinary when i see it. There is something in Nachtwey's rendition of the war(s) that touches on the human side of it. Somehow he touches that "human" in me that empathizes with these people affected by the "powers to be" follies. Maybe follies is not the right word.........but here they are, fighting over oil or religion or whatever............and then Nachtwey shows you the result................POW.........real sick feeling in the gut. I don't get that from any other war photographers pics............although, that don't mean nothing....Nachtwey's been around for 20? some years doing this, and I just discovered him :(

    just thought i'd throw out an opinion from a first time viewer of his work............it stopped me dead in my tracks, i must say.
     
  13. James Nachtwey, like Don McCullin, Eddie Adams and all the other great war photographers, gives us a pictorial chronicle of our times. He tells us something about the human race and the way that it behaves. We may not like what he tells us about ourselves but one cannot condemn the messenger for the message he brings. "He profits from the misery of others" - but at what psychological cost to himself?
     
  14. "The heart of the matter is that Nachtwey isn't making strictly documentary photographs; he's making art. His images are often meticulously composed -- in fact, some of his images rank among the most beautiful pictures I've seen. "
    so now JN is a bad guy because he plies his craft better than at a "hack' level?
    "Making art is different than making a document; when one makes art, one says, "This is mine. I am its author." When one creates a document there is no such claim."
    When one "creates" a document one is just as much an author / artist of that document whether that "document' is well or badly crafted .
    "why send a foreigner to document war and famine when you can give video cameras to the oppressed peoples and let them document themselves? THEY know what they want to say."
    Which just replaces one subjective view for another. And of course there is the issue of who is doing the translations.
    Perhaps a better solution to the documentary problem will be to just to take people and politics out of the equation and install tamperproof cameras and microphones equipped with a live feed to the internet every 10 meters or so outdors and in every room? Of course everyone over the age of six will be supplied with a laptop computer with extremely broadband wireless modems and of course the supporting infra-structure.
     
  15. When one "creates" a document one is just as much an author / artist of that document whether that "document' is well or badly crafted.
    I don't think you've understood me correctly. The act of authorship is irrelevant; it's the claim of authorship that I find troubling. I think that the claim of authorship is implicit in the creation of art, and I don't think anyone here can argue that Nachtwey's work isn't art.
    An example: Barring some unlikely circumstance, you can't name the person who took the photo on your driver's license. Its only value is as a document of your appearance. In this situation, the question of authorship is irrelevant; it doesn't matter who pressed the shutter release, because no one really cares. No one is interested in claiming authorship of something with only documentary value.
    so now JN is a bad guy because he plies his craft better than at a "hack' level?
    As I said, he's a good guy. I have great respect for him as an individual and an artist. It's just that I think the circumstances that made it necessary to have such artists package foreign problems for us are rapidly changing. We are reaching a point where we can give people the means to tell their own story -- and yes, it's subjective, but I don't see how you can argue that it's not better.
     
  16. "I don't think you've understood me correctly. The act of authorship is irrelevant; it's the claim of authorship that I find troubling. I think that the claim of authorship is implicit in the creation of art, and I don't think anyone here can argue that Nachtwey's work isn't art."

    This isn't unique to Nachtwey, and I'm not sure what the claim of authorship really has to do with the ethical or moral question.

    Your complaint seems to be that we shouldn't make art out of the suffering of others; that it's okay to make crappy pictures of war, but not good ones. But it's not the making of the pictures that's the problem so much as the stature of the author. It seems to be the fact that Nachtwey benefits from the quality of his work that offends you.

    This is essentially the same old argument about benefitting from the suffering of others.

    A brain surgeon may perform a useful service, but the fact of the matter is that he benefits from the misfortune of others and exploits the gravity of their situation to make money. Applying the same yardstick, would we declare it wrong for him to live in better than middle-class housing and drive any vehicle more luxurious than a Dodge minivan? Even if he were the top surgeon in the country?
     
  17. The act of authorship is irrelevant...
    :Oh I think it is very relevant. the driver's license analogy is not the same as a photographer or writer in the field making the first major editorial decision of where to point the camera and then to decide what to include in the frame / dispatch by the act of composition and timing.
    It's just that I think the circumstances that made it necessary to have such artists package foreign problems for us are rapidly changing.
    But that has nothing to do with journalism,documentary, or photo-journalism and everything to do with the business & economics of publishing -- or more accurately distribution.
    We are reaching a point where we can give people the means to tell their own story -- and yes, it's subjective, but I don't see how you can argue that it's not better.
    And I don't think you can argue that the approach you advocate is better, except in that the diversity of sources are increased. And then it will be back down to the eternal problem: Whose version of a story will you choose to believ and whose to ignore, disregard, scoff at, or actively dispute? As the poet asked "What is truth ? said jesting Pilate / But could not stay for an answer".
     
  18. I find him to be an extraordinary photographer. Of course, all
    those war photographers are adrenaline junkies. Who else
    could stand it?

    James Nachtway's work is a cut above the rest because he
    deals with images on two levels.

    First, his work is photojournalism because it deals with specific
    events. Sudan, 9/11, Iraq, etc. It is our belief in photography's
    ability to relate real events that makes this work.

    Then it is art because in those specific events, he makes work
    that has universal application. His pictures are not just about
    THAT war, but also about war in general. We see ourselves in
    the images that he makes and that brings his pictures to the
    level of art.

    This also points out the subjective nature of photojournalism.
    His shots from ground zero on 9/11 are different and
    recognizable from the many other photographers who were
    there.

    Remarkable.
     
  19. To those who advance the argument that photojournalism (vdieo
    etc) has no political impact, I ask why then does the US and
    other governments go to tremendous lengths to keep freelance
    journalists out of war zones, to the point of murdering them?
     
  20. To those who advance the argument that photojournalism (vdieo
    etc) has no political impact, I ask why then does the US and
    other governments go to tremendous lengths to keep freelance
    journalists out of war zones, to the point of murdering them?
     
  21. Good question Elvis. I think it should definitely be asked of Syria, The Palestinian
    Authority, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Pakistan, North Korea, China, etc.. Just what is it they
    do not want the rest of us to know?
     
  22. Since when does the Palestinian Authority does something against PJs. ? I
    cannot recall an authority who benefits more from them than any other country
    or government nowadays. Since when do they have any authority at all on
    what happens there? Truth is PJs are murdered and forbidden to work in that
    corner of that planet (possibly more than anywhere else) but you obviously
    and sadly confuse authorities in that land :)
     
  23. Since when does the Palestinian Authority does something against PJs. ? I cannot recall an authority who benefits more from them than any other country or government nowadays.
    Don't kid yourself Macman. journalists of all kinds are forbidden from rep0orting freely by the PA they can only go where they are invited-- usually just to tell one side of the story. Arafat's thugs have regularly arrested harassed, beaten up and closed down newspapers that don't hew to his line. And when was the last time there was an election in the areas controled territory?. I'm not saying the Israelis are perfect -- in fact I think Ariel Sharon as prime minister is one of the worst things that have ever happened to the state of Israel -- but a bigger problem for the Palestinian people than Sharon is Yassar Arafat.
    But we are now getting away from the topic
     
  24. Poor old James Nachtwey is in hospital at this point in time, recovering from shrapnel wounds after a hand grenade was thrown into the Humvee in which he was traveling in Iraq. And yes, he is an ethical war photographer in presenting graphic,technically excellent pics under extreme pressure at times, and dare I say, artistic images of the way humans treat each other. He is of course an adrenaline junkie, and his current plight is a timely warning for him to leave it to younger PJs. Anyway we have become so jaded by viewing horrific war and strife images that they are only a 2 minute wonder to most people in this era.
     
  25. Have you seen War Photographer? I don't think anyone who has seen it would label Nachtwey an adrenaline junkie.
     
  26. No, I haven't, but I have his book "Deeds of War" and to be able to operate efficiently under those type of conditions as a documentary photographer the adrenaline would be running fairly high constantly, just as it would be when someone threw a grenade into the humvee you were traveling in. Not all people can stand this amount of constant stimulation.
     
  27. See the film, then, rather than making assumptions. I say that in all seriousness, and not as some sort of put-down. You'll find it an eye-opener.

    If you call someone an adrenaline junkie, then you're implying that his motivation is to get the adrenaline rush. Watching War Photographer will put paid to that idea pretty quickly. Besides which, it's a good film and if you're one of the few people who has a copy of Deeds of War then you really should see it.
     
  28. The book is an eye opener enough without viewing the video. I did not mean to infer James Nacthwey gets an buzz from the adrenaline that his occupation turns loose in him in the same manner an extreme athlete does. As I said, he would often be operating in areas where the 'fight or flight' syndrome would be paramount, he must like to perform in this mode to have continued at his craft for so long. He is obviously a person of extremely cool nerves and rationalism to survive in his profession as long as he has. The human body can only stand this over-stimulation for so long, Obviously Nacthwey has phenomenal endurance. I have the utmost respect for him as a completely unique photographer in his field. Is this clear enough?

    There are an element of pedants on this site that pick up on syntax and spelling errors and pounce on the authors of such items in an attempt to show their own greater wisdom, when all they are really doing is displaying their own small minds for all to see.
     
  29. That's funny. I didn't think I was criticizing your spelling or syntax. If you didn't mean what I thought you meant, that's fine.

    Thanks for the insults, though.
     
  30. Just a general observation and statement Andrew, and not directed specifically at you. Merry Xmas to you, and hoping our mentor James Nachtwey is recovering well from his recent injuries
     
  31. Thanks for that link Al, He is a dedicated and driven man, who has already contributed much in creating awareness about the things we do to each other. The longer he stays in the field the higher becomes the risk factor. He's 55 now. We can only pray that all goes well for him in future endeavors
     
  32. i wish i could enter in contact with him....

    .oesse.
     
  33. "Something for the armchair critics:"

    And what exactly is the non-sympathetic armchair critic supposed to take away from that clip?

    When one gets a grip on the "true" nature of "global" humanity's hateful nature, they'll understand the breveity my comment as until then, they'll just be another convenient critic of the critic.

    Sorry, the clip didn't work for me as the blatently pervasive hate in the world is too overwhelming for me to have sympathy with people unwilling to point their condemming finger at the "real" evils in the world.

    It's not going change until people mature. And until this maturing takes place, it will continue in perpetuity, how ever morphed, no matter which sympathetic soul records the event.
     
  34. I find it difficult to argue with Andrew Pitman, mainly because how silly, childish, and short-sighted his point is. So I wont.
    Instead I would just asume that if you feel this way agains James Nachtwey, then you would surely feel exactly the same way about master photographers like Robert Cappa, Sebastiao Salgado and SO many others.
    Do you really believe they "took" something from someone? Do you really believe someone grabs a heavy camera, travels thousands of miles, gets sick, shot (J.N. got shot more than once, you know), sleeps in hard ground, away from his family, friends, and loved ones, not knowing if he/she wil EVER come back to see them.
    Do you think any human being could do that kind of sacrifice just because they want to make a profit?
    I hate to break it to you, but there are fare more easier, and faster ways to make money than those.
    Theese people do it because they love it, because they cant see themselves doing anything else. They arent "taking" anything away, they are giving a whole lot to the world, they talk, help and make bonds with most of the people they shoot, they make their misery known so the world can make a choice.
    You, my fellow photogapher, are deeply mistaken.
     
  35. It is strange to answer to what someone posted 6 years ago, however I feel that I still should respond to Mr. Akiyoshi's comments.
    "Christian Frei is a competent filmmaker, but he seemed disinclined to deal effectively with the fact that Nachtwey profits from the misery of others."
    Well, being the amazing photographer that he is, Mr. Nachtway would probably make a really good living shooting celebrities or doing commercial or fine art photography without even getting his hands dirty. Of course he has to get paid for what he is doing, just like a fireman should get paid for doing his or her job. However, that doesn't take away the danger that they put themselves in in order to save lives. He speaks very clear in the film of the reasons why he does what he does and I don't think he does it for money.
    "It's just that I think his role in society is becoming rightfully obsolete; why send a foreigner to document war and famine when you can give video cameras to the oppressed peoples and let them document themselves? THEY know what they want to say, and the technology is simple enough that anyone can use it with an hour of training."
    You can also ask, why send doctors to a conflict zone? Just give them medicines and medical instruments and they could figure it out, they know where it hurts. Not everyone has the skills and the talent to tell a story with a picture. It is not just about make it look pretty. It is also difficult to be objective when you're part of the conflict. The reason why his images are so powerful, is because he has the training, the experience, the talent, and the sensibility to create these magnificent pictures. And they might not have an impact on everyone, but they definitely have an impact on many people. And yes, images have had the power to create the urgency in people to stop wars. Unlike other photographers who might enjoy seeing the suffering, I believe Mr. Nachtway also suffers and the reason he keeps shooting is because he's actually committed to his social responsibility. In terms of pain, it is not important what's your nationality, you just have to be human enough to feel it. That is why his images transcend languages and borders.

     

Share This Page