Pictures from an exhibition -- in hell. Through me is the way to join the lost people. Advertisement: Nachtwey, born in Syracuse, N. On a recent afternoon, we talked for nearly an hour about "Inferno" and his experiences as a documenter and archivist of human catastrophe.

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Pictures from an exhibition -- in hell. Through me is the way to join the lost people. Advertisement: Nachtwey, born in Syracuse, N. On a recent afternoon, we talked for nearly an hour about "Inferno" and his experiences as a documenter and archivist of human catastrophe. In your afterword, you say that most of the pictures were originally used in mass publications -- newsmagazines, such as Time.

Is presenting these harrowing, photojournalistic images in this way at odds with your original intent of making them as broadly available as possible? Advertisement: Not at all. The primary function of my photographs is to be in mass-circulation publications -- during the time that the events are happening. A secondary use is to become an archive, entered into our collective memory, so that these events are never forgotten.

We wanted to make the actual dimensions of the book quite large so that it has a physical weight and physical impact. We had quite a discussion about the physical production of the book. The quality of the printing is a product of the respect we wanted people to have for the subjects in the book. Advertisement: Why not?

I want them to be concerned about the people in the pictures. I want my presence to be transparent. How do you manage to keep going back into these horrific situations?

Advertisement: You have to have a sense of purpose. It was, in fact, why I became a photographer in the first place -- to do this kind of work, to be a war photographer, to deal with social issues and struggles. I felt it was the most worthwhile thing I could do. For me, it has become a tool of social awareness, not something for the sake of photography itself. And doing it has reconfirmed my initial inspiration.

Advertisement: Have you ever had any resistance from editors who say, "This photograph is too terrible to publish"? But it is an issue worth considering: What can people take? How much can they bear? I think people can. I think they want to know. It becomes a mere illustration. If there is something occurring that is so bad that it could be considered a crime against humanity, it has to be transmitted with anguish, with pain, and create an impact in people -- upset them, shake them up, wake them out of their everyday routine.

People should be aware that something highly unacceptable is taking place, and think about it and talk about it with each other. Advertisement: You see yourself primarily as a photojournalist, rather than as an artist.

The first thing I noticed were the big heart-shaped, veined leaves. But then I saw a corpse lying face down in the grass under those beautiful big leaves. I try to record moments of beauty between people. This is what I think gives "Inferno" its underlying hope.

I find it uplifting to see people transcending their own agony to reach out to others, and I see it continuously in these situations. Advertisement: That reminds me of one picture, which I believe you took in Romania at an orphanage, of a young boy feeding a slightly older boy from a bowl.

Yes, I was in an orphanage in Romania in which the children were being kept in inhuman conditions. Anyway, there were very, very few of them. So the children had to take care of each other. But he had tremendous energy and charisma, and actually took care of a lot of the children who were in worse condition than he was.

I understand you paid your own way to go and do the Romanian project. Advertisement: How did you hear about it? There were early press reports after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in Some journalists had gotten in there and begun to report on an AIDS epidemic in orphanages in Romania, caused by injecting children with adult blood.

It sounded horrific. There was no government anymore, so therefore there was no accountability for the authorities; the secret police were in hiding. And there was what you might call a moment of openness when, as a journalist, you could go in and explore the legacy of this dictatorship. I was very curious about it -- and especially curious about the AIDS epidemic.

I went there, began to travel around and found a kind of gulag of these horrible orphanages throughout the country. I was able to find these places and gain access to them quite easily -- much more easily than I would have thought. Tell me about that photograph.

Somalia is an Islamic country. And even in the face of the worst chaos, the total breakdown of society and tremendous hardship and suffering, the ritual of respect for the dead continued to be carried out. The famine victims would be brought to a collection point where a group of volunteers, local people, would wash the dead and then sew them into shrouds and take them to a mass grave.

Was there any resistance or reaction to your photographing this activity? Virtually every picture in "Inferno" was made at close range. I like to work in the same intimate space that the subjects inhabit.

These pictures would have been impossible to make unless I was accepted by the people I was photographing. How do you achieve that acceptance? When I approach people, I do it with respect, with deference; I do it slowly and gently and I think about the way I move, the way I speak and the way I use the camera. They become a participant in the picture.

I could not make these pictures without their acceptance and participation. What was happening when you took that photograph? The toppled column is actually a minaret of a mosque that had been broken by Serbian shelling; it was in a small village outside the town of Breko, which was one of the major points of conflict during the Bosnian war.

The dead man is a young soldier from that village, who was brought to a makeshift morgue set up in front of the mosque where, again, because it is an Islamic society, the bodies of the dead are washed before burial. I stayed in the village for a couple of weeks; I became part of the community to record what was happening to the people.

And almost every day the dead would be brought to the mosque, and the townspeople would assemble there and try to identify them and discover their own sons and family members who had been killed in battle.

Slowly the population of young men of the town was being wiped out. Have you ever been injured in the course of your work?

I was extremely lucky in every case. The injury itself could have been much more grave. A couple of times I could actually have been killed. Have you ever been in a situation where you put down your camera and interceded in what was taking place in front of the lens? My job is to record it and communicate it. Once in Haiti and once in South Africa, I rescued people from lynch mobs, from being beaten to death. Some of the most disturbing pictures in the book were taken in Rwanda, during the massacres in One image looks like it was taken at the church where villagers decided to leave the remains of the massacre victims where they fell, as a memorial.

This particular photograph is of a skeleton -- or a near skeleton -- lying on the ground outside the church, and the white statue of Christ is above the door. Since then, I believe, it has become a monument.

You arrive at this place, this hellish scene, and you pull your camera out of your bag and you start photographing. How are you able to function in such circumstances? Most of us would just freeze up in shock or go to pieces. My job is not to go someplace and fall apart. I would fall to pieces if I was an emergency room doctor, but thankfully there are people who are trained to handle that kind of trauma and handle it well. My training is to channel emotions -- my feelings of anger, of anguish, of disbelief, grief and frustration -- to overcome them and channel them into my work.

I go there with a purpose and I have to take those emotions and, with a sense of purpose and discipline, use that emotional content and put it into the pictures. Some of the pictures look almost biblical, like classical religious art. It was indeed a mass grave, in Zaire, where people were dying of cholera so fast they had to be bulldozed into the earth. To me it was the gates of hell. Only hell was where those people had just come from. These were the gates out of hell, rather than into it?

The way a mother grieves for her child is universal. Those studies from life were then put into a biblical or classical context. I believe that we are now witnessing the same thing that the artists of the past witnessed. These are universal symbols of life itself. And I think that by painting them as classical or biblical scenes, they sanctified life itself and what happens to ordinary people on this Earth.

I want to go back to what we were discussing earlier, the idea that things can be both horrible and beautiful, and that beauty is often found in these horrible situations. Given that, what is your take on artists who work that area of intersection but not in a journalistic way.

What is your impression of their work?


Vincent Borrelli, Bookseller

In , he moved to New York and began working as a freelance photographer. In , he covered his first assignment in Northern Ireland illustrating civil strife. He has documented a variety of armed conflicts and social issues, spending time in South Africa , Latin America , the Middle East , Russia , Eastern Europe , the former Soviet Union shooting pictures of war, conflict and images of socio-political issues in Western Europe and the United States. He is not married and currently lives in New York City. In , Nachtwey was covering the upcoming elections in South Africa, the first non-racial ones in decades. Nachtwey had been injured previously in his work, but it was during his extensive coverage of the United States invasion of Iraq that he received his first combat injury.


Inferno by Nachtwey James



James Nachtwey



James Nachtwey's "Inferno"


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