War Photographer
review by Gregory Avery, 2 November 2002

In the documentary War Photographer, the American photo-journalist James Nachtwey, a tall, serious-looking man, simply dressed and with short, greying hair, is shown calmly and methodically assembling his still camera equipment, and then going off to photograph people and events and in places like Kosovo, during the discovery of a mass grave; a confrontation between Israelis and Palestinians in Ramalla, during which tear gas is thrown and bullets are exchanged inbetween rock-throwing; African survivors of machete attacks, or people starving during a man-made famine in Rwanda, the latter which Nachtwey describes as something like "taking the express elevator to hell."

In Jakarta, he meets and photographs working-class people who are living next to railway tracks -- right next to them, in the open and with trains zooming by, because, with the amount of money they're making, it's less expensive for them to live on this ground because they don't have to pay rent. Wherever he goes, Nachtwey exchanges a gesture or a few words of greeting with people before taking pictures. Ingeniously, the documentary filmmakers have set up a "microcam" atop Nachtwey's still camera, so that we can see the scene that he is photographing; later, we see the images that he has recorded on film, unstinting yet very expressive.

Nachtwey himself lives in an apartment in New York City with a very good view, but it is sparsely furnished and utilitarian. He seems to have very little life outside of his work -- photography, and specifically war photography, something which he says he consciously chose to pursue beginning in the 1980s, takes up all of his time, as if it were a vocation, and the more we watch him and listen to him, the more we come to believe how entirely in earnest he is about what he does. And, gradually, the documentary reveals the subject underneath the taciturn surface. To do what he does means having to confront grief, horror, bloodshed, but, as Nachtwey himself puts it, "For me to go to these places and cave-in would be useless." If he did, of course, he wouldn't be able to function in this capacity, but neither is he cynical, callous, or glib about what he does, nor is he some cocky sort who sticks a gun in his belt, heads into a war zone, and hopes to find fame and glory in the attention. The film opens with a quote from Robert Capa, who took a famous photograph of a young man at the moment when he is shot to death during the Spanish Civil War; later, Capa himself would, fatally, step on a landmine during the early years of what would become the Vietnam War. An editor for the German news magazine "Stern" ventures to the filmmakers that Nachtwey may have come to believe that he is immune to the stray bullet, and there are certainly easier ways to make a living, especially when Nachtwey mentions the difficulty in placing photographs such as his opposite upscale advertising in magazines or in a media culture attuned more than ever towards escapism and entertainment. But there's no denying that he's performing an important service in documenting events and occurrences that otherwise wouldn't be seen or known about yet deserve to be recorded no matter how unpleasant they may be.

Is he making a living out of other people's suffering? A good question, and one that the documentary does not try to dodge. Not until the end do we learn that Nachtwey diligently keeps himself in check on this -- that if he ever felt that his work was beginning to keel in that direction, than he would have "sold his soul," and in this way does his low-key manner, way of living, and way of working all begin to make sense in your head. Far from being unfeeling, Nachtwey maintains his compassion for the people on the other side of his camera as a sort of covenant, so that he can show us: This is what's happening. What can we do about it? And it is only by way of other people whom the filmmakers talk to that we learn of the injuries Nachtwey has sustained, the instances of "physical trauma," or (as told by a seasoned cameraman who works for Reuters) of the time when he got down on his knees before an angry crowd to beg that they spare the life of a man whom they were going to beat to death in the streets. Inspite of himself, Nachtwey emerges in this film as a truly heroic figure.

Written and
Directed by:

Christian Frei

NR- Not Rated.
This film has not
been rated







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