Rick Poynor | Exposure

Exposure: James Nachtwey by Antonin Kratochvil

James Nachtwey by Antonin Kratochvil, year unknown

This man has seen terrible things—in Romania, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, and many other places. James Nachtwey is one of the most highly regarded photojournalists and war photographers of our time. His pictures, collected in a book titled Inferno, which gives viewers ample warning, can be punishingly hard to look at. What is it like to witness such scenes, time after time, and have them seared into your brain as memories?

Antonin Kratochvil, also a veteran photojournalist, made the portrait. In 2001, Nachtwey, Kratochvil and others founded the photographic agency VII, where the pair worked together until 2011 when Nachtwey moved on. Kratochvil is an expressionist. He likes deep shadows, unstable angles, and the sensation that the scene is slipping out of the frame as unpredictable events unfold. His pictures document what he finds, while also offering fluid subjective interpretations.

Thanks to Nachtwey’s renown there are plenty of portraits online, but this one stands out. Even here, with his face eaten by shadow, the neatly cut hair and side parting give the handsome American features the look of a bygone era. With his long neck, wide mouth and slightly patrician air, Nachtwey resembles the kind of actor who would have been cast to play a United States Navy captain in a patriotic 1950s movie: smart, decent, and fair. Originally, he studied art history and political science, and as he recounts in a tremendous recent interview in Mono Kultur magazine, he transformed himself into a news photographer by a sustained act of will. 

Although the location of the picture remains unclear, the scarred brick wall and sealed-up shutter stand for all the zones of conflict where Nachtwey took his chances for the sake of the story. The crumpled work shirt implies a moment of pause during an assignment, while the crumpled brow hints at the profession’s immense stresses, though Nachtwey, hands thrust casually in pockets, seems entirely composed, irrespective of the picture’s unsteady tilt. “It would be unthinkable to witness such devastating events without caring about what you are seeing,” he confides to Mono Kultur. If his years in the inferno bearing witness have taken their toll, he prefers to focus on the gains in public awareness and keep the psychic penalty to himself.

There is another figure lurking nearby, Nachtwey’s shrunken shadow, like a malign homunculus. Kratochvil could easily have shot the portrait without the dark intrusion yet he chose to keep it. The shape is a receptacle symbolizing everything Nachtwey has seen. It represents how he is able to deal with the horrors, pushing them far enough away to be able to live and work, but forever unable now to escape their presence.

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