See You in Hell: James Nachtwey's Harrowing Photojournalism

| 16 Feb 2015 | 04:54

    See You In Hell Every so often, James Nachtwey travels to hell and back. Returning from battlefields with faraway place names like El Salvador, Nicaragua, Lebanon, Afghanistan, Somalia, Rwanda, Romania, Bosnia and Chechnya, Nachtwey witnesses bloody, flame-filled hell for those few who will listen. Recording the suffering perpetrated by human agency, he scours the globe observing famine, drought, violence, nearly impossible cruelty, horrible and ubiquitous death. That could be your sister, his photographs say; your mother bone-thin and starving; your infant son chopped to bits by a land mine, his eyes screaming. Nachtwey's photographs commit to suffering. Look at me, they demand. Don't turn away. Walk a mile in my shoes, even if it kills you. "I used to be a war photographer," Nachtwey says, noting how the experience changed him. "Now I am an antiwar photographer." The difference, writer Luc Sante has pointed out, is a moral one. Today, Nachtwey is clearly on the side of the victims. A blindingly straightforward record of Nachtwey's hard-fought partisanship, Inferno (Phaidon, 480 pages, $125) is the photographer's second book, the first one in 11 years. Eloquently introduced by Sante and articulately summed up by Nachtwey himself, the harsh black-and-white images are matched by the book's stony mass, by the thing's lapidary gross. Massively packaged and gravely impacting, Inferno is all purposeful unwieldiness, five pounds of dark heft sandwiched between a pair of black clothbound covers. Like no other book in recent memory, Inferno cannot be comfortably stored anywhere: not on a coffee table, not on a shelf; not, certainly, in the memory.

    A trek through some of the worst terrain of human suffering this past decade, Inferno burrows deep into the not-so-hidden corners of the world to bring back distressing, gut-wrenching images. Going places the smug and self-satisfied ignore, he exposes the outer reaches of the pax Americana, the post-Cold War, triumphalist utopia irresponsible historians asserted would spread the world over with McDonald's franchises and the Internet. Instead of comfortable consumerism, Nachtwey shows us folks in shorts, tube socks and knit polo shirts staring after the fresh graves of their battle dead. In place of entertained, Web-savvy First World children, Nachtwey portrays the bodies of naked, emaciated, cholera-riddled Third World ones. The 6th and 21st centuries, he recalls with every shutter click, are merely an airplane flight away.

    Starting with a trip to Romania he funded himself, Nachtwey began conceiving of a new sort of photography book, one that would trade in Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" for a "deeper and broader treatment of events...something that possesses not only a structure integral to the single image but also the connections between images." Nachtwey's pictures gradually drifted away from dramatic moments sought out "on gut instinct," and gravitated instead toward narratives unfolding in multiple, related photographs. The result gave his pictures both the immediacy of fact and the common contours and empathy built into a well-told, primordial story.

    Nachtwey traveled to more than a dozen locations to compose Inferno. After visiting Nicolai Ceausescu's ghoulish, dungeon-like wards filled with more than 100,000 orphans, Nachtwey moved onto the burning wastelands of Somalia and Sudan. Flat, waterless and devastated by anarchic civil wars, he pictured the warlords' use of famine there as a weapon of mass destruction. In Rwanda during the Hutu rampage against the Tutsis, he captured the aftermath of the murderous frenzy that wiped out 800,000 people; then traveled to Zaire for the largest known exodus of refugees in human history. In Bosnia and Kosovo, he recorded the blisteringly cruel toll imposed on victims of the Balkan wars and the raw, incomprehensible reality of "ethnic cleansing." In rubble-filled Chechnya, where few journalists dare to venture, Nachtwey once again followed the victims. The blasted dead, the wounded and nearly dying, often simply those just dying inside, constituted his subjects. He focused, for unforgiving posterity's sake, on life at the breaking point, providing gruesome, unsparingly frank witness on the muddy, shifting limits of final passages.

    "You can photograph anything now," photographer Robert Frank said about another, far more censorious time. In our own age, a period simultaneously magnetized and deadened by live images of school children killing other children, Frank's statement appears both quaint and self-evident. James Nachtwey's photographs simultaneously mask and accelerate the phenomenon of blood and guts in the age of mechanical reproduction. Also on view in May at the International Center of Photography in Manhattan, the grainy images from Inferno focus less on violence than on events leading up to it and its devastating aftermath. Rail-thin, living corpses crawl along the dirt like snails until they can crawl no more; dying faces stare out from piles of blankets with the look of landed fish; rubber-aproned men work in an outdoor morgue touching up bodies for the victims' families. Each of these pictures contains, like Robert Capa's famous photograph of a dying Spanish Republican soldier, an unflinching, uncomfortably close portrayal of death. But in focusing repeatedly on human suffering Nachtwey's photographs commit to more. Inferno puts faces to the dead, gives distinct and empathic detail to barely shimmering life in the real live hells so many innocent people inhabit.

    In seeking out "ground-level humanize what would otherwise remain abstractions or statistics," Nachtwey portrays material that is uncomfortable for even the hardiest and most desensitized folks. One series among the many that captures what it is to live and die amidst continuous calamity has especially stayed with me. In it, an old Chechen woman is discovered lying in the street by her neighbor and Nachtwey's camera. A photograph or two later, the neighbor encounters the woman's elderly husband, killed by the very same mortar shell. The dead man sits upright, clutching a bag of groceries. Two younger men arrive, console the neighbor, then fish out a carton of cigarettes from the dead man's bag. One last photograph pictures the dead man with the eloquence of pedestrian, unshakable fact: dragged into the middle of the road by unknown hands, he lies there, frozen solid and bareheaded in the snow, his hat having been nicked as a final insult.

    Inferno is constructed from many such final insults. Nachtwey would have us draw from them evidence of a slim sort of dignity. There is, he desperately wants to tell us, dignity in dying and being human, no matter how horrific or barbarous the circumstances. For those of us who resist believing him, who can't believe him, there are Nachtwey's photographs: vehicles, each one, of mute, unromanticized and unassailably dignified witness, a deep well of human hope that empathically pictures misery where before there was merely despair.

    "James Nachtwey: Testimony," May 23 through July 23 at the International Center of Photography, 1130 5th Ave. (94th St.), 860-1783.