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Nachtwey Shoots the Dead

By Graeme Wood, Crimson Staff Writer

The war photographer Robert Capa distilled the secret of his craft into one sentence: "If your pictures aren't good enough, you're not close enough.'' Capa, who got one step too close when a landmine blew him up him in Indochina in 1954, lived by those words and in the process he forged a new photojournalism. His photographs were real, without the slightest scent of contrivance. They were too graphic and too close-up to be fake: when you see the subject's brain exiting the back of his skull, you know the shot is a one-time event, and that the subject is a more-than-reluctant participant. Ever since Capa-whose name survives in the most prestigious prize for combat photographers, the Capa Gold Medal-it has been the mark of a great war photographer that one wonders how he could possibly have gotten close enough to avoid the same fate as his subject.

Capa might have found a kindred spirit in James Nachtwey, the intrepid photojournalist and five-time Capa medal winner whose book Inferno chronicles suffering from a sometimes uncomfortably close perspective. Nachtwey, whose photographs have appeared in Time magazine and in a previous collection, 1989's Deeds of War, chooses as his subjects the spoils of war, genocide and social stigma. He is an "anti-war photographer,'' says the writer Luc Sante in Inferno's brief introduction; his photographs record the horror of war rather than the valor.

Inferno, which takes its name and epigraph from Dante, is Rwanda, Zaire, Chechnya and Kosovo. It is gruesome stuff, some of the most grisly and horrifying photography I have ever seen, and certainly not right for you if your tastes fall on the squeamish side of Diane Arbus. Nachtwey surpasses in pure disgust value even Joel-Peter Witkin, who is known for raiding Mexican morgues in search of subjects. In one Nachtwey photograph taken in Rwanda in 1994, a carcass lies rotting in front of a church; the fact that it hasn't been removed hints that there are more nearby, which of course the other photographs demonstrate to be the case. Piles of bodies-some with limbs hacked off or torn away by scavenging animals-decay among lush vegetation. In Zaire, we see front-end loaders filling mass graves of cholera victims from the refugee camps. In Somalia, the dead are wrapped in white cloth for proper Muslim burial; the corpses are so thin that they can be stacked for mass burial like cut saplings.

Nachtwey's photographs of the living are no less compelling, nor less vile. Images from the Sudan and from Somalia tell the story of the East African famine during the last decade. Photographs from Bosnia, Kosovo and Chechnya are striking for their portrayal of the agony of war-men on makeshift operating tables, blinded by shrapnel and bleeding from torn limbs; civilians dying in the snow; the living inconsolably mourning the dead; bloody handprints smeared on walls.

Why would anyone risk his life to take these photographs? Why would anyone purchase a book of them? There is, first of all, the journalistic aspect of Nachtwey's work. He has seen what few others have seen and has brought back evidence of his journeys. His work is, as he writes in his afterword, an odyssey "through the dark reaches of the last decade,'' which is to say through some of the worst human experiences life has had to offer during the last few years. Few have demonstrated the awfulness of these situations better, and we should appreciate Nachtwey for documenting what we are too faint-hearted to discover for ourselves. This is life and death in the raw.

But what haunts me equally about Nachtwey's work is how strikingly beautiful all these photographs are, and I'm not talking about beauty in some sick voyeuristic sense. The book itself is huge and heavy, with thick paper stock and stylish layout. Moreover, the photographs are finely printed and composed with an infallible eye for human misery: few of us could ever imagine the horrors that Nachtwey's subjects have seen, but he is a virtuoso at evoking pity. The line between a bad photographer and a good photographer of these horrors is drawn where the photographs stop making you feeling just sick and start making you feel both sick and sad. My stomach-knots and grief persisted long after seeing Inferno, and that is no mean feat for a photojournalist.

In his brief but insightful introduction, Luc Sante points out that it does feel almost obscene to see hundreds of deaths packaged so elegantly. "Maybe we expect that the photographer faced with grief, trauma or starvation will be rendered incompetent by the sight,'' Sante muses. Nachtwey's work, however, manages to avoid the luridness of a snuff film by being laced with sympathy. There is no doubt in flipping through these photographs that they are taken with the utmost concern for the afflicted, that they are taken, as Nachtwey says in his afterword, as "an appeal to the reader's best instincts-a spirit of generosity, a sense of right and wrong, the ability and willingness to identify with others the refusal to accept the unacceptable.''

More than anything else, Inferno should remind us why this sort of reportage is so important, why it provides what popular journalism sometimes lacks. The talking heads and hairsprayed anchors of network broadcasts show one side of the story, but we distrust it:anyone with the slightest cynicism regarding today's media-which is to say, anyone with a pulse and half a brain-regards such reporting with healthy skepticism. We never know how staged and contrived these events really are. But with Nachtwey, our cynicism gives way to empathy, and our skepticism to sorrow. The special place of Nachtwey's photography is the realm beyond the contrived, where even jaded media-hounds cannot escape the pathos. The starvation in the Sudan and in Somalia is impossible to stage, and the subjects are too weak to strike a pose. We see the stick-men dying in the streets and we cannot look away.

And this, of course, is what the best journalism has always been: a way of showing the world in a new, true and sometimes unpalatable light, a fresh and direct sense of what we would like very much to ignore. The photographs in Inferno are, in their terrible beauty, both admirable and unforgettable; they will remind anyone who has stomach enough to view them that the world is still a nasty place, and that we should be thankful and mindful of our lucky lots in life.

Nachtwey's photography will be featured in New York City at the International Center for Photography, from May 23 to June 23.

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