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Exploring Humanity at War Photographer Screening

By Zoe A. Kessler and Ivan B. K. Levingston, Contributing Writers

War Photographer--the award-winning 2001 documentary depicting the work of photojournalist James Nachtwey--opens with a quotation by world-renowned photographer Robert Capa: “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you're not close enough.”

Attendees at a screening of the film Monday evening in the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs had their own opportunity to zoom in on Nachtwey’s process.

The film was shown as part of Humanity Explored, a series of events that examine the role of art in human rights advocacy. The series hopes to highlight artistic representations of major human rights challenges and abuses, and places a particular focus on current humanitarian crises, according to Harvard Humanitarian Initiative Executive Director Vincenzo Bollettino.

“We’re looking at other ways that art is used, both for expressing trauma, coping with it, and researching it,” he said. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative co-hosted the screening with the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard and the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at HKS.

The documentary describes the field of photojournalism and then transitions into the details of Nachtwey’s experiences in a number of warzones, including post-war Kosovo and Indonesia. Much of the movie is filmed by a video camera mounted on top of Nachtwey’s still camera, giving the viewer a unique perspective into the choices Nachtwey makes as he shoots photographs of the gruesome effects of war on daily life.

“What’s really interesting about the film is it provides a bird’s eye view...you see the decisions of what he chooses to shoot and what ends up in mass media,” said Sarah Peck, administrative and fellows coordinator at the Carr Center. She said that Nachtwey is one of the most prominent war photographers today.

That sentiment was echoed by Gregory Marinovich, a close friend and colleague of Nachtwey who introduced the event. Marinovich is a current Nieman Fellow at Harvard and a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who spent many years in the field with Nachtwey since first meeting him in South Africa 23 years ago.

“We’re both very humanist. It’s not what you decide to shoot but how, and how you treat the subjects around you,” he said. Nachtwey shares this ethical perspective, Marinovich added. Despite the unpredictability of the subjects they are shooting, Marinovich said Nachtwey “wants control” over the process. “He doesn’t do accidents,” he said.

“I was very deeply moved,” said Shradha Balakrishnan, a student at HKSl. “Two things that stayed with me were how they deal with fear...he channels into his work and that’s a message that a lot of us can take into our own work.”

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Visual ArtsHarvard Kennedy School