New York

James Nachtwey

THE FIRST IMAGE ENCOUNTERED in this midcareer retrospective—a color photograph taken in San Miguel Province, El Salvador, in 1984—goes straight to the aesthetic and ethical core of James Nachtwey's documentary work. In the foreground, a middle-aged man bends forward on his knees to cradle a wounded girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, in his arms. The blood on her legs and abdomen has stained the man's shirt. Behind and above them is a group of five soldiers in green fatigues. One lifts a fallen comrade onto the shoulders of another, thrusting the wounded man's clenched fist skyward to cut the exact center line of the image. Just to the right of this axis, another soldier propped against his rucksack turns to look directly into the camera. The pyramidal composition is forceful but not overpowering: The formal restraint draws us into the image rather than through it. The written guide accompanying this picture explains that it was taken just after a rebel ambush in which two soldiers were killed and several peasants caught in the crossfire. As the group waited for evacuation helicopters, it was fired on again. At this, the man dropped to his knees and bent forward to put his body between his wounded daughter and the bullets. It is an act of essential humanity—not a considered action but rather a reflex, as was pressing the shutter release at this precise moment.

This exhibition of about 140 photographs dating from 1982 to 1999 was divided into eleven sections, beginning with six color photographs from Nachtwey's first book, Deeds of War (Thames and Hudson, 1989), and including mostly black-and-white images from Romania (1990), Eastern Europe (1990), South Africa (1992), Chechnya (1995), Somalia and Sudan (1992–93), the United States (1994–95), the Balkans (1993–99), Indonesia (1998–99), Afghanistan (1996), and Rwanda (1994). The hell depicted here is drawn not from the imagination or Scripture but from contemporary reality. Each section comprises a separate photo-essay on a specific subject, such as the deplorable conditions of orphanages in Romania, pollution in Eastern Europe, famines in Africa, and crime and punishment in America. The whole immures an insistence of vision indicative of a mature image maker.

Nachtwey is steeped in the tradition of combat photojournalism and social documentary photography, as practiced by other Magnum photographers like Sebastião Salgado, Gilles Peress, and Susan Meiselas, who have gone to great lengths to provide a context for their pictures with extended descriptions, history, and political analysis. But an older progenitor of this kind of documentary image is Goya, as his 1810–14 series “Disasters of War” makes clear. And although Nachtwey's photographs are scrupulously annotated in the printed guide to his works, each could also be captioned simply with Goya's inscription “Yo lo vi”(“I saw this”), as in: I saw a woman starving to death, curled up in a wheelbarrow, in Somalia. I saw a child tied to a bed and abandoned in Romania. I saw mounds of corpses pushed into mass graves by bulldozers in Rwanda. And I saw a man kneel to shield his daughter from gunfire in El Salvador. At a time of epidemic social and political amnesia in the US, direct witness like this takes on a new urgency, even in the face of understandable qualms about the seductive draw of such images, despite their reference.

David Levi Strauss