While seeking to reach as many people as possible with his photographs, Nachtwey himself does not like to be the center of attention. Preferring to let the images speak for themselves, he rarely takes the time to talk about his work, let alone his experiences of war. And yet he is one of the most prominent contemporary photojournalists, published in the most prestigious magazines and newspapers, awarded countless times for his work.
There are many contradictions to Nachtwey and his work that are difficult to grasp. After all, for more than 30 years Nachtwey has been photographing the suffering and calamities that we humans have inflicted on each other, in images that are neither easy to look at nor easy to forget – and yet he appears, unlike many of his colleagues, unscathed by what he has seen and experienced. Not untouched, but without bitterness, at peace.
Nachtwey’s body of work could also be read as a trajectory of global conflict – from the troubles in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s to the revolutions in South and Central America, from the collapse of Communism to the famines of Africa in the 1990s, again and again the spiraling conflict between the Muslim and the Western worlds, from Israel to 9/11 to the war in Iraq.
His photographs depict scenes of war, but they rarely show the activity of war, the fighting. Instead, they describe the damage of violence: the loss and the scars. They are overtly political, but on a human and thus universal scale. They don’t deny complexity, but translate it into a language that we can all understand. His images show destruction and suffering, and yet they mysteriously distill a sense of hope and beauty. They speak with an urgency and integrity that are as compelling as they are demanding: By exposing us to our weakest and darkest impulses, they tell us that we can do better. By forcing us to confront our failures, they hold us to our beliefs and morality. They acknowledge, but they don’t accept.