Susan Sontag and James Nachtwey walk into a bar…
James: Susan, how have you been?
Susan: I’m doing well, and yourself?
James: Good, I just came back from a reporting trip to South Sudan. It’s incredible how many people have responded to the genocide going on there. We’ve done a lot but there’s still so many people dying everyday, it’s a serious crisis. Would you like to see some photographs?
Susan: Absolutely, but do you really think that these photos will influence the serious response needed? Most Americans wont be able to tell the difference between famine in Sudan and the civil war going on in Rwanda, the “CNN effect” has made people callous.
James: I’ve read your work and I must say I disagree. I see photojournalism as providing the means to allow for people’s innate sense of generosity to come out and I have repeatedly seen this happen.
Susan: Yes, but how can this sense of generosity continue with news outlets constantly screening images of atrocities, that at one point in time may have shocked individuals into compassion, but are now numbing us into what I consider a “diminishing effect.”
James: I’ll give you the example of a man I met in Indonesia, he was living with his family on a railway after loosing an arm and a leg in a train accident, after the photographs and story was published, countless donations from people all over the world allowed for the family to get a house, set up a trust fund, and live a life with basic necessities and happiness.
Susan: You don’t think that this kind of photojournalism is simply effective because of how it exploits the emotions of individuals in Western society? I find this somewhat discouraging in that people can only remember the photographs taken, not the information surrounding the photograph.
James: But they have to start somewhere no? I’d rather have them look at a photograph, be moved, and then compelled to know more about what’s going on and how they can help.
Susan: In order for people to make a more serious impact they must understand through the narratives of these photographs, so I’m assuming that most of these donations came from people reading the article describing the poverty in Indonesia and not from the pictures.
James: No, I don’t believe that to be true. A free flow of information in society is necessary to see a greater impact in situations like this one. I also agree that these problems need to be identified with, and what I’ve found to be most effective is by taking a photograph that puts a human face on the issue at hand, taking a look at the problem from their point of view and giving a voice to the voiceless.
Susan: But why not give them a voice through words that help them understand and not through these photographs that tend to haunt these people.
James: I saw photojournalism as the best to create awareness. I agree that narration of the photographs I take are necessary to truly understand their context, but not to feel and evoke the emotions needed for change.
Susan: So back to what I was getting at before, don’t you ever feel that you’re simply benefiting from someone else’s tragedy?
James: This idea has troubled me for some time now, but I know that I can’t let my emotions get in the way of my journalistic integrity. At the same time, I know on every trip that I must have the utmost respect and sense of responsibility while working with these individuals. Many of them want their stories told.
Susan: You don’t think that the images you shoot have become too common and recurring for the average white wealthy American? I feel as if when they see these photographs they may want to help but immediately think the problem is on too large of a scale, too boundless and unalterable.
James: I strongly believe that photography, especially wartime photography, has the power to evoke a sense of humanity in all of us and truly be a factor throughout the war. Look at this photograph of this man at an NGO feeding center getting help after famine had led him to become a live skeleton. But the power comes from the idea that if he could still find the courage to move then how could anyone in the average wealthy class give up on hope, that is what my photos do.
Susan: This is a powerful image. Would you say that an image like this is beautiful?
James: I wouldn’t say that a photo like this one is uninhabited with a sense of beauty to the right eyes. Photography is an art, and in order for my work to channel emotions the way I think it can, my testimony must be forthright and uncensored.
Susan: I don’t think that there is beauty in war photography. I think that “beautifying” photographs take away from the moral reaction that you are looking for. On the other hand, “uglifying” photos are a more relevant way to shock viewers into becoming more active.
James: When I take a photograph the first thing I take into consideration is my subject, I try and do them justice by making the images I take compel and impact the viewer.
Susan: I understand; I just truly think that if we keep flooding peoples heads with war photographs, eventually they won’t be able to feel anything.
James: I see your concern. I think we can both agree that what we are doing is shedding light on situations that otherwise never would have been discussed, and even more than that making sure that the events we record will never happen again.
Susan: Well that is something I can accept, enough of this debate what are you drinking?