Bearing Witness: Images of War, Past and Present
January 8, 2016
Essay #1: Susan Sontag and James Nachtwey walk into a bar …
James: Good afternoon, Susan.
Susan: Hello, James. How have you been?
James: I have been well, thanks. How about yourself?
Susan: I can’t complain. Any recent trips lately?
James: Yes. As a matter of fact, I just returned this morning from a reporting trip to Nepal. Those recent earthquakes were very damaging to the country and caused much destruction. However, it is amazing the things I had seen though. Would you like to see some photographs?
Susan: Sure, James.
Susan: That photo looks rather tragic than amazing, James. Wouldn’t you say so?
James: The events that happened and the earthquake that occurred were tragic, yes. However, the images that I was able to capture are amazing, like this one for example. This is an image that can show people the effect that the earthquake had on these people of Nepal.
Susan: I agree that it shows the effect the earthquake had on those people, but the tragedy of this picture could just be overwhelming for people who view it. Don’t you think so?
James: I do not think it would be overwhelming; I think it would be eye-opening and a cultural learning picture for some. With this picture, people are able to see the realism of this earthquake.
Along with this picture, the truth of how these people of Nepal feel just jumps out and people and really opens people’s eyes.
Susan: You see James, I just think that these photos exploit the tragedy of the earthquakes and just make people uneasy about what they are looking at.
James: I do not believe that these photos are exploiting tragedy, rather they are me bearing witness on an event and on a group of people that are experiencing a tough time. To go along with me bearing witness, the angle I took the first photograph from is, in my mind, a very interesting angle being that it shows a large group of people all experiencing the same feelings and the viewer being able to see how the people of Nepal all had each other’s back during this time.
Susan: But is the angle of the picture really the focus of people’s attention when they look at this picture? Wouldn’t they just focus on the feelings of the women and the tragedy behind their feelings?
James: I do not look at that photo like that. I look at that photo as if the people of Nepal are coming together as one, and having each other’s back, during a very tough time in their country. My goal is not to exploit the tragic outlook on people, but to show people the truth of what is going on and show people the unity of the people of Nepal. Behind all of my photographs, there is a story to tell; not a story of tragedy, but rather a story with a positive outlook and a positive meaning. Take for instance, this photo:
I took this photo while in Pakistan in 2001. This is a photo of a rehabilitation center for heroin addicts. These men were once addicted to a very dangerous drug and their lives were headed in the wrong direction. As dark and gloomy as this photo may seem, the biggest thing I take away from it is the light shining on the man. That light to me is the sign that this man is turning his life around, regardless of what his past has been like.
Susan: Yeah, but he is just sitting there and this looks tragic because of the emptiness of the photo.
James: The emptiness of the photo is what makes it that much more interesting. It is an empty photo because of the life that this man had lived in the past; however, the light shining solely on him and the other men are the sign of overcoming their addiciton.
Susan: I just think that these photos of yours could potentially get you into conflict with the American media, but also people will begin to lose interest in your photos. Public attention is steered by mainstream media in this day and age and I believe the photos that matter the most to us begin to diminish as time goes on, such as your photos?
James: Why would you say my photos?
Susan: I would say your photos cause your photos are, like you said, out there to show people the truth and the reality of war and conflict in this world. Therefore, people continually see your photos over and over again and begin to beome less interested in them.
James: Well, Susan, being that I am now 69 years old and have been doing this for years, I think that my photos are safe to stay and people will continue to view my photos and I will continue to provide a background story, with a positive outlook, on each of my photos.
Susan: All I am saying, James, is be careful of the American media and continue to keep up the good work.
James: Thank you for the heads up, Susan. I shall see you soon. Goodbye.
Susan: Goodbye, James.