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The Quality of Mercy

INFERNO By James Nachtwey; Phaidon: 428 pp., $125

March 19, 2000|DAVID RIEFF | David Rieff is a contributing writer to Book Review. He is the author of several books, including "Slaughterhouse: Bosnia and the Failure of the West," and is co-editor of "Crimes of War: What the Public Should Know."

It is, of course, a tragedy in itself that ours is a world in which war photographers are so busy. But given the realities of contemporary life, where war is as endemic in the poorer parts of the globe as it is endemic in its richer precincts, it should come as no surprise that war photographers are in such great demand. The bitter ironies go deeper still. It is at least arguable that the most interesting photographers working today are these anatomists of tragedy. What used to be called photojournalism is back, and with a vengeance. Obviously, there are great photographers working in other registers: Two, Annie Leibovitz, our great cartographer of celebrity, and Lynn Davis, whose landscapes have a 19th century purity and a 21st century kick, come to mind. But when we think of photographers whose insights are literally impossible to imagine in any other art form or method of storytelling can substitute for, the names that come to mind are Sebastiao Salgado, Gilles Peress and James Nachtwey.

Of the three, Nachtwey is probably the least known, at least outside the photographic guild itself. In part, this is because his work is the least intellectual. Peress' photographs are exercises of mind as much as of sensibility. Looking at his pictures, one often has the sense that, if the occasion seemed to call for it, he would put down his camera and write or make a film. In Salgado's case, the viewer has the impression of watching a Diderot or a Condorcet at work. All of his photographs, however gripping, seem subaltern to his overarching project of completing his great pictorial encyclopedia. Nachtwey is different. This is a photographer who seems to have lost sight of neither the audience for whom his photographs were destined nor his own didactic and moral purposes in taking them.

In the afterword to "Inferno," his magnificent, searing collection of pictures that are the distillation of the work he has done over the last decade in the most terrible places in the world, from the orphanages of post-Ceausescu Romania to the killing fields of Rwanda, Nachtwey is both modest and categorical. "The primary function of my photographs," he writes, "has been to appear in mass-circulation magazines to record events as they are happening so that the pictures contribute to people's awareness and help them form opinions."

In his introduction, Luc Sante argues persuasively that Nachtwey is not so much a war photographer as an anti-war photographer, which means, as Sante rightly insists, that he is engaged in acts of witness on behalf of victims. It is interesting in this regard that Nachtwey included almost no photographs of the warlords, militia fighters and paramilitaries who are largely responsible for the scenes of horror he depicts. Clearly, it is not that they don't interest him; to the contrary, their deeds haunt him and their absence from the pages of "Inferno" is almost more resonant than including them would have been. But Nachtwey never loses sight of the underlying purpose of his project, which is, to use an old-fashioned and under-appreciated term, quite simply that of solidarity with people who are suffering, in danger and in need.

His moving and thoughtfully argued afterword seems to confirm this. Doubtless, his editors at magazines like Newsweek have valued his photographs for very different reasons. But even at his most "journalistic," it is clear that Nachtwey's overarching goal was rarely that of simply imparting information. To the contrary, every image seems suffused with the essentially political and ethical ambitions of, as Nachtwey puts it, creating "images that evoke compassion" to "appeal to the readers' best instincts." These are, in the best sense of the word, incendiary images.

And no one paging through "Inferno" should be under any illusion about the toll that these photographs must have taken on Nachtwey. He writes that when he began documenting the orphanages of Romania in 1990, "every minute I was there, I wanted to flee." It could hardly have been otherwise. What Peress once said about photographing funerals--that one had the choice of doing it on one's feet, with the living, or on one's knees, with the dead--holds true for every morally licit approach to pointing a camera at scenes Nachtwey has traveled to over the last decade. It is not only a question of physical courage, although that is required of war photographers. Moral courage is required as well; and, if demonstration were needed, "Inferno" shows just how morally brave Nachtwey has been.

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