[Viewpoint] A thousand words - and then some

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[Viewpoint] A thousand words - and then some

I was fortunate enough to go this week to the Seoul Digital Forum at the Sheraton Grande Walkerhill Hotel. I only saw three speakers but came away excited by one, and his ardent belief about the positive impact journalism can still make in the world.

I don’t know how much the digital world has affected the way photographer James Nachtwey works. His photos appear on his Web site, as well as in the pages of Time, National Geographic and The New York Times. He publicizes his personal campaign to end tuberculosis on the Internet. I bet he uses digital cameras. But one thing that has remained constant for him is his mission: to document human suffering and change the conditions that lead to it.

He describes his work this way on his Web site, www.jamesnachtwey.com: “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.”

Nachtwey was inspired by photographs he saw as a student in 1960s America of fighting in the Vietnam War, at a time when photographs contradicted what politicians were telling Americans about the war. Pictures of African-Americans fighting for their civil rights also awakened a passion to tell important stories through photography.

After his start at a newspaper in New Mexico, Nachtwey began freelancing for magazines. His first overseas assignment was to cover the sectarian strife in Northern Ireland. Nachtwey said as soon as he began to work, he knew he was fulfilling his call.

From Ireland he moved to El Salvador and Nicaragua, where he documented the impact that American dollars funneled to anti-communist fighters were having on the country’s stability. One of Nachtwey’s photos at the forum showed a group of soldiers carrying a wounded comrade out of the forest. The wounded man’s only wish, Nachtwey said, was that his friends kill him to end the suffering he felt from the bullet in his stomach.

Nachtwey’s pictures of famine in Somalia in 1992 ran on the cover and inside the New York Times Magazine. The decision to use his photos instead of ones that would have been more palatable to advertisers cost the company money, Nachtwey said. But after they ran, an official from the International Committee of the Red Cross called and thanked him personally because the photos boosted donations. He praised his editors for making the decision to showcase them.

“Journalism is more than a business,” he said in an acceptance speech at the 2009 Internews Media Leadership Awards. “It’s a service industry and we are the servants. The service we provide is awareness and the purpose is to become an essential part of the process of change.”

The impact of his photos - both on him and the people attending the forum - was obvious. In an auditorium dark except for the pictures on a giant screen, I listened to his shaking voice and the exclamations of a woman sitting next to me as he described a man at a camp in Sudan during a 2009 famine. All that remained of the man were skin and bones, but he still pulled himself through the camp.

“My testimony has to be honest and uncensored,” Nachtwey said while the photo was on the screen. “I want it to be powerful and eloquent to do justice to the experience of the people I’m photographing. Because people are suffering does not mean they don’t express dignity. That people are afraid does not mean they lack courage. When people live in poverty it doesn’t mean they don’t have hope. We often hear the phrase ‘compassion fatigue.’ This man had virtually nothing left except his will to live. As sick and emaciated as he was, he continued to struggle. He had not given up, and if he didn’t give up, how can anyone in the outside world ever dream of losing hope?”

Nachtwey’s photos not only serve the people who are in them, but rather all of humanity when we are moved by what they show. That’s journalism at its best.

*The writer teaches journalism at Ewha Womans University.

by Chris Carpenter
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