Decades of close calls have taken their toll on war photographer James Nachtwe, but he has no plans to retire.
Nachtwey has covered nearly every armed conflict in the world over the past four decades. His hearing is impaired. He has shrapnel from grenades on his knees, stomach and face, and the septuagenarian was shot in the leg in Thailand. He was injured by a bomb in El Salvador, a mortar in Beirut and a grenade in Iraq.
Yet when Russia invades Ukraine Last year, Nachtwey packed up his camera and Kevlar vest and headed to the front lines. For Nachtwey, the risks are worth it.
“It’s not for an image. It’s for work,” he told 60 Minutes correspondent Anderson Cooper. “I decided a long time ago that if I was going to do this, I had to put myself at risk and anything could happen.”
Nachtwe was almost shot in the head in South Africa in the early 1990s when he covered the violent consequences of apartheid and the blood-soaked birth of a new democracy. He was there when another photojournalist, Ken Osterbroek, was shot dead and two other colleagues were wounded.
“We were on the ground, trying not to be targeted by incoming fire. And you could see parts of my hair from the bullet going through my hair,” Nachtwe said.
The documentation of what he called “the frenzy of war” has been central to his career. In the darkest times and most dangerous places, Nachtwey captures beauty and brutality. His photographs show moments of hatred and heroism, senseless destruction and quiet acts of compassion.
They reveal the deepest and often disturbing depths of who we are and what we do to each other. Nachtwey has dedicated her life to telling other people’s stories, bearing witness to their suffering and sacrifice.
“Many of the people I photograph have been marginalized by power, that they have been silenced, that they have been made invisible,” says Nachtwe. “So when someone comes from the other side of the world and they take the risk to tell their story, I think people see us as a sort of messenger.”
One of his subjects was a man from Rwanda who survived a knife attack. The wounded man could not speak, Nachtwe said. The photographer approached slowly, made eye contact and held up his camera, waiting for permission to take a picture.
“I don’t want to feel like I’m taking from people. I want them to feel like they’re part of what I’m doing,” says Nachtwe. “And I think he understood what his scar would say to the rest of the world.”
This is part of the film’s power. Some photographers talk about using the camera as a weapon. Nachtwey agrees that’s one way to look at the tool.
“Because in a way, you might be fighting for peace or fighting injustice, and the way you do that is to tell people about it, with the belief that people will want to do something about it,” he said.
His photos led to action. In the 1990s, Nachtwey helped expose the shocking malaise and neglect in a state-run orphanage in Romania. Her photo, published in the New York Times Magazine, helped spearhead international efforts to rescue the children.
Seeing something bad about humanity took more than just physical damage. Nachtwey gave up on having a family earlier in his career.
“I realized that if I followed what I was doing, and I was too driven to do it, I wouldn’t be a good father. I wouldn’t be a good husband, and everything would fall apart.” she said. “I didn’t want that to happen. So I had to leave it.”
Nachtwey says he struggles with depression and often gets angry. Even with that angst, Nachtwey says he still finds reason to hope in his camera’s viewfinder. One such image, taken in South Africa in 1992, shows children jumping on a trampoline.
“There’s something about the innocence of children that’s transcendent. And to bounce on a trampoline, I think you reach the height of your jump and then for a moment, you defy gravity,” says Nachtwe. “And I think that’s the feeling I wanted to get across in this film, that they’re overcoming the weight they have in society.”
After decades of witnessing some of humanity’s worst, Cooper asked Nachtwey if he was optimistic about the human species.
“I don’t know if ‘optimism’ is exactly the right word, but in these dire circumstances, we see everyday citizens doing remarkable things for each other,” Nachtwe said. “Mothers and fathers are my heroes: what they do for their children, how they protect them. Being in a place where people have nothing and yet, whatever they have, they offer to a stranger. We all have them. And It shows in the worst of situations that make me believe in humanity.”