When Russia invaded Ukraine last year James Nachtwey packed up his cameras and Kevlar vest and rushed to the frontlines. Nachtwey is one of the greatest war photographers of all time. Over the last four decades he’s covered nearly every armed conflict in the world. He was shot in the leg in Thailand, wounded by a bomb in El Salvador, a mortar in Beirut, and a grenade in Iraq that was tossed into a humvee he was riding in.
James Nachtwey is 75 now, and as we found out trying to keep up with him over the past year, still risking his life to capture images that may be difficult to look at… but important to never forget.
In the darkest times and in the most dangerous places, James Nachtwey captures beauty and brutality. Moments of hate and heroism, senseless destruction, and quiet acts of compassion.
His photographs reveal the deepest and often disturbing depths of who we are and what we do to each other.
Anderson Cooper: You’ve said that photographs can speak, and I’m wondering if you feel like you’re– you’re helping give voice to some of the people you photograph.
James Nachtwey: Well, many of the people I photographed are marginalized by the powers that be, that they’re silenced, they’re made invisible. So when someone comes from another part of the world and he assumes risk to tell their story, I think people see us as a kind of messenger.
Nachtwey has devoted his life to telling other people’s stories… bearing witness to their suffering and sacrifices. But documenting what he calls “the insanity of war” has been the core of his career.
He’s spent decades covering conflicts in Afghanistan and the Middle East, the war in Bosnia, and the genocide in Rwanda when as many as a million people died.
Anderson Cooper: Some photographers have talked about their camera as a weapon. Do you think of your camera in that way?
James Nachtwey: I think it’s a way of looking at it. Because in a way you’re, you might be fighting for peace or fighting against an injustice and the way you do it is by informing people about it, with the faith that people will want something done about it.
In Ukraine at the start of the war Nachtwey worked in and around Kyiv and Kharkiv for the New Yorker magazine. These are images he took in Bucha shortly after Russian troops pulled out, leaving behind the bodies of civilians they’d executed.
James Nachtwey: Bucha was horrendous. It was really, like, kind of butchery.
Anderson Cooper: In terms of brutality, of all the militaries you have seen does the Russian military stand apart in Ukraine for their behavior?
James Nachtwey: Somehow the Russians have stood apart, and not only in Ukraine, but in Chechnya.
Nachtwey was in Chechnya’s capital Grozny for weeks in 1995 and ’96, as Russian forces relentlessly bombarded the city…
James Nachtwey: The part that was inhabited by the Chechens was pounded into rubble from artillery, and rocket fire, and air strikes for weeks and weeks on end, with the civilian population trapped inside. They’ve taken that to Ukraine but it’s throughout the country.
In Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine… last year we watched Nachtwey as he worked.. photographing a man living in a crawl space under a building to avoid shelling.
Months later, back in his New Hampshire studio, Nachtwey showed us some of the images he’d taken.
Anderson Cooper: What made this an image that spoke to you?
James Nachtwey: The expression on his face. If you really look carefully at his eyes, you can see there’s terror in his eyes. He’d just been living in a state of terror for quite a while.
This photograph was taken in a Kyiv suburb of civilians evacuating across a makeshift bridge.
Anderson Cooper: These are split seconds that are occurring. You can be running and taking a picture…
James Nachtwey: Quite often I’m running. And I have to try and make a composition, get it in focus, and catch the moment.
Anderson Cooper: People talk about your use of hands in images. Is that something you’re conscious of?
James Nachtwey: I’m extremely conscious of hands and eyes. I think those are the two most expressive parts of people.
James Nachtwey: This is a really good example here.
James Nachtwey: That’s the center of the picture, the old man’s hand, reaching for support to be held up by the volunteer.
Anderson Cooper: How many scenes like this have you seen in your life?
James Nachtwey: Too many.
Decades of Nachtwey’s photographs are on display in a traveling exhibition called Memoria. When it stopped in New York he showed us some of the 67 stunning images in it.
James Nachtwey: These are the orphanages in Romania.
In 1990 Nachtwey helped reveal the shocking squalor and neglect in Romania’s state-run orphanages.
James Nachtwey: The cribs were just packed together. The children were in the cribs and they weren’t taken out to play. They were almost like in prison, in a way.
His photographs, published in The New York Times Magazine, helped lead to an international effort to rescue these children.
James Nachtwey: How does a child who’s, what, 3-years-old maybe have a look like that in his eyes?
Other walls in the exhibition were lined with casualties of war…a family mourning in Bosnia… a father protecting his wounded daughter from gunfire in El Salvador.
Anderson Cooper: Those are machete strikes?
And this man — a survivor of a machete attack in Rwanda.
James Nachtwey: He couldn’t talk. I approached him very slowly. And I just made eye contact with him. And I showed him my camera. And he allowed me to take the picture. He even turned his face more toward the light without me asking.
Anderson Cooper: That’s important to you, that somebody gives their permission in a situation like this?
James Nachtwey: I don’t wanna feel like I’m taking from people. I want them to feel like they’re part of what I’m doing. And I think he understood what his scars would say to the rest of the world.
Anderson Cooper: Do you get depressed by it? Do you cry? Do you get angry?
James Nachtwey: I’m angry a lot of the time. I mean, when I see innocent people being pushed around and bullied. Yeah, I fight depression. It– the things are depressing. But I think it’s a sense of purpose that, you know, sorta drives me through that.
Anderson Cooper: You’ve said that you had to learn how to channel your anger as a journalist.
James Nachtwey: I realize anger can just throw you off the rails. So I channel it into the pictures. And I think my pictures have anger in them, but they also have compassion.
It was this image and others taken by the legendary life magazine photographer Larry Burrows in Vietnam that opened Nachtwey’s eyes to the power of pictures when he was a student at Dartmouth College in the late 1960s. Burrows’ photographs had a point of view, revealing the reality of war for service members and civilians alike.
Anderson Cooper: How did you start?
James Nachtwey: I just started cold. I read books. I would create assignments for myself and I would go out as if I was working for an editor and practice.
Anderson Cooper: Wait, so you would just make up your own assignments?
James Nachtwey: Yes. I said, “Okay, I’m gonna go out on that fishing trawler.” You know, making believe, you know, I was shooting for National Geographic or something.
He landed a job taking pictures for the Albuquerque Journal in 1976. That’s his photo on the front page.
But it wasn’t until 1981, after 10 years of training, that Nachtwey felt ready to photograph armed conflict. He bought a ticket to Belfast, northern Ireland where riots and street battles were escalating.
Anderson Cooper: Did you know people there?
James Nachtwey: I didn’t know anyone. I was green. I just threw myself into it.
His photographs from there were published by Newsweek magazine.
James Nachtwey: I felt that I was in the midst of history as it was happening and I was documenting it and that– that was really an exciting feeling.
Anderson Cooper: You were on the breaking wave of history.
James Nachtwey: I mean, isn’t that what photographers do? Because nothing’s been written. A situation is happening, we actually don’t know what’s gonna happen in the next moment. Anything can happen.
His unflinching coverage of the civil wars in Central America in the 1980’s cemented Nachtwey’s reputation and earned him a contract with Time magazine…where his work appeared for the next 34 years.
In South Africa in the early 1990s Nachtwey covered the violent end of apartheid and the blood-soaked birth of a new democracy. He was there when another photojournalist Ken Oosterbroek was shot to death and two other colleagues wounded.
James Nachtwey: We were down on the ground, trying to not be targets of incoming fire. And you can see my hair part from the bullet going through my hair.
Anderson Cooper: You actually felt the bullet go through your hair?
James Nachtwey: You can actually see it on the film.
Here it is again in slow motion, as Nachtwey in the white shirt moved to reach his injured colleague, a bullet, like a gust of wind, grazed his hair.
Anderson Cooper: You’ve come close many times to being killed. Is it worth it for these images?
James Nachtwey: It’s not for any one image. It’s for the job itself. I decided a long time ago that if I was gonna do this, I would have to put myself at risk, and anything could happen.
Anderson Cooper: You clearly made a commitment that this was worth sacrificing for, worth sacrificing having a family for.
James Nachtwey: I realized that if I were to pursue what I’m doing, and I was very driven to do that, I wouldn’t be a good father. I wouldn’t be a good husband, and all that would fall apart. I just didn’t want that to happen. So I had to forgo it.
Nachtwey lives in Hanover, New Hampshire, where he went to college, though he is rarely there for long.
His life’s work — nearly a million images–has been acquired by Dartmouth, including his wrenching coverage of the opioid epidemic in the U.S. and contact sheets from the morning of September 11th. Nachtwey was just blocks away when the towers were hit.
Anderson Cooper: So that’s the first image…
James Nachtwey: Yes. That’s roll one. That’s the first picture right there.
The proof sheets are a silent reminder of the horror that day…but also reveal how Nachtwey works. He isn’t just a photographer documenting destruction. He’s a man in search of meaning.
James Nachtwey: About a block and a half from the south tower was a small Roman Catholic church with a cross on the top. And I thought that was an interesting way of framing it. It somehow indicated the cultural difference between who was being attacked and who was doing the attacking. And as I was photographing it, the tower fell.
Anderson Cooper: That’s what happening right here?
James Nachtwey: It starts collapsing as I’m photographing it. And all of this debris, these giant girders that must have weighed tons, were flying through the air.
Anderson Cooper: You were about to get killed?
James Nachtwey: So I found my way into the lee of a building and it all flew over me.
Decades of close calls have taken their toll on James Nachtwey. His hearing is damaged and he has grenade shrapnel in his knees, stomach, and face, but he has no plans on retiring and still finds reasons to hope in his camera’s viewfinder.
James Nachtwey: That look of just utter joy and…
As in this image of Nelson Mandela on the eve of his election as South Africa’s first Black president in 1994.
James Nachtwey: His fist in the air, which is a symbol of both triumph and defiance.
And this one, taken two years earlier of South African children playing on a trampoline.
Anderson Cooper: What made you take this picture?
James Nachtwey: There’s something about the innocence of children that’s transcendent and to bounce on a trampoline, I think that you get to the height of your jump and then for a moment, you defy gravity. And I think that’s the feeling that I wanted to get in this picture, that they’re transcending the weight that has been on their society.
Perhaps in the end that is what James Nachtwey shows us in his work. That we are all capable of transcending our circumstances and ourselves. We can commit terrible acts of brutality and barbarism, but also stunning acts of kindness and caring.
Anderson Cooper: Are you optimistic about the human species? I mean, you see the worst in, in people.
James Nachtwey: I don’t know if “optimism” is exactly the right word. But in these horrible situations, we see everyday citizens doing remarkable things for each other. Mothers and fathers are my heroes. What they do for their children. How they protect them. Being in places where people have next to nothing and yet, anything they have, they offer to a stranger. Those are the things that we all have and that are displayed in the worst situations that makes me believe in humanity.
Produced by Denise Schrier Cetta. Associate producer, Katie Brennan. Broadcast associat, Annabelle Hanflig. Edited by Joe Schanzer.