May your faith be spread like seeds across the earth... September 2002
Faithful Witness
Journal of the Friends Media Project
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War Photographer
                        by Dana Kester-McCabe

Recently I attended the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival in Delaware. Among a number of other thought provoking selections, I went to see "War Photographer," the Oscar nominated documentary on the work of photojournalist and print photographer James Nachtwey. This film leaves viewers mesmerized by the respect he pays for his subjects and his deep commitment to witnessing the tragedy of war. This film should be seen by anyone already doing or considering pursuing this kind of work. It includes first hand video of him at work as well as footage from a micro-camera on top of his camera, showing all he goes through to get pictures.

And, Nachtwey has gone through a lot. He has been shot four times and suffered a number of illnesses related to toxic exposures in his endeavors. He has largely given up the conventions of family and home life to relentlessly travel to the globe's saddest locales. The result is work that has the timeless and tragic poetry of the human dignity that remains after experiencing human cruelty. Nachtwey 's face is etched with evidence of the terrible sights he has recorded with his camera.

Nachtwey is fortunate as an artist. He has a loyal support network of colleagues he collaborates with: publishers, artisans who make his prints and other journalists. He was recently celebrated with a retrospective of his work called "Testimony" at a major New York Gallery. Despite this success he is soft spoken and gentle in his demeanor, and appears to lead a very simple life style. In fact he expresses his desire for his work to serve as his own personal protest against war.
"For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war."
   - James Nachtwey

Interestingly, also showing at the Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival was "Image" a short fictional film written and directed by Joseph Pukatsch, in which a young man happens upon a car accident on a somewhat remote and deserted road. The audience sees him digging around his belongings. He produces a cell phone, but rather than making a call for help, he puts it aside and picks up his camera. And instead of helping the family in the car he begins taking pictures - even going to the extent of posing the driver who has staggered a short distance from the car only to expire. Even after seeing a child in the back seat, who has survived, the man still does not help.

This "little" film is striking commentary on the ethics of journalists. I was reminded of early war photographers in the U.S. Civil War who routinely posed the dead to create either more dramatic or more socially acceptable compositions. And having watched this short after seeing "War Photographer" I began to think a lot about the challenges, ethics and importance of witnessing and testifying about human tragedy.

From the safe confines of my middle class white American existence I am often moved by the horror that plays itself out on the world theater, that is broadcast daily through mass media. I deeply admire those with the courage and resources (spiritual, mental and financial) to travel to those places where hope and despair are in a constant contest. Their witness keeps the rest of us from turning our back on things we might be able to help change.

Recently a group of Quaker peace activists, including John Humphries, traveled to Iraq to witness life there in reality as opposed to the "made-for-TV," graphics rich imagery of "evil" found in most media coverage of the area. They risked fines and imprisonment to do this, returning with pictures and stories of people living in dire poverty as a result of United Nations economic sanctions. Their stories and images, no doubt put a human face on these lives that are usually only mentioned in passing.

This is grass roots journalism at its best. Sadly, it does not reach a wide enough audience. The way this group will share their information seems to be largely through speaking tours. Sometimes - though not always - individuals or small groups acting on their own are often suspected of being duped by foreign interests or bringing along a preconceived mission that skews their perceptions. Media companies may suppress or ignore this kind of reporting for these reasons or because of an all too human jealousness of competition and the greedy passion to hold on to a powerful position of public influence. Certainly the information could be debated as to whether it really shows the entire picture of the conflict. But that debate is only possible if alternative points of view are presented.

Another aspect to media propaganda is the tabloid fondness for showing the darkest side of humanity. The media actually profits, through increased viewership and therefore advertising revenue, from the all too human sentiment: "It was so horrible I could not look away." That is also important for the grass roots journalist to avoid as well. But actually, it is probably less likely to happen in their work. The grass roots journalist often acts out of sincere compassion and a desire to know a subject personally. This is dangerous business for the professional journalist who knows that they will soon be on to their next assignment. Getting to really know someone means risking emotional attachment; which is painful when it is ultimately broken. That pain gets in the way of the "business" of the media, which has no time to be sentimental. James Nachtwey's philosophy on this topic is very helpful:

"The worst thing is to feel that as a photographer I am benefiting from someone else's tragedy. This idea haunts me. It is something I have to reckon with every day because I know that if I ever allow genuine compassion to be overtaken by personal ambition I will have sold my soul. The stakes are simply too high for me to believe otherwise.

I attempt to become as totally responsible to the subject as I possibly can. The act of being an outsider aiming a camera can be a violation of humanity. The only way I can justify my role is to have respect for the other person's predicament. The extent to which I do that is the extent to which I become accepted by the other, and to that extent I can accept myself."

Many people who have experienced terrible cataclysms are at the same time too grief stricken to think deeply about whether they want to be photographed; yet they are anxious for the world to know what is happening to them so they will get help. It is up to the journalist to have a strong ethical basis for their work in order to be sensitive to this dilemma.

"Live up to the Light thou hast and more will
be granted thee."
  - Caroline Fox, 1841
   The calling to investigate and testify to the troubles of the world is a great responsibility. I can only imagine the full impact of this awesome undertaking on a person. The potential for bitterness and cynicism to overtake you must be great. I did not hear Nachtwey speak in this film of his religious or spiritual practices. But the desire to provide an "antidote to war" is clearly a higher calling than providing a macabre thrill for a mass audience, promoting a political agenda, or even simply trying to inform the public. So, regardless of what if any they are, I am sure there is a high power at work with him. As I said before, I highly recommend this film. There is much more to be learned from his comments and his very conduct with the people he photographs.

Queries For Media Artisans
How do you approach and respect those who are suffering, when covering them in a story? Are your aware of your own, perhaps unstated, agenda? How do you address the temptation to sensationalize a story to make it a more effective message? How do you make yourself aware of the manipulations of organizations or individuals with a vested interest in your work? How does your spiritual discipline or practice keep you grounded and healthy while committed to your work facing injustice and suffering?

Queries For The Audience
Do you regularly watch, read or listen to a variety of media sources that provide alternative perspectives to the main stream and your own? How do you make yourself aware of the manipulations of organizations or individuals with a vested interest in your viewership? How does your spiritual discipline or practice keep you grounded, healthy and willing to seek change when media exposes injustice and suffering?

Recommended Links:
War Photographer - James Nachtwey
Photo District Online
James Nachtwey Interview: Digital Journalist
Quaker Activist Shares Images of Iraq - Middletown Press November 15, 2002
Rehoboth Beach Independent Film Festival - Documentaries

Dana Kester-McCabe is a freelance graphic artist, writer and designer from Bishopville, Maryland.


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Copyright 2002 - Dana Kester-McCabe - All rights reserved.
Published with the author's permission by
Faithful Witness - Journal of the Friends Media Project