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By Phil Hall | June 19, 2002

“War Photographer” is the Academy Award-nominated documentary focusing on the unusual career of James Nachtwey, the Massachusetts-born photojournalist who has captured stunning images of the horror and devastation of the frontline battlefields across Europe, Africa and the Middle East. While Nachtwey emerges from this films as a curiously elusive figure, his work has detailed the stunning depravity and inexplicable cruelty which the people of the world have inflicted upon each other.
Unique to “War Photographer” is a microcam attached to Nachtwey’s camera, which gives the viewer an often-uncomfortable POV to the action which the celebrated shutterbug is viewing. Thus, the audience joins Nachtwey’s eyes as he is audience to the crushing grief of the Kosovan people as they reclaim bodies from mass graves, to the Palestinian intifada as their slingshot-ejected stones are met with canisters of Isræli tear gas, and the sulfur miners of East Java who labor in one of the most poisonous environments found on Earth.
As a two-decade veteran of battlefront journalism, Nachtwey has amassed a heartbreaking photographic record depicting the devastation of nations and people. His photography provides eternal testament to children of war devastated Kosovo wandering bombed out ruins of once-vibrant communities and lying in hospitals crippled by land mines. His pictures from Rwanda reveal war victims hideously disfigured by machete-wielding countrymen, while elsewhere on the continent he has generated photographic evidence of African famine victims clinging desperately to life at UN feeding stations. In Asia, he has walked among and photographed the miserably poor of Indonesia who live in the streets while the towering skyscrapers of downtown Jakarta glimmer in the distance like an off-limits Emerald City.
Nachtwey’s work cries with emotion and it is impossible not to be moved by what his camera has encountered. Yet “War Photographer” stumbles considerably in trying to celebrate the man behind the pictures. Nachtwey comes across as a lethally somber individual who clearly does not enjoy being on camera himself. He speaks solemnly that he feels haunted about the possibility of benefitting “from someone else’s tragedy,” yet the film concludes with a New York gallery opening of his collected work and Nachtwey is visibly gloating over the positive feedback from the wine-sipping cognoscenti of the Manhattan culture vulture orbit. (If proceeds from the gallery show went to any humanitarian charity, it is not cited here.)
In fairness, it would be impossible for Nachtwey to do his work if he was constantly choking from the drama before his lens…and from personal experience as an ex-ambulance driver, I can attest it is too easy not to let your heart soak on your sleeve when facing with a catastrophe. Throughout the film, Nachtwey is shown to be more than capable of genuine emotion and pain. Interviews with video cameraman Des Wright reveal a stunning anecdote when Nachtwey dramatically pleaded in vain with an Indonesian mob to spare the life of man being stoned to death, while writer Denis O’Neill mentions Nachtwey’s injuries in the course of his work and how his professional dedication has prevented him from maintaining a romantic relationship or starting a family. There is also news footage from 1984 of a determined Nachtwey helping to evacuate a fellow photographer who was fatally shot while covering a riot in South Africa. However, “War Photographer” never has any of this information coming directly from Nachtwey himself. Whether filmmaker Christian Frei was unable to get Nachtwey to speak in depth about his feelings or whether he didn’t bother asking is also unclear.
News junkies who catch “War Photographer” will certainly get a kick in learning how war coverage is shaped. There is an appearance by Our Lady of CNN, Christiane Amanpour, who joins Nachtwey in reporting from a Kosovo mass grave. Also present is the editorial staff of Germany’s Stern Magazine, who gently bicker among themselves on which photographs from Nachtwey’s African coverage should go into print (a photograph of a camel herd is inexplicably included, with the notion this would clue readers into the geographic location of the story). And unexpected fun is provided by the playful personality of Christiane Breustedt, the editor-in-chief of Geo Saison Magazine, who supposedly is giving insights into how the news magazine world works. However, she is so coy and girlishly fluttering with the camera that you half expect her to break into a rendition of “My Heart Belongs to Daddy.”
“War Photographer” began its life as a 52-minute documentary for Swiss television and was expanded to 96 minutes for an international theatrical release. In some ways, it is a shame the film cannot be expanded further. While the images presented here are peerless, James Nachtwey is a fascinating individual and it is a shame we cannot learn more about the man behind these extraordinary images.

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