Reporting on the ugliness of humanity

Will the wars ever stop?

It’s hard to fathom that with so much progress and evolution in the world and with human beings that wars and deadly conflict still exist. I admire the photographers and journalists who cover these crises and bring them to our attention. It takes a lot of courage to do what they do.

Perhaps for a lot of them it’s a type of drug or an adrenalin rush while for others it comes from a place of really wanting to show the world that we should care as much as they do.

After witnessing a 3-5 minute war report on the evening news, for many of us who are “privileged” enough to not be directly affected by the situation would immediately count their  blessings. Some would perhaps start donating to various charities helping refugees, say a quiet prayer, while others go on about their business.

James Nachtwey and Janine di Giovanni are two brave war correspondents who remind me how blessed I am that I live on this side of the fence and not in some of the most devastating parts of the world where they often can be found.

James Nachtwey


The first word that comes to mind after listening and watching James Nachtwey in War Photographer (2001). His candour and drawl emanate a meditative monotone; serene, even soporific. You could easily disassociate Nachtwey from his life time coverage of war zones and heinous human tragedies over a 20-year career trajectory.

Can what is Zen-like about Nachtwey instead be a person who over the years has become indifferent, callous and incapable of feeling emotion after bearing witness to the basest and most inhumane tragedies of the world? Could it be a defence mechanism? When other war photographers fall into the sinister trenches of cynicism, depression, post-traumatic stress, alcoholism and even suicide, like the proverbial cat with nine lives, on many different levels, Nachtwey is unscathed and unaffected. The success of his craft and his sanity perhaps come down to Nachtwey’s method to his madness: “It’s very important to stay centred inside yourself, because you have to make a lot of important decisions very quickly. You have to stay calm.” An axiom he carries outside the battlefield. His very mien says so.

Nachtwey as a photojournalist exploits people and inadvertently gets lauded for it. This is evidently something he grapples with: “The worse thing is to feel that as a photographer is that I am benefitting from someone else’s tragedy. This idea haunts me. It’s 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 would have sold my soul.”

When Nachtwey moved to New York in 1980 to become a magazine photographer, he started off his career path full of ambition. Christiane Breustedt, Chief GEO SAISON Magazine met Nachtwey in the 1980’s when they both worked for STERN Magazine. She described him as bright and focused and knew exactly what he wanted from his career. He also wanted to make a name for himself.

Hans-Herman Klare, also from STERN describes Nachtwey as “bulletproof” and that his ability to be so emotionally reserved is necessary for the sense of adventure, adrenaline and the fear of death he’s constantly faced with – it’s as if this is the only way Nachtwey can truly feel alive.

There is a strong sense of egocentricity and an irrepressible war-junkie inside of Nachtwey than perhaps he would like us to believe.

But here is also a man who has given so much of himself. Nachtwey has abnegated the chance to have a normal domestic life and a family of his own for the sake of his job.

Janine di Giovanni

Janine di Giovanni talked about this sacrificial lamb as part of being a war correspondent on TED. In 2004, di Giovanni was forced to cover Iraq in tears regrettably leaving her 4-month old baby boy behind. She relates what an Iraqi politician said to her, “What are you doing here? Go home. If you miss his first tooth or if you miss his first step, you’ll never forgive yourself. But there will always be another war.”

Sadly, Janine reiterates, that there’ll always be wars.

“I am deluding myself if I think as a journalist, as a reporter, as a writer that what I do can stop them. I can’t. I’m not Kofi Annan, he can’t stop a war he tried to negotiate Syria and couldn’t do it. I’m not a UN conflict resolutions person. I’m not even a humanitarian aid doctor and I can’t tell you the times how helpless I felt to have people dying in front of me and I couldn’t save them.”

But di Giovanni uses these words to justify a war reporter’s sense of purpose: “Shining a light in the darkest corners of the world.” And what it comes down to is this: “If you remember anything I said or any of my stories tomorrow over breakfast, then I have done my job.”

James Nachtwey’s has also done his. His images are unforgettable.