James Nachtwey, a national award-winner, is notorious for his style of photographs that depict death and suffering. When asked whether he ever takes photos of a happier nature, he replied “not often.” Nachtwey leaves little to the imagination as his photos do not censor any misfortune. Nachtwey’s crisp, clear images of suffering can be used to explore the question of whether war photography is useful as a method for creating change, or if it is a practice that creates cynicism and apathy.
Readers of Nachtwey’s work often are conflicted with the duality of his work; that such horrific images can be produced and consolidated in such a beautiful manner. Nachtwey’s book Inferno is eleven by fifteen inches, containing intentionally clear, high quality photos that do not blur any detail. Almost every single photo, however, contains gruesome content, and his crystal-clear style of photography censors nothing. Sarah Boxer explains how Nachtwey “has captured an assortment of suffering and cruelty so varied and deep and wide” that even in his most amiable photos, “you have to doubt the humanity of humanity.” Because of Nachtwey’s stylistic reputation, viewers begin to search for the suffering in every photograph. The reader begins to “preform a visual triage,” in which they try to determine if the image’s subjects are dead or merely resting.
Nachtwey’s readers seem to be scared by the duality of his work; it is unnerving to find oneself captured by such horrific images. We are taught to loathe death and suffering, yet we cannot help but stare at his photographs. We tend to look away from situations that we don’t want to see, yet his photographs demand attention. It is almost as if he has turned death into an art form. Steve Cagan describes how when viewing such beautifully crafted images, one feels like Nachtwey “seems to love war.”  It’s almost as if he “is hooked on war,” and, “if we’re not careful,” Nachtwey can “hook us too. Cagan is afraid that by continually viewing Nachtwey’s work we can become addicted to suffering as well. He seems to recognize his ability to enjoy seeing death and devastation, and simultaneously is horrified that he is even able to find pleasure in something so antithetical to our innate humanity.
If these images of suffering can cause an addiction, why does Nachtwey even capture them? His photographic style is so stunning and intentional that there must be a reason why he takes such clear and precise photos. Some consider Nachtwey’s work disaster pornography and, like Cagan, hypothesize that he relishes in war and suffering. Nachtwey puts so much delicate effort into his work and can extract beauty from even the most horrendous of scenes, which makes it seem like he enjoys war scenarios and war photography.
Despite the horrific beauty of his work, Susie Linfield finds that labeling “Nachtwey as a pornographer” is incredibly dismissive because it “simply evades the perplexities about contemporary violence that his work raises.”The modernistic style of imagery makes the subject seem trapped in a still moment of time. Nachtwey’s photos capture the finality of each subject, and the images give an eerie feeling that there is nothing to be done. Unlike Cagan’s analysis, Linfield suggests that the clearness of his photography, molds “it into something (almost) recognizable in the hopes that we might receive it,” and tries to humanize the pain. His photography offers such an “uncompromising depiction of physical suffering” that is completely inflexible to analysis and presenting such a clear and inflexible image of suffering is not exploitative and selfish. However, His style is “life-affirming” as his photographs do not allow the viewer to dull the pain with external justifications. When we see suffering, we are taught to look away to avoid involving ourselves in the situation. Because the beauty of these photos attracts our attention, it creates a link between the viewer and the suffering, a link that motivates change. Nachtwey depicts violence in its purest form, and his lack of censorship makes it uniquely difficult to ignore.
Despite Nachtwey’s intentions behind the production of his photography, there is a debate about whether images of suffering ought to be viewed at all. Susan Sontag discusses how apathy can arise from seeing an image of suffering. After being exposed to suffering, if one feels helpless “then one starts to get bored, cynical, apathetic.” While images might be used to create action and change, if the image doesn’t instill a sense of moral duty then apathy will follow. Some images display pain that is impossible to solve, and Sontag believes this is the root cause of the cynicism and apathy people feel towards war and violence.
Conversely, Sharon Sliwinski argues that photos of suffering are a motive of creating change and don’t cause the apathy that Sontag discusses. She offers that “photographs of atrocity work against war” not only because of “an increased public awareness” that can create collective action, but most importantly because these types of photos are “a compact ‘description’ of reality seemingly devoid of psychological analysis.” Because photographs of war and suffering express such finality and objective experience, they create an empirical recognition of the pain that “makes recognition of one’s own experience possible.” Living through conflict and seeing suffering on a daily basis can create apathy through repetition, but seeing the most gruesome, uncompromising war photographs fully enables one to understand the harsh reality of violence. Furthermore, these photos can drag individuals out of their state of apathy by showing them the uncensored truth of the conflict. She would support Nachtwey’s inflexible and uncensored style of photography, as it depicts the harshest of violence that displays an empirical recognition of pain. Sliwinski acknowledges Sontag’s argument that apathy can arise from war, but she mentions that if people can become accustomed to “bombs, mass killings and the other horrors of warfare,” and yet feel a guttural revulsion when seeing uncensored images of suffering, then these photos may hold the power “to remember” and create change.
Whereas Sliwinski posits that images of suffering create an inflexible analysis that stymies overwhelming helplessness, John Berger argues that “despair and indignation” “engulfs us” when we view an image of suffering.Unlike Sliwinski’s perception that an emotional response spurs us towards political action, Berger feels that these images overwhelm the viewer and create the hopelessness and apathy that Sontag eludes to. However, Berger disagrees with Sontag’s notion that photography has the potential to lead to political action. Instead, when viewing an image of suffering, “the issue of the war which has caused that moment is effectively depoliticized,” because the photo depicts a singular subject or a small group, which isolates the viewer’s focus and detaches the moment of pain from the event of suffering. Despite photography’s inability to create political action, it can humanize the specific subjects of the photos, which is why Berger calls for modern-day photographers to think of themselves “not so much as the reporter to the rest of the world but, rather, as a recorder for those involved in the events photographed.” Although he agrees with Sontag that these photos create an apathy towards the event of suffering, Berger thinks that photography forces us to feel empathy towards the subject of the photo. While images of suffering have use and should be produced, they should not be produced with the goal of creating political action.
I am inclined to agree with Sontag that images of suffering can make the viewer feel helpless due to the inherent distance created between the subject and consumer of a photograph, but I think it would be fatalist to say that action is rarely taken in response. Nachtwey’s images are so stunning, so final and inflexible to analysis, that I feel completely helpless, yet I want to find a way to help. Despite my inability to help, I believe, especially in the digital world, war photography is more important than ever to create memories for those fortunate enough to not directly witness these events.
Berger, John. About Looking. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.
Berger, John. “Photographs of Agony.” The Photography Reader, 2003.
Boxer, Sarah. “The Chillingly Fine Line Between Ecstasy and Grief.” The New York Times, June 9, 2000, sec. Arts. https://www.nytimes.com/2000/06/09/arts/photography-review-the-chillingly-fine-line-between-ecstasy-and-grief.html.
Cagan, Steve. “Patriotic Gore: James Nachtwey.” Afterimage, 1990.
Linfield, Susie. The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Sliwinski, Sharon. “A Painful Labour: Responsibility and Photography.” Visual Studies 19, no. 2 (2004): 150–162. https://doi.org/10.1080/1472586042000301656.
Sontag, Susan. Regarding the Pain of Others. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013.
 Susie Linfield, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, (The University of Chicago Press 2010), 218.
 Sarah Boxer, “The Chillingly Fine Line Between Ecstasy and Grief,” (The New York Times, June 9th, 2000).
 Boxer, “The Chillingly Fine Line Between Ecstasy and Grief.”
 Steve Cagan, “Patriotic Gore: James Nachtwey,” (Afterimage, 1990), 21.
 Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, 211.
 Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, 214.
 Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, 214.
 Linfield, The Cruel Radiance, 214.
 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others Farrar, (Straus and Giroux, 2003), 101.
 Sharon Sliwinski, “A painful labour: responsibility and photography,” (Visual Studies, 2004), 156.
 Sliwinski, 152.
 Sliwinski, 153.
 John Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” (The Photography Reader, 2003), 289-290.
 Berger, “Photographs of Agony,” 289-290.
 John Berger, About Looking, (Pantheon Books, 1980), 58.