Photojournalist James Nachtwey ’70 Talks About His Work

That his archive will “reside at Dartmouth and be developed here is very meaningful to me,” he says.

Award-winning photojournalist James Nachtwey ’70 talked recently with Katherine Hart, the Hood Museum of Art’s senior curator of collections and the Barbara C. and Harvey P. Hood 1918 Curator of Academic Programming, about the museum’s acquisition of Nachtwey’s photographic archive.

On Sept. 7 the museum announced that it has acquired the war photographer’s archive, more than 500,000 images taken during the 35 years that Nachtwey has been documenting conditions in some of the world’s most dangerous places. Here is an edited version of their discussion.

Katherine Hart: What does the archive’s coming to Dartmouth mean to you?

James Nachtwey: Beginning in 1981, I committed myself to documenting contemporary history, worldwide, as intensively and thoroughly as I could. A massive body of work has resulted from that effort. It is a visual record of our times that I think is unique in both its scale and its point of view. As I continue to photograph, the archive continues to expand. That it will not only be preserved, but also put to use, for both current and future generations, is of utmost importance. That it will reside at Dartmouth and be developed here is very meaningful to me. I think the archive could have found a home in other places. Because of the quality and values of the Dartmouth community, and the high level of education, I wanted it to be here.

KH: Looking back on your body of work as a photojournalist, what themes and subjects stand out?

JN: Conflicts and critical social issues have been the focal points of my work. I began as a war photographer, documenting many, if not most of the wars of the past 35 years, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Rwanda, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Sri Lanka, and Chechnya, among others. Social problems and global health issues that have been downplayed or ignored, but crying out to be corrected, include industrial pollution, homelessness, tuberculosis, institutional child abuse, and drug addiction, to cite a few. I try to photograph honestly but with a sense of compassion so that a mass audience can make a human connection with the people in the pictures. If that happens, then change becomes possible.

KH: You are a provostial fellow, were the inaugural Roth Distinguished Visiting Scholar, co-taught a course with Professor Mark Williams in film and media studies, and guest-lectured in numerous courses in a variety of departments. How do you see your archive being used within the curriculum? How would you like students and faculty and scholars to use the archive? What opportunities will your residency at Dartmouth provide?

JN: The long-term relationship with Dartmouth will create the opportunity to develop the archive as a unique resource for scholars, students, and historians. I will be working with Dartmouth staff to edit, sequence, and digitize hundreds of thousands of images into comprehensive bodies of work that span a wide variety of academic disciplines. To amplify the images, we will also be developing text that will tell the stories of the people and the situations I encountered at ground level at the sharp end of history.

Out of these stories will emerge questions, issues, and ideas relating to policies, ethics, philosophy, gender, representation in art, and journalism, etc., that can be discussed on both a specific level and on a more timeless and universal plain. I also hope to continue class visits and lectures in which personal experience and documentation become the basis for wide-ranging discussion. I’ve visited classes and had relevant and challenging conversations with students and professors in government, anthropology, art history, biology, journalism, studio art, and music. Co-teaching a class with Professor Williams was a remarkable experience. I hope the students learned as much as I did.

KH: What projects do you plan to pursue while working here at Dartmouth?

JN: I will continue to be active photographing global events as well as working on a number of books and exhibitions. When not on the road, I’m working nonstop in my studio (located at 4 Currier Place). Currently I’m designing and sequencing a large-scale exhibition that will open in Milan in November, as well as a book to accompany the show. I will also be working on several other books that have been in the pipeline for a while. The first will be about the liberation struggle in South Africa.

KH: You are still working in the field and on assignment. What events of today draw your attention? As a renowned journalist, you have an opportunity to shed light on underreported stories, as you have done in the past with Romanian orphans, the AIDS crisis in Africa, and drug-resistant tuberculosis. What stories or issues are being ignored that you think should have more attention focused on them?

JN: In the past few months, I’ve made three trips to Europe to document the refugee migration, and I plan to follow that story. I’ll also continue working on a long-term project concerning the lasting effects of the Vietnam War on the population of Vietnam.

KH: What do you hope the legacy of your work will be?

JN: A well-informed population is absolutely essential for a democratic society to function properly. My goal as a visual documentarian has been to show that what happens in our world happens to individual human beings, one by one, each as important as the next. Even though it might happen thousands of times, it is not a matter of mere statistics. And it is not a matter of political rhetoric. It is real. My viewpoint of history is from the perspective of the people who are living through it, who are suffering the consequences. In the short term, visual documentation becomes an essential element in the process of change. In the longer term, it becomes a way in which we remember history. By studying it, hopefully we can learn. To have experienced history so closely, and to have created this extensive archive of images, has been my life. To now be able to pass along to students some of those experiences, and what might be learned from them, to help a new generation of young people to see and to question, to put some lift under their wings as they fly out of the nest, is a gift.