Nachtwey in Haiti

January 29, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

It’s almost as if, as the torrent of images from Haiti begins to abate, Time announces “James Nachtwey is here,” and the crowd parts, a hush falls, and all the other photographs fall away.

I exaggerate, of course, but Nachtwey has attained almost this stature. The man, and the photographs, are always at risk of overshadowing the events they document.

There is a reason: look at the photographs in question. Nachtwey’s attention to composition is remarkable. His photos are strong graphic designs as much as anything else; he is able to find a stark simplicity in the scenes he photographs, even when the frame is cluttered. He also has an extraordinary ability to shoot for the symbol, as in his shot of the WTC collapse, for example, or a Kosovar farmer carrying scythes. Nachtwey is, perhaps, the leading example or the photojournalist/artist working today.

This leads directly to the critiques of Nachtwey: that his work is cold, exploitative, unsympathetic. The skill of his photography is offensive; some feel that it is inappropriate, somehow, for photos depicting such suffering to look so good. His sincerity is called into question. You won’t have to look too far to find the critical questions expressed as personal attacks.

Some, perhaps most, of this criticism is a case of good old tall poppy syndrome, but a valid question remains: do Nachtwey’s subjects lose their essential humanity as they become the subjects of his art?

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