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As someone who has spent his entire career trying to be invisible, standing in front of an audience is a cross between an out-of-body experience and a deer caught in the headlights, so please forgive me for violating one of the TED commandments by relying on words on paper, and I only hope I'm not struck by lightning bolts before I'm done. I'd like to begin by talking about some of the ideas that motivated me to become a documentary photographer.
I was a student in the '60s, a time of social upheaval and questioning, and on a personal level, an awakening sense of idealism. The war in Vietnam was raging; the Civil Rights Movement was under way; and pictures had a powerful influence on me. Our political and military leaders were telling us one thing, and photographers were telling us another. I believed the photographers, and so did millions of other Americans. Their images fueled resistance to the war and to racism. They not only recorded history; they helped change the course of history. Their pictures became part of our collective consciousness and, as consciousness evolved into a shared sense of conscience, change became not only possible, but inevitable.
I saw that the free flow of information represented by journalism, specifically visual journalism, can bring into focus both the benefits and the cost of political policies. It can give credit to sound decision-making, adding momentum to success. In the face of poor political judgment or political inaction, it becomes a kind of intervention, assessing the damage and asking us to reassess our behavior. It puts a human face on issues which from afar can appear abstract or ideological or monumental in their global impact. What happens at ground level, far from the halls of power, happens to ordinary citizens one by one.
And I understood that documentary photography has the ability to interpret events from their point of view. It gives a voice to those who otherwise would not have a voice. And as a reaction, it stimulates public opinion and gives impetus to public debate, thereby preventing the interested parties from totally controlling the agenda, much as they would like to. Coming of age in those days made real the concept that the free flow of information is absolutely vital for a free and dynamic society to function properly. The press is certainly a business, and in order to survive it must be a successful business, but the right balance must be found between marketing considerations and journalistic responsibility.
Society's problems can't be solved until they're identified. On a higher plane, the press is a service industry, and the service it provides is awareness. Every story does not have to sell something. There's also a time to give. That was a tradition I wanted to follow. Seeing the war created such incredibly high stakes for everyone involved and that visual journalism could actually become a factor in conflict resolution -- I wanted to be a photographer in order to be a war photographer. But I was driven by an inherent sense that a picture that revealed the true face of war would almost by definition be an anti-war photograph.
I'd like to take you on a visual journey through some of the events and issues I've been involved in over the past 25 years. In 1981, I went to Northern Ireland. 10 IRA prisoners were in the process of starving themselves to death in protest against conditions in jail. The reaction on the streets was violent confrontation. I saw that the front lines of contemporary wars are not on isolated battlefields, but right where people live. During the early '80s, I spent a lot of time in Central America, which was engulfed by civil wars that straddled the ideological divide of the Cold War.
In Guatemala, the central government -- controlled by a oligarchy of European decent -- was waging a scorched Earth campaign against an indigenous rebellion, and I saw an image that reflected the history of Latin America: conquest through a combination of the Bible and the sword. An anti-Sandinista guerrilla was mortally wounded as Commander Zero attacked a town in Southern Nicaragua. A destroyed tank belonging to Somoza's national guard was left as a monument in a park in Managua, and was transformed by the energy and spirit of a child. At the same time, a civil war was taking place in El Salvador, and again, the civilian population was caught up in the conflict.
I've been covering the Palestinian-Israeli conflict since 1981. This is a moment from the beginning of the second intifada, in 2000, when it was still stones and Molotovs against an army. In 2001, the uprising escalated into an armed conflict, and one of the major incidents was the destruction of the Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank town of Jenin. Without the political will to find common ground, the continual friction of tactic and counter-tactic only creates suspicion and hatred and vengeance, and perpetuates the cycle of violence.
In the '90s, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia fractured along ethnic fault lines, and civil war broke out between Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia. This is a scene of house-to-house fighting in Mostar, neighbor against neighbor. A bedroom, the place where people share intimacy, where life itself is conceived, became a battlefield. A mosque in northern Bosnia was destroyed by Serbian artillery and was used as a makeshift morgue. Dead Serbian soldiers were collected after a battle and used as barter for the return of prisoners or Bosnian soldiers killed in action. This was once a park. The Bosnian soldier who guided me told me that all of his friends were there now.
At the same time in South Africa, after Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, the black population commenced the final phase of liberation from apartheid. One of the things I had to learn as a journalist was what to do with my anger. I had to use it, channel its energy, turn it into something that would clarify my vision, instead of clouding it. In Transkei, I witnessed a rite of passage into manhood, of the Xhosa tribe. Teenage boys lived in isolation, their bodies covered with white clay. After several weeks, they washed off the white and took on the full responsibilities of men. It was a very old ritual that seemed symbolic of the political struggle that was changing the face of South Africa.
Children in Soweto playing on a trampoline. Elsewhere in Africa there was famine. In Somalia, the central government collapsed and clan warfare broke out. Farmers were driven off their land, and crops and livestock were destroyed or stolen. Starvation was being used as a weapon of mass destruction -- primitive but extremely effective. Hundreds of thousands of people were exterminated, slowly and painfully. The international community responded with massive humanitarian relief, and hundreds of thousands of more lives were saved. American troops were sent to protect the relief shipments, but they were eventually drawn into the conflict, and after the tragic battle in Mogadishu, they were withdrawn. In southern Sudan, another civil war saw similar use of starvation as a means of genocide.
Again, international NGOs, united under the umbrella of the U.N., staged a massive relief operation and thousands of lives were saved. I'm a witness, and I want my testimony to be honest and uncensored. I also want it to be powerful and eloquent, and to do as much justice as possible to the experience of the people I'm photographing. This man was in an NGO feeding center, being helped as much as he could be helped. He literally had nothing. He was a virtual skeleton, yet he could still summon the courage and the will to move. He had not given up, and if he didn't give up, how could anyone in the outside world ever dream of losing hope? In 1994, after three months of covering the South African election, I saw the inauguration of Nelson Mandela, and it was the most uplifting thing I've ever seen. It exemplified the best that humanity has to offer. The next day I left for Rwanda, and it was like taking the express elevator to hell.
This man had just been liberated from a Hutu death camp. He allowed me to photograph him for quite a long time, and he even turned his face toward the light, as if he wanted me to see him better. I think he knew what the scars on his face would say to the rest of the world. This time, maybe confused or discouraged by the military disaster in Somalia, the international community remained silent, and somewhere around 800,000 people were slaughtered by their own countrymen -- sometimes their own neighbors -- using farm implements as weapons.
Perhaps because a lesson had been learned by the weak response to the war in Bosnia and the failure in Rwanda, when Serbia attacked Kosovo, international action was taken much more decisively. NATO forces went in, and the Serbian army withdrew. Ethnic Albanians had been murdered, their farms destroyed and a huge number of people forcibly deported. They were received in refugee camps set up by NGOs in Albania and Macedonia. The imprint of a man who had been burned inside his own home. The image reminded me of a cave painting, and echoed how primitive we still are in so many ways.
Between 1995 and '96, I covered the first two wars in Chechnya from inside Grozny. This is a Chechen rebel on the front line against the Russian army. The Russians bombarded Grozny constantly for weeks, killing mainly the civilians who were still trapped inside. I found a boy from the local orphanage wandering around the front line. My work has evolved from being concerned mainly with war to a focus on critical social issues as well. After the fall of Ceausescu, I went to Romania and discovered a kind of gulag of children, where thousands of orphans were being kept in medieval conditions. Ceausescu had imposed a quota on the number of children to be produced by each family, thereby making women's bodies an instrument of state economic policy. Children who couldn't be supported by their families were raised in government orphanages. Children with birth defects were labeled incurables, and confined for life to inhuman conditions.
As reports began to surface, again international aid went in. Going deeper into the legacy of the Eastern European regimes, I worked for several months on a story about the effects of industrial pollution, where there had been no regard for the environment or the health of either workers or the general population. An aluminum factory in Czechoslovakia was filled with carcinogenic smoke and dust, and four out of five workers came down with cancer.
After the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, I began to explore conditions of poverty in a country that was on its way towards modernization. I spent a good deal of time with a man who lived with his family on a railway embankment and had lost an arm and a leg in a train accident. When the story was published, unsolicited donations poured in. A trust fund was established, and the family now lives in a house in the countryside and all their basic necessities are taken care of. It was a story that wasn't trying to sell anything. Journalism had provided a channel for people's natural sense of generosity, and the readers responded. I met a band of homeless children who'd come to Jakarta from the countryside, and ended up living in a train station. By the age of 12 or 14, they'd become beggars and drug addicts. The rural poor had become the urban poor, and in the process, they'd become invisible.
These heroin addicts in detox in Pakistan reminded me of figures in a play by Beckett: isolated, waiting in the dark, but drawn to the light. Agent Orange was a defoliant used during the Vietnam War to deny cover to the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese army. The active ingredient was dioxin, an extremely toxic chemical that was sprayed in vast quantities, and whose effects passed through the genes to the next generation. In 2000, I began documenting global health issues, concentrating first on AIDS in Africa. I tried to tell the story through the work of caregivers. I thought it was important to emphasize that people were being helped, whether by international NGOs or by local grassroots organizations.
So many children have been orphaned by the epidemic that grandmothers have taken the place of parents, and a lot of children had been born with HIV. A hospital in Zambia. I began documenting the close connection between HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis. This is an MSF hospital in Cambodia. My pictures can play a supporting role to the work of NGOs by shedding light on the critical social problems they're trying to deal with. I went to Congo with MSF, and contributed to a book and an exhibition that focused attention on a forgotten war in which millions of people have died, and exposure to disease without treatment is used as a weapon. A malnourished child being measured as part of the supplemental feeding program.
In the fall of 2004 I went to Darfur. This time I was on assignment for a magazine, but again worked closely with MSF. The international community still hasn't found a way to create the pressure necessary to stop this genocide. An MSF hospital in a camp for displaced people. I've been working on a long project on crime and punishment in America. This is a scene from New Orleans. A prisoner on a chain gang in Alabama was punished by being handcuffed to a post in the midday sun. This experience raised a lot of questions, among them questions about race and equality and for whom in our country opportunities and options are available. In the yard of a chain gang in Alabama.
I didn't see either of the planes hit, and when I glanced out my window, I saw the first tower burning, and I thought it might have been an accident. A few minutes later when I looked again and saw the second tower burning, I knew we were at war. In the midst of the wreckage at Ground Zero, I had a realization. I'd been photographing in the Islamic world since 1981 -- not only in the Middle East, but also in Africa, Asia and Europe. At the time I was photographing in these different places, I thought I was covering separate stories, but on 9/11 history crystallized, and I understood I'd actually been covering a single story for more than 20 years, and the attack on New York was its latest manifestation.
The central commercial district of Kabul, Afghanistan at the end of the civil war, shortly before the city fell to the Taliban. Land mine victims being helped at the Red Cross rehab center being run by Alberto Cairo. A boy who lost a leg to a leftover mine. I'd witnessed immense suffering in the Islamic world from political oppression, civil war, foreign invasions, poverty, famine. I understood that in its suffering, the Islamic world had been crying out. Why weren't we listening? A Taliban fighter shot during a battle as the Northern Alliance entered the city of Kunduz. When war with Iraq was imminent, I realized the American troops would be very well covered, so I decided to cover the invasion from inside Baghdad. A marketplace was hit by a mortar shell that killed several members of a single family. A day after American forces entered Baghdad, a company of Marines began rounding up bank robbers and were cheered on by the crowds -- a hopeful moment that was short lived.
For the first time in years, Shi'ites were allowed to make the pilgrimage to Karbala to observe Ashura, and I was amazed by the sheer number of people and how fervently they practiced their religion. A group of men march through the streets cutting themselves with knives. It was obvious that the Shi'ites were a force to be reckoned with, and we would do well to understand them and learn how to deal with them. Last year I spent several months documenting our wounded troops, from the battlefield in Iraq all the way home.
This is a helicopter medic giving CPR to a soldier who had been shot in the head. Military medicine has become so efficient that the percentage of troops who survive after being wounded is much higher in this war than in any other war in our history. The signature weapon of the war is the IED, and the signature wound is severe leg damage. After enduring extreme pain and trauma, the wounded face a grueling physical and psychological struggle in rehab. The spirit they displayed was absolutely remarkable. I tried to imagine myself in their place, and I was totally humbled by their courage and determination in the face of such catastrophic loss. Good people had been put in a very bad situation for questionable results. One day in rehab someone, started talking about surfing and all these guys who'd never surfed before said, "Hey, let's go." And they went surfing.
Photographers go to the extreme edges of human experience to show people what's going on. Sometimes they put their lives on the line, because they believe your opinions and your influence matter. They aim their pictures at your best instincts, generosity, a sense of right and wrong, the ability and the willingness to identify with others, the refusal to accept the unacceptable. My TED wish: there's a vital story that needs to be told, and I wish for TED to help me gain access to it and then to help me come up with innovative and exciting ways to use news photography in the digital era. Thank you very much.
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Accepting his 2007 TED Prize, war photographer James Nachtwey shows his life’s work and asks TED to help him continue telling the story with innovative, exciting uses of news photography in the digital era.
Photojournalist James Nachtwey is considered by many to be the greatest war photographer of recent decades. He has covered conflicts and major social issues in more than 30 countries. Full bio »