Vicarious: Nachtwey’s Work

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There is no disputing the fact that James Nachtwey is one of the most lauded photographers still active today. The list of his accolades within this field is nearly interminable. There is hardly a major award in this field he has not won including the World Press Photo, the International Center of Photography Infinity Award, and Magazine Photographer of the Year, among numerous others. Similarly, he has staged exhibitions of his work in major venues throughout the world including in the Palazzo Esposizione in Rome, Paris’ Bibliotheque Nationale de France, and New York’s International Center of Photography (No author n.d.). What is probably the most significant aspect about the photographer’s work, however, is that it is all non-fiction and primarily of tragedies, especially those related to war and other aspects of human cruelty. In this respect, then, it is quite clear that his work is not acclaimed for its artistic merit or for some sort of aesthetic value. What, then, is the value within Nachtwey’s work; why is it so highly regarded, and what effect does it produce on people? 

To answer this research question, it is appropriate to elucidate some of the better-known works and events that Nachtwey has photographed. Doing so in and of itself is no facile task. Nachtwey is a 30-year veteran who has captured conflicts and travesties on film throughout Europe, Asia, The Middle East, Africa, South and Central America, and other locations. However, he is probably best revered in contemporary times for the work he did that fateful morning of September 11, 2001, in which he was able to take nearly 30 rolls of film of the destroyed World Trade Center. Those images, displayed through his own personal website and through his affiliation with Time Magazine, which he has been contracted to since 1984 (No author n.d.), riveted a mourning nation shortly thereafter the attack, and left indelible images of a wrong that would not be corrected for quite some time, if ever. 

In researching Nachtway’s harrowing journey to deliver many of the iconic photographs that he took during the morning the World Trade Center was demolished, it suddenly becomes quite clear what the true value of these depictions is. They have a social value that is closely related to history yet is ever contemporary, since anytime a person looks upon the images they are vicariously re-living the event. What the photographer is actually doing is preserving pieces of history in a format that is considerably more tangible than that of the written word. Nachtwey’s images are potent reminders of great historical wrongs. The basic idea is that by documenting these wrongs in such an accessible way, people will have a greater motivation not to repeat them. Thus, there is an inherent social value in the photographer’s work which readily explains all of his accolades and the interest in his pictures that have garnered international exhibitions. As noted writer, David Levi Strauss, explained in Time Magazine, “Like all of the documentary photographers I know, Jim Nachtwey has an unshakeable belief in the power of images, and that there is a real social value in people being able to see what happened” (Strauss 2011).

Much like Eugene Delacroix's patriotic contribution to art history, the social relevance of Nachtwey’s work becomes apparent when one deconstructs one of his more acclaimed photographs “Collapse of South Tower of World Trade Center” (Strauss 2011). This particular picture achieved national and international prominence soon after the attack on September 11, 2001, largely because of the subject depicted. It literally displays the crumbling of the first of the World Trade Center towers to be hit during the morning, in all of its terrible fury and agony. The pillars of smoke yawn in every direction, some dark and sinister, others faint and slight. Yet the force of the shards of glass and construction materials flung in every direction quickly ends any delusions of an idyllic scene. Significantly, there is a divide in the sky with the left side of the picture turning to dusk and the right side to an innocuous azure—as though indicating the transition from a period of innocence to one of uncertainty and calamity. Most ominously, however, is the image of the cross of St. Peter’s Church, silently rigid against the explosive materials soon to overcome it. Such a work is both expressive of an innocence and a terrible destruction and is a clear sign of the intense split that would occur within the U.S. and around the world due to the unfolding events. 

In spite of the all of the symbolism found within such a photo, however, there are poignant social implications both within this picture and within many of the others that he took that same day. Virtually all of these photos typify Nachtwey’s canon of photos—gritty, stunning, surreal. The following quotation alludes to this facet of the photographer’s work.

The photographs that Nachtwey took that day, over the next twelve hours, are some of the most iconic images of 9/11: the south tower collapsing behind the cross atop the Church of Saint Peter on Church Street and Barclay; ghostly figures coated in white dust emerging from the smoke; three firemen working around their leader, on his knees, bareheaded, looking back to see the flames sweeping toward them; and the twisted, otherworldly ruins of 1 World Trade Center… (Levi 2011).

What this passage actually alludes to is the power of photography—especially still photography—in an age of movies, television and rapidly moving images. This central power is what renders Nachtwey’s work socially relevant. Photography ultimately has the power to freeze moments—in the case of Nachtwey’s pictures, it does so in terrible, mid-action moments of destruction and terror—in way that the viewer is able to vividly remember and imagine the actual moment as it was taking place. Few other means of preserving history are able to do so quite as effectively. 

Thus, it appears as though the overwhelming reason that Nachtwey’s photography is so appreciated throughout the world is for his ability to capture heart-rending, poignant moments as they occur. Other writers offer evidence to support this opinion as well. Peter Howe observed that, “Nachtwey spends more time away from home than in his apartment. Wherever humanity’s seemingly limitless inability to live with each other explodes into violence is where you’ll find him” (Howe 2001). The true merit in the photographer’s work, however, is that he has consistently been able to document those explosions so that others are able to repeatedly view them as if they were still current events or breaking news. By reducing motion to still image, Nachtwey enables people to revisit some of the crucial moments that testify to man’s intolerance.

In summary, Nachtwey has been widely rewarded for his photographic endeavors because they document pivotal moments in human history. Moreover, they capture the essences of such moments—including the critical, crucial heartbeats as tragedies and horrors took place. His work on the World Trade Center’s destruction serves as a paradigm of this proclivity of his. One can actually identify with his stark, stunning images that hearken back to times that should not be forgotten—in order that they will not be relived. It is this quality of his work that bestows upon it an enduring social relevance, one which is able to transcend the past and staple it to the present, simply by looking at his pictures. An analysis of criticism of the photographer and his work certainly validate such a conclusion.


Bio, n.d. Referenced from:

Howe, P. (2001) ‘James Nachtwey’, The Digital Journalist. Referenced from:

Strauss, D. L. (2011) ‘Revisiting 9/11: Unpublished Photos by James Nachtwey’, Time. Referenced from: