Technology in the 20th century made abstract notions of war a live and forceful presence with the availability of new media to document these horrific events. Renowned photojournalist James Nachtwey provides a unique perspective for us to evaluate the consequences of the way by way of his TED Talk video in which he shares his images, in turn creating a mixed-media effect, blending video, speech, and photography. While Nachtwey’s work is among the most visually powerful and honest of the consequences of war, particularly on civilian life, his TED talk speech is also a powerful instrument to incite reflection and provide a frame of reference for how we imagine war and its effects from various perspectives.
Media representations of war are for many of us in civilian life, our only glimpse into the harsh reality that is war. Before live coverage became available to document American war involvement in places like in Vietnam, people relied on various media representations in the form of books, films, and newspaper reports. One of the most enduring works depicting WWI is Erich Maria Remarque’s novel, All Quiet on the Western Front, which was then turned into a film shortly after its publication. The perspective of a young German soldier in trench warfare, faced with the gruesome reality of living in mud holes and the threat of mustard gas, illuminated the nonsensical loss of life we experience through the main character. It is clear in Remarque’s work that these young soldiers have no idea what they are fighting for, inciting the idea of The Lost Generation who became so alienated from civilian life and any sense of purpose.
In his TED speech, Nachtwey provides commentary at the podium with his images from 9/11 in the backdrop. He tells his audience, “In the midst of the wreckage at Ground Zero, I had a realization. I’d be photographing the Islamic world since 1981…At the time I was photographing these different places, I thought I was covering separate stories,” but then it seems a catharsis happened for Nachtwey in regards to the consequences of war (Nachtwey). He goes on to explain this: “on 9/11 history crystalized, 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”(Nachtwey). What this proves goes beyond Nachtwey’s apt selection of subjects ranging from social issues and relief efforts to environmental destruction and chemical warfare; his realization about the attack on 9/11 is the same rippling effect that all wars have on generations of people near and far, who suffer its consequences each in their own way.
The film American History X is not overtly a war movie, but at the same time, it cannot be separated from the context of the consequences of World War II, some 60 years hence and thousands of miles away. The characters in this film have bought into the abstract ideology that Nachtwey’s photographs attempt to dismantle. Unfortunately, in this case, the Nazi ideology of race and supremacy destroy the lives of a group of young people who seek to identify themselves in terms of race, a lasting legacy from Hitler’s actions and writings. Similar cycles of anger and violence are part of the rippling effects of war that are mistakenly taken for isolated instances.
The reality is, we cannot separate ourselves from history or deny that the past, however horrific it was, makes up a part of who we are in the present. In Nachtwey’s TED Talk, he provides a framework through which we can imagine how media has the potential to challenge authority and solicit change. But there is also the potential to perpetuate the cyclical nature of violence through outrageous images and perspectives on war, as in the case of American History X. What this proves is that the consequences of war do not only affect the soldiers and their families, the countries involved, or the political, economic, and social repercussions; war and violence seep into our consciousness in potentially dangerous ways via media representations that have the power to call us to action to promote social change, or to continue the cycle of violence that history has presented.
American history X. Dir. Tony Kaye. Perf. Edward Norton. New Line Home Video, 1998. DVD.
Nachtwey, James. "James Nachtwey: My wish: Let my photographs bear witness." TED: Ideas worth spreading. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2013.
Remarque, Erich Maria, and A. W. Wheen. All Quiet on the Western Front. Boston: Little, Brown, and Co., 1929. Print.