Friday, March 12, 2010

Now being served: Awareness

"Journalism is a service industry, and the service provided is awareness"
- James Nachtwey, from the PBS presentation of National Geographic Magazine's Top 10 Photos of the Year

James Nachtwey is one the world's most important photojournalists. He has dedicated his life to documenting some of the world's most horrific conflicts and conditions. His images are unforgettable and haunting, and that is his intention. Many consider him this generation's greatest war photographer, although he says he has come to consider himself an anti-war photographer. His focus is less on the battlefield action, although he has been wounded several times. Rather, his goal is to bring to light the widespread effect of human conflict - through his eyes, he wants people to know what happens to those caught in the crossfire, the consequences of warfare, even when actions are considered noble or justified by many. The conflicts he covers aren't relegated to traditional warfare: he is there, in the trenches, where people wage war against disease, oppression, poverty, famine. His mission, ultimately, is to go where most of us would never dream of going, hoping to appeal to our sense of humanity with his photographs.

So, you say, what does this have to do with your hometown photojournalist here in Statesboro and Bulloch County?

Well, on occasion, I have to cover some tragic events. Not on the scale as Mr. Nachtwey. But events that touch those right here in our own community. When we view photographs, even powerful ones, of far away events, we are still insulated by that distance. There might be a sense of immunity from these horrific scenes. That can't happen here, right?

However, house fires and traffic accidents are something that can happen to any of us, at any time. And the victims of those types of tragedies deserve our attention. In the end, photographing tragedy, anywhere, is an attempt to evoke awareness. Awareness that some our neighbors may have suffered and need our compassion, even if the tragedy was the result of poor choices or inattention. One of the most important aspects of awareness is that it, hopefully, provides motivation to take action, whether it's within our own lives, or in a broader civic capacity. Even if the lesson is something as simple as installing a smoke detector or not tossing cigarettes into the trash.

Nachtwey says from consciousness grows conscience. He's certainly done his part to foster that.

I'll keep trying, right here, one picture at a time.


  1. I know I'm way late to comment on this, but it's been in the back of my mind for a while again ... I agree with this statement:

    "James Nachtwey is one the world's most important photojournalists.:

    But only because you have the word "one" in there. Too many people idolize him and I think those that do don't get what he's trying to accomplish. The stories he tells are all about community, they are all about how people treat other people, they are about our basic humanity. And those are themes every community photojournalist should be dealing with, too.

    Back into my cave ...

  2. True that, Mark.

    There are infinite stories right here, in our own backyards, just waiting to be covered. And there are lots of photojournalists covering those stories. Their work should be recognized, as well.

    His idolatry noted, I don't think Nacthwey presumes to speak for every photojournalist, but his reputation does give him a significant platform, and I think he does a pretty good job of being an ambassador for the profession.

    The article I linked to above, Photojournalism can become a form of art, is an example of how people don't get what Nachtwey is trying to accomplish. And one of his responses is something we all should take note of:

    "I am not intending to create art but rather to create a profound human communication..."

    The profoundness of the human condition is lost on far too many. Some will never get it. The goal of mass communication is to, well, communicate to the masses. But the more realistic goal is to convey the human condition to those few who might take action.

    Photography is a powerful medium for making connections. And those connections can foster a sense of community, whether those connection happen with people halfway across the world or with our neighbors next door.


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