‘Nice photos but time to go beyond that.’

The consistently engaging New York Times Lens blog is running a series of James Nachtwey’s photos of people suffering from TB.

No-one should doubt Nachtwey’s unflinching commitment to the dark end of this story, but I wonder if there is a disconnect between what Nachtwey is reported as saying and his images?

‘“I wanted to do it through the lens of people actually being cured for TB or treated in some way, to show that there was care going on but it’s difficult,” he said.

Are we really supposed to believe its difficult for someone of Nachtwey’s talents to show people being cured of TB?

Roughly one in twelve hundred people will die after becoming infected with TB, that means the other eleven hundred and ninety nine will survive. (although far less in countries in which Nachtwey photographed)

I’m no statistician  but something about that number tells me that you wouldn’t have to search very far to find an alternative ending to the last image presented on the blog (or at least in the preceding photographs something to balance it out). No question though that if I was the editor of Lens I would have used this photo. Why?  Because this is a story about death and dieing and loss and pretty much that’s all the viewer sees.

Of course there are many who believe this to be essential work. Here is one comment on LENS:

I can understand some viewers feeling that James Nachtway’s TB pictures are an invasion of privacy at peoples’ moment of greatest agony. I believe however that the overall value of these powerful images transcends the necessary transgression. Without images like this, much of the western world would remain insulated from the reality of life in impoverished regions. The west has the resources to fight and overcome problems like disease resistant TB and poverty but westerners need to see (and be bothered) other people’s suffering; otherwise we will simply remain content to live our comfortable pampered lives, indifferent to what’s really going on. This is an issue that can not be ignored. The threat of drug resistant TB will not remain somebody else’s problem for long.

— Dan

Robert Godden who writes the excellent Rights Exposure Blog offers an alternative perspective:

Nachtwey’s photos, as one commentator mentioned, are art. They are tragically beautiful. But they are also tragically missing in many elements. The subjects are nameless, skeletal receptacles to carry the photographers/NGOs message. They hark back to the ‘picturing of poverty’ from the past, not the future. We hear neither who they are or from them. Nor the health workers. The people pictured are prone, in pain (never a smile, even from someone recovering).We never see the ‘end result’ of treatment. The families. We are told of ‘catastrophe’ and ‘fathomless slums’ – this is Biblical, tapping into our pity and outrage. But the images create distance – the other – from dissected geographic realms of poverty we are protected from. This is not the only way to picture such subjects, this is not the only way to motivate people to take action – in fact, many would argue that this is no longer the best way – morally (informed consent on how the images will be used by the subjects – you don’t see the rich being photographed in their hospital beds) and strategically (compassion fatigue – though actually this should rather be termed ‘lack of solution fatigue).

Nice photos but time to go beyond that.

Rob Godden

— Robert Godden

Author — duckrabbit

duckrabbit is a production company formed by radio producer/journalist Benjamin Chesterton and photographer David White. We specialize in digital storytelling.

Discussion (4 Comments)

  1. Fung Wah Man says:

    I went to a TED discussion where they were being shown and asked why no solutions were being offered by Nachtwey. It was also pointed out that the lack of intellectual progression in his images indicated a certain visual indulgence in the name of being artistic. Someone else asked my it was only suffering non-white people who were being shown to white people given the growth of TB in areas such as Azerbaijan, Moldova and Ukraine. I asked why there was no context being shown to the suffering to give understanding of the social structures to avoid accusations of a form of visual colonialism (and even racism) to show the relationship between poverty and TB.

    The lady representing Nachtwey’s only response to these more analytical questions was to say, “I know James personally and I can tell you he cares very much about the people and the subject matter.”. I followed by asking her why did was not able to show this in his imagery and she gave the same response which was give us her personal assurance that Nachtway was one of the good guys. I thought, well you cannot be there and shout that out to everyone who see’s that great big image you posted up in Times Square.

    If I remember correctly, the audience was not very happy with the lack of journalistic integrity and his over indulgence of the more emotive qualities of the medium. Stories do not have to be emotional to have impact, they can be informative and educate to a technical level too. I felt like telling Nachtway the audience out there is not stupid and they do not need to be emotionally bullied… they just needed to know why, when and how TB occurs as well as what is being done.

    Like telling a girlfriend you love her every moment that you feel that you do… must be very tiring indeed to hear irrespective of the beautiful intentions behind the sentiment.

    The people at Demos said to me that the Magnum ideology is dead and it was their own fault. I agreed and the college/universities are pumping out more of the same thinking every year and nobody is taking any risks… so there is no change to the current poverty of intellectual diversity.

    Keep up the great work as the future is coming soon from a different generation untainted by being part of that very inaccessible ivory tower!

  2. duckrabbit says:

    To be fair to Nachtwey he did photograph in Russia, so this isn’t just the white photographer shooting suffering.

    Its a bit surprising how often the ‘I know James personally’ line is coming up. The problem is the comments are not about Nachtwey as a human being. As you point out it has no bearing on how the majority of people view the work.

    I also don’t think its a matter of ‘journalistic integrity’ because these images aren’t really journalistic. They tell such a limited story that they must be read as advocacy and I think many people agree that there are now much more productive ways of advocating for change.

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