James Nachtwey's "Inferno"

Pictures from an exhibition -- in hell.

Published April 10, 2000 4:00PM (EDT)

"Inferno," the recently published book by photojournalist James Nachtwey, is big (11 by 15 inches, two-and-a-quarter inches thick), heavy and covered in black cloth, costs $125 and contains 382 large, vivid and extraordinary black-and-white photographs on its 480 pages. And it's not pretty. Indeed, it's a guided tour of hell, or at least the past 10 years of hell as it's been played out in places like Romania, Somalia, India, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Zaire, Chechnya and Kosovo.

The book opens with this epigraph from Dante's "Inferno": "Through me is the way to the sorrowful city. Through me is the way to join the lost people." And then, following a short, elegant introduction by Luc Sante, off we go, into the Inferno, accompanying Nachtwey on his nightmare mission. It's heartbreakingly bad stuff and grotesquely exquisite, too. It's the worst news there is and, needless to say, continues at this moment.

Nachtwey, born in Syracuse, N.Y., in 1948 (he grew up in Massachusetts), is one of the world's most widely published and abundantly honored photographers. He has received the Robert Capa Gold Medal an unprecedented five times, he's a contract photographer for Time, where much of his work is first published, and he's a member of Magnum Photos. "Inferno" is his first book since 1989's "Deeds of War," which is now out of print.

On a recent afternoon, we talked for nearly an hour about "Inferno" and his experiences as a documenter and archivist of human catastrophe. Reticent about discussing his own life beyond the basic facts, he's clearly one of those rare characters who focus singularly on their work with a missionary-like sense of purpose. "I don't want people to be concerned about me," he told me. "I want them to be concerned about the people in the pictures."

First, let's talk about the book itself, as an object. In your afterword, you say that most of the pictures were originally used in mass publications -- newsmagazines, such as Time. Now they've been packaged in this very elegant, rarefied form -- a large, expensive and lavishly printed coffee-table book. Is presenting these harrowing, photojournalistic images in this way at odds with your original intent of making them as broadly available as possible?

Not at all. The primary function of my photographs is to be in mass-circulation publications -- during the time that the events are happening. I want them to become part of people's daily dialogue and create public awareness, public opinion, that can help bring pressure for change. That's the first and most important use of my work. A secondary use is to become an archive, entered into our collective memory, so that these events are never forgotten. That's the purpose of "Inferno."

It's meant to immerse the viewer in a reality that's relentless. We wanted to make the actual dimensions of the book quite large so that it has a physical weight and physical impact. It's awkward. You can't really put it anywhere. And you've got to reckon with it.

We had quite a discussion about the physical production of the book. We didn't want to do a small book that was produced cheaply and you could forget it and toss it off. The quality of the printing is a product of the respect we wanted people to have for the subjects in the book.

In looking through these images -- they're really pictures of hell on Earth, many of the worst human catastrophes that have occurred over the last decade or so -- I also found myself thinking of the person behind the camera: you. And it occurred to me that, while the photographs are in black and white, you've seen these scenes in color. I know it's odd to ask, given that the people you photograph have been so terribly damaged, but what has it taken out of you?

You're right, whatever I've had to bear is nothing in relation to what the people I photographed have had to bear. What's happened to me is not important.

Why not?

Because I'm a messenger. I don't want people to be concerned about me. I want them to be concerned about the people in the pictures. I try to use whatever I know about photography to be of service to the people I'm photographing. I'm trying not to create photographs that viewers will look at and think: "What a good photographer he is," or "Look what an interesting composition he can make." I want the first impact, and by far the most powerful impact, to be about an emotional, intellectual and moral reaction to what is happening to these people. I want my presence to be transparent.

How do you manage to keep going back into these horrific situations?

You have to have a sense of purpose.

What's given you that sense of purpose?

It was, in fact, why I became a photographer in the first place -- to do this kind of work, to be a war photographer, to deal with social issues and struggles. I felt it was the most worthwhile thing I could do. For me, it has become a tool of social awareness, not something for the sake of photography itself. And doing it has reconfirmed my initial inspiration.

Have you ever had any resistance from editors who say, "This photograph is too terrible to publish"?

None of the editors I've worked with have ever asked me to pull my punches. They've never asked me to give them anything other than my own interpretation of events. But it is an issue worth considering: What can people take? How much can they bear? And I think it's important to give people credit for being able to cope with the truth, cope with reality, deal with it and have some kind of genuine, worthwhile response to it.

I believe it's a disservice to a readership to condescend, be patronizing and feel that the whole world can't really take knowing what's going on. I think people can. I think they want to know. And to go into a situation that is deeply tragic, that's incredibly painful, and publish an image that is generic and easy to look at sends the wrong signal. It becomes a mere illustration.

If there is something occurring that is so bad that it could be considered a crime against humanity, it has to be transmitted with anguish, with pain, and create an impact in people -- upset them, shake them up, wake them out of their everyday routine. People should be aware that something highly unacceptable is taking place, and think about it and talk about it with each other.

You see yourself primarily as a photojournalist, rather than as an artist. You don't necessarily want people to think, Oh that's a beautiful composition, when they see your work.

That's right.

Yet in going through the book, every now and then I'd be startled to find an image beautiful. And then I'd quickly realize I was looking at a nightmare. For example, there's a photo you took in Rwanda. The first thing I noticed were the big heart-shaped, veined leaves. It's a nature photo; it could be by Wynn Bullock or Edward Weston or Eliot Porter -- that was my first impression. But then I saw a corpse lying face down in the grass under those beautiful big leaves.

I don't think tragic situations are necessarily devoid of beauty. That's one of the paradoxes of life, and one of the themes of art and literature. And it's perhaps a way in which images become accessible to people. I try to record moments of beauty between people. I think that you'll see, running throughout this book, images where people are reaching out to each other, where they're caressing each other, or making contact in a tender way -- expressing human beauty in the midst of suffering. This is what I think gives "Inferno" its underlying hope. I find it uplifting to see people transcending their own agony to reach out to others, and I see it continuously in these situations.

That reminds me of one picture, which I believe you took in Romania at an orphanage, of a young boy feeding a slightly older boy from a bowl.

Yes, I was in an orphanage in Romania in which the children were being kept in inhuman conditions. Many of them didn't have clothes; many were confined to the same bed and surrounded by their own filth. There were very few of what I would call "keepers" -- I wouldn't even call them attendants, they were just keepers. Anyway, there were very, very few of them. So the children had to take care of each other. And this particular boy, the younger one, had a terrible physical handicap: His knees locked the reverse way and he had to move with just his arms; he couldn't use his legs. But he had tremendous energy and charisma, and actually took care of a lot of the children who were in worse condition than he was. He'd feed them and look after them.

I understand you paid your own way to go and do the Romanian project.

That's right.

How did you hear about it?

There were early press reports after the fall of Nicolae Ceausescu in 1989. Some journalists had gotten in there and begun to report on an AIDS epidemic in orphanages in Romania, caused by injecting children with adult blood. It sounded horrific. And there was an opportunity, shortly after Ceausescu's fall, to actually go into Romania. There was no government anymore, so therefore there was no accountability for the authorities; the secret police were in hiding. And there was what you might call a moment of openness when, as a journalist, you could go in and explore the legacy of this dictatorship. I was very curious about it -- and especially curious about the AIDS epidemic.

I went there, began to travel around and found a kind of gulag of these horrible orphanages throughout the country. These weren't orphanages for normal children, but for children who had some kind of perceived mental or physical handicap and who were kept in ghastly conditions. I was able to find these places and gain access to them quite easily -- much more easily than I would have thought. I think I was discovering something that even most Romanians didn't know existed.

Later in the book, there's a picture taken in Somalia of one person using a pot of water to clean another very emaciated individual who's lying on a tile floor. Tell me about that photograph.

That's an image of washing the dead. Somalia is an Islamic country. And even in the face of the worst chaos, the total breakdown of society and tremendous hardship and suffering, the ritual of respect for the dead continued to be carried out. The famine victims would be brought to a collection point where a group of volunteers, local people, would wash the dead and then sew them into shrouds and take them to a mass grave.

Was there any resistance or reaction to your photographing this activity?

No. Virtually every picture in "Inferno" was made at close range. I like to work in the same intimate space that the subjects inhabit. I want to give viewers the sense that they're sharing the same space with a photo's subject. These pictures would have been impossible to make unless I was accepted by the people I was photographing.

How do you achieve that acceptance?

When I approach people, I do it with respect, with deference; I do it slowly and gently and I think about the way I move, the way I speak and the way I use the camera. I let them know that I respect them and what they're going through. Also, almost everywhere I go, people understand that I'm going to show the outside world what's happening to them and give them a voice that they wouldn't otherwise have. They become a participant in the picture. I could not make these pictures without their acceptance and participation.

There's a very striking picture you took in Bosnia of a massive column that has toppled, and in the foreground are two men in white working on a man whom I presume is dead. What was happening when you took that photograph?

The toppled column is actually a minaret of a mosque that had been broken by Serbian shelling; it was in a small village outside the town of Breko, which was one of the major points of conflict during the Bosnian war. The dead man is a young soldier from that village, who was brought to a makeshift morgue set up in front of the mosque where, again, because it is an Islamic society, the bodies of the dead are washed before burial.

I stayed in the village for a couple of weeks; I became part of the community to record what was happening to the people. And almost every day the dead would be brought to the mosque, and the townspeople would assemble there and try to identify them and discover their own sons and family members who had been killed in battle. Slowly the population of young men of the town was being wiped out.

Have you ever been injured in the course of your work?

I've been injured very slightly a few times. I was extremely lucky in every case. The injury itself could have been much more grave. A couple of times I could actually have been killed. I've been very lucky so far.

Have you ever been in a situation where you put down your camera and interceded in what was taking place in front of the lens?

That's happened several times. But most often, when there's a soldier wounded, they're tended to by their own comrades or a combat medic, in which case my getting into it would be superfluous. My job is to record it and communicate it. And I stick to that except in those cases where I'm the only one who can make a difference -- if there isn't someone there to help or there aren't enough people to carry the wounded to a safe place. Once in Haiti and once in South Africa, I rescued people from lynch mobs, from being beaten to death. I tried to do the same thing in Indonesia but wasn't able to save him. When it's clear to me that I'm the one person who can make a difference, I put down my camera.

Some of the most disturbing pictures in the book were taken in Rwanda, during the massacres in 1994. One image looks like it was taken at the church where villagers decided to leave the remains of the massacre victims where they fell, as a memorial. This particular photograph is of a skeleton -- or a near skeleton -- lying on the ground outside the church, and the white statue of Christ is above the door.

Yes, that's the church at Nyarabuye near the Tanzania border. At that time it wasn't yet decided that it would become a monument. The war, in fact, wasn't over yet. So things like monuments hadn't been decided upon yet. Since then, I believe, it has become a monument.

What goes on inside of you when you're dropped off somewhere like that Rwandan church, filled with corpses. You arrive at this place, this hellish scene, and you pull your camera out of your bag and you start photographing. How are you able to function in such circumstances? Most of us would just freeze up in shock or go to pieces.

My job is not to go someplace and fall apart. I would fall to pieces if I was an emergency room doctor, but thankfully there are people who are trained to handle that kind of trauma and handle it well. My training is to channel emotions -- my feelings of anger, of anguish, of disbelief, grief and frustration -- to overcome them and channel them into my work. If I let those emotions paralyze me, then I shouldn't go there in the first place because I'd be useless. I go there with a purpose and I have to take those emotions and, with a sense of purpose and discipline, use that emotional content and put it into the pictures.

Some of the pictures look almost biblical, like classical religious art. For instance, there's one taken in Zaire of what appears to be a mass burial. It's a mound of bodies, partially covered in dirt, and it looks like Auguste Rodin's "Gates of Hell" or part of the ceiling in the Sistine Chapel.

It was indeed a mass grave, in Zaire, where people were dying of cholera so fast they had to be bulldozed into the earth. To me it was the gates of hell. Only hell was where those people had just come from.

These were the gates out of hell, rather than into it?

Yes. It's interesting to me that so many photographs, not only my own but also those of my colleagues, resemble classical or biblical motifs -- a mother grieving for a dead child resembles a Piet`; a mass grave resembles Rodin's "Gates of Hell"; carrying a wounded man resembles the Deposition from the Cross. It's absurd to think that we go around trying to imitate paintings of the past -- that's preposterous. What's closer to the truth is that those painters and sculptors from the Renaissance and classical periods were creating their art from life itself. The way a mother grieves for her child is universal. Those studies from life were then put into a biblical or classical context. I believe that we are now witnessing the same thing that the artists of the past witnessed. These are universal symbols of life itself. And I think that by painting them as classical or biblical scenes, they sanctified life itself and what happens to ordinary people on this Earth.

I want to go back to what we were discussing earlier, the idea that things can be both horrible and beautiful, and that beauty is often found in these horrible situations. Given that, what is your take on artists who work that area of intersection but not in a journalistic way. I'm thinking of people, for example, like photographer Joel-Peter Witkin and late British painter Francis Bacon. What is your impression of their work?

I find Joel-Peter Witkin extremely disturbing. But he is not going to those places; he is creating situations in a studio. So it's different. I had a very hard time accepting his work for quite a while. I don't think I really understood what he was doing; I was so horrified by the fact that he was actually manipulating cadavers and body parts. I couldn't quite get over that.

But I now understand that in a way he's trying to tell us that the gods who we want to believe are so benign might not be. Maybe the gods themselves are depraved; the forces that rule the universe are not benign in the way we like to comfort ourselves by thinking that they are. Perhaps, in fact, they're depraved and cruel and twisted and tortured themselves. It's not necessarily my belief, but I think it's a valid subject for an artist to explore. Given the results of some of the scenes I've witnessed, it certainly leaves it open to debate. But Witkin's not really dealing in other people's tragedies.

In "Inferno," there's a sequence of four photos taken in Chechnya, the first of which is a man's bloody hand on a plastic shopping bag. Then below it is a picture of two men in fur hats. One is slipping a carton of L&M cigarettes into his coat.

There are several spreads throughout "Inferno" where I tell a story within a story.

Some of them are almost cinematic, like stills from a movie.

Yes, within the larger framework of a situation, I'll focus on what's happening to one individual and follow it for several frames. It is a kind of cinematic experience, where you're seeing this story unfold in a few frames. In that particular sequence, the dead man was returning from some kind of expedition to acquire supplies, and while he was out in the open he was blown away by a Russian mortar shell. He was discovered by a woman who had been his neighbor. As you can see in the second frame, she is upset and being consoled by a group of men who had come along. And then one of the men scavenges the dead man's carton of cigarettes. And in the final frame, the dead man's left in the middle of the pathway; his hat's gone, his bag is gone and he's been left and forgotten.

And you just happened to be there?

Yes. It was as if they didn't even see me. Although I was standing right next to them, they just ignored me.

In the Zaire pictures taken during the cholera epidemic, there are several images of big tractors scooping up bodies for mass burial, with masked relief workers standing nearby. You've now seen so many of these situations with the United Nations or Red Cross, or whoever it is, coming in and trying to manage or clean up after these catastrophes. What is the mental and emotional condition of these people, the relief workers?

The mass burials in Goma, Zaire, were being carried out by the French military. I suppose they were under orders and did what they were told to do by their commanders. Those images underline the biblical scale on which the deaths were taking place. As for the relief workers, I believe they are motivated by a sense of purpose. They understand they've got a job to do. They understand the value of that job. And they're very focused on doing it.

One of the most surprisingly powerful pictures in the book -- because it's so apparently benign and banal -- is of a man's loafer, a shoe, sitting in weeds, filled with water.

That was in Kosovo. It is a very personal image, very instinctual and intuitive. It's a relationship between myself and what I was experiencing. Somehow that man's shoe, full of water -- and you can see leaves reflected in the water -- spoke to me as an emblem of the destruction of everyday life as we know it. It's a perfectly good loafer. And it was once worn by a living man, and now there's just a pool of water because the man's been blown away. I thought it to be eerie and emblematic.

Then there's a double-page spread in the section on Rwanda. It's just a vast pile of machetes. Especially given what we know now, it's a very chilling photograph.

The pile of machetes was such a spectacular thing to see -- thousands of them. And they were the weapons with which the genocide in Rwanda was carried out. Hundreds of thousands of people were murdered at close range with these primitive weapons, by hand. It was a lot of work and it required a great deal of determination and organization. It is something beyond my understanding. I saw the evidence of it, I know it happened and yet, to this day, I don't understand how it could have been done. And that picture of the machetes, I think, sends a chill through you because it does indicate how massive was the genocide and with what instruments it was performed.

Is there anything further you want to say about your work?

Yes, there is one thing that is important for people to understand -- that's perhaps a misconception about how the press works in these situations -- and that is, especially in the case of famines, when we're photographing victims of starvation, we're not just walking away from them and leaving them there without food or help. We're photographing the famine victims in feeding camps and feeding centers that have already been established by humanitarian organizations. They are already being helped as much as they can be helped at that time.

If there has ever been a time when I've discovered someone during a famine who was not at a feeding center, who couldn't reach it or couldn't find it, I would take them myself. And I think any journalist would.

By Douglas Cruickshank

Douglas Cruickshank is a senior writer for Salon. For more articles by Cruickshank, visit his archive.

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