Scrolling through the channels last night to try and find The Policewomen of Broward County (yes, I know...), I ran across a repeat of War Photographer, the excellent documentary about James Nachtwey. Although I've seen it before, I was immediately hooked and watched the whole 90 minutes or so again.
After the doc finished I pulled out my battered copy of Deeds of War from the shelf and took another look through it. And this morning I grabbed the doorstep sized Inferno from the local library. I had somehow forgotten how stunning Nachtwey's work is, along with how committed a character he is. Which got me thinking about a couple of things.
For me, during the late Twentieth and into the earlier Twenty-first Century there has always been a triumvirate of conflict/war photographers whose work spoke more loudly, more convincingly and was nearly always head and shoulders above anything else around. Don McCullin, Gilles Peress and James Nachtwey. Now, these guys are all getting on a little bit. I figure the last two are already into their early sixties and the Don is about 73 (not to suggest they are past it or not still photographing or anything). But who can forget McCullin's searing pictures from Vietnam or the Congo or Beirut arriving in time for Sunday breakfast with the colour supplements? Or Peress' unbearable yet absolutely essential images from Bosnia in Farewell to Bosnia and Rwanda in The Silence. And Nachtwey's b&w essays from Rwanda, the Sudan, Chechnya still, against all the digital and ad-dollar odds, being published in Time.
Which leads me to: where the work of this sort and calibre from Iraq and Afghanistan (and any other current spot on the globe where human beings are suffering and dying)? There was a time when I would seek out such stories in the news magazines, the Sunday supplements as well as other often not quite so obvious places and publications - but they were never to hard to find and often looked you right in the eye from the newsstand. Perhaps I haven't been quite so diligent this last few years, but where is the work? I seem to have encountered so little in published form, and while the internet has been a boon to photography in so many ways, it seems in some ways to have belittled this kind of work, robbed it of its power and rendered it impotent.
Postscript: Having written this, I just came across the story this last week of the photographs of Lance Corporal Joshua Bernard in Afghanistan (and here and here)and words of censure coming from the supposedly open and outward looking administration in the White House. I think one essential thing McCuillin, Peress and Nachtwey all have in common is that their work was and is about pricking our complacency, about not letting us hide in our suburban middle-class ghetto's. Perhaps, in the end, they failed? Not because their work wasn't powerful enough or that they didn't try hard enough, but rather that our self-absorbed complacency was just too immense to overcome?