In the face of ongoing technical transformation in journalism compelling visuals remain a potent means to engage audiences. Photojournalism combines two professions, photography and journalism, using powerful images to tell news stories. This essay compares the work of two iconic photojournalists, Robert Capa and James Nachtwey. It will focus on their differing portrayals of war and conflict whilst illustrating their shared values and their key role and responsibility as photojournalists; to witness and document history. Both Capa and Nachtwey have been described as “quintessential war photographers” shaping public perception of global conflict and suffering through their photojournalism. In order to understand their respective motivations for becoming conflict photographers it is important to look at their backgrounds.
Robert Capa’s perspective on war comes from a political stance which reflects the political turmoil surrounding the times in which he lived. He was born Endre Friedmann in Budapest, Hungary, in 1913. As a Jewish teenager, he witnessed discrimination. He became politically active fleeing Hungary at the age of 18 because of his communist allegiances. He moved to Berlin and started to study political science. Whilst focusing on writing he also became interested in photography. Driven out of Germany by the threat of a Nazi regime he settled in Paris. He found it difficult to find work as a freelance journalist and thus re-invented himself as the American sounding photographer Robert Capa. Given his interest in politics and his personal stake in the outcome of the struggle against fascism it was natural that when politics led to war he would cover it.
If Robert Capa was the world’s quintessential war photojournalist from the 1930s until the mid 1950s (often referred to as the heyday, the pre-television day) then James Nachtwey has become the quintessential “conflict photojournalist” of our day. He was born in Syracuse, New York in 1948 and graduated in 1970 from Dartmouth College having studied art history and (like Capa) political science. Influenced by photographs during the Vietnam War and impressed by the power of photos to communicate the immediacy of events, he taught himself photography. From 1976 to 1980 he was a newspaper photographer in New Mexico, and in 1980 he moved to New York to work as a freelance photographer. Nachtwey’s work on war and conflict come from a humanitarian, rather than a political perspective. His stance is also a reflection on the issues that surround present wars which have become increasingly more violent and complicated.
Civil war was, for both men, the subject of their first major foreign assignments as photojournalists. The Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) for Robert Capa and civil strife in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the IRA hunger strike for James Nachtwey.
The death of a loyalist soldier was Robert Capa’s most famous and controversial photograph. It shows a Spanish Loyalist partisan, gun in hand, caught in the very moment of dying. The soldier’s arms are outstretched in a position of surrender. The photograph depicts his suffering but also portrays a sense of nobility in his death. Capa stated that these men “were dying every minute with great gestures and they figured that was really for liberty and the right kind of fight and they were enthused”. In terms of photographic composition it reiterates Capa’s affirmation, “I’d rather have a strong image that is technically bad than vice versa”. The photo provokes an emotive response.
There have been doubts to the photo’s authenticity, whether it was a set up orchestrated by Capa. (The photo, therefore, remains relevant in modern-day issues such as fake news and the manipulation of photographs in the press.) Nevertheless, it became symbolic of the Republican struggle and later as an anti-war image. It has been used as propaganda for both purposes. It’s first publication in ‘Vu’ magazine in 1936 clearly illustrates how the photo could be seen as biased propaganda but also illustrates the changing way in which war was being reported. As Capa himself said, “the truth is the best picture, the best propaganda.”
In stark contrast to the lone, almost heroic, figure in Capa’s photo is this strikingly direct portrayal of the Northern Ireland conflict by James Nachtwey. Depicting an ordinary couple pushing a child against a chaotic background of war and destruction. They seem oblivious of what is taking place, for them it has become an everyday occurrence. The photo illustrates how Nachtwey’s first war assignment in Belfast lead him to realise that the front lines of war go right through people’s homes. ” All the violence in Belfast was happening right inside residential neighborhoods. And that’s what I’ve seen ever since. Wars are no longer fought on isolated battlefields.”
It is interesting to note Nachtwey’s use of colour in this image, he usually prefers to work in black and white, stating that “colour itself is such a strong phenomenon, in a physical sense, that in a way it competes with what is happening in the picture. It tries to become the subject of the picture.” He dislikes the way war is often portrayed, in full colour, like the historical paintings that glorify famous battle scenes. However, in this particular photo his use of colour adds to the reality of the situation and gives it more immediacy. It highlights the ongoing, commonplace banality of day to day life against the backdrop of war.
Robert Capa’s use of black and white is indicative of the era in which he lived. In his photograph of ‘The Chess Game”, taken during the Spanish Civil War in 1936 , it is also a reflection of a war between two sides. In this case Spain was a deeply divided country, politically torn between right-wing Nationalist and left-wing Republican parties. Chess is a game of strategy, where skill is needed to outwit the opponent. However, the fact that the two soldiers are fighting on the same side yet opponents in the game illustrates that war is never as simple as black versus white. It is far more complicated than a political and strategical struggle between right and wrong.
Nachtwey’s hard impact images of savage butchery, torture and deliberate starvation of civilian populations are a far cry from Capa’s images. Nachtwey’s world looks nothing like Capa’s. In many of the conflicts that Nachtwey has documented nobility or even recognizable political aims seems hard to come by. The contrasts between their work illustrate a shift in the nature of photojournalism but most importantly of shifts in the nature of war, violence and of politics.
In 1994 working for ‘Time’ magazine James Nachtwey witnessed the devastating effects of the Rwandan genocide.
This image depicts a Hutu man who opposed the genocide and was, as a result, imprisoned in a concentration camp, starved, beaten and attacked with machetes. The most significant element of the image was that, whilst shocking, it highlighted the failure of international communities to intervene. Nachtwey also brought the ensuing events to the world’s attention, capturing some truly outrageous images of the cholera epidemic in Zaire.
“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.” (James Nachtwey)
The perpetrators of the genocide, fearful of repercussions, fled Rwanda along with Hutu refugees into camps along the borders of Congo. Within days a cholera epidemic swept through the camps. Aid organizations could not discern between the criminals and victims, they treated everyone. Nachtwey stated, ‘Ironically, the international community that had walked away from its responsibilities during the genocide was now forced to come to the rescue of those who had committed the atrocities.”
Nachywey’s role in revealing the atrocities of the Rwandan genocide and increasing global awareness opened international debate about humanitarian interventions, peacekeeping missions and sovereignty. Out of Rwanda came several new initiatives. British photographer, Don McCullin, said that you can only be a war photographer in the long term if you have a purpose. Nachtwey sees his role as showing people what is going on in the world, “photographers are on the ground; they are seeing what is happening to individual human beings. They are showing the effect of the war and holding accountable the decision makers and policy makers that are conducting the war. And this is a way in which public opinion can be brought to bear, to pressure for change.”
There is no doubt of the power of photography as a communicative tool. Nachtwey states that a picture can be an antidote to war, that a picture that shows the true face of war is an anti-war photograph. In order to capture the truth both photojournalists have taken considerable risks to ensure they are at the heart of the action.
The image below shows Nachtwey’s fearless attitude when shooting in dangerous situations, getting up close and personal with the subjects.
Robert Capa followed his own dictum , “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”.
It feels almost possible to touch the soldier in Capa’s D-Day photo of “The Soldier in the Water”. The blurring of this photograph was due to a technical error but adds to the utter confusion of the scene. It serves to highlight the soldier at the forefront of the photo, his gaze stern and fixed, white with cold and fear. One man alone against the enemy facing the possibility of death. The image remains a powerful image of the experience of war. Representing the plight of any soldier in any war.
Robert Capa redefined wartime journalism by joining soldiers in the trenches and documenting their battle in grim, close-up detail. He “took his camera farther into the fighting zone than had ever been done before” (Life, magazine) His visceral photographs of US forces’ assault on June 6th 1944 were a striking contrast to the politically regulated and organised photographs of the Second World War. He was the only civilian photographer to accompany the first wave of infantrymen onto Omaha Beach on D-Day. The photos he took were the primary visual record of the initial landings.
Capa covered 5 wars: the Spanish Civil War, the Second Sino-Japanese War, World War II across Europe, the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and the First Indochina war. He was killed when he stepped on a land mine on May 25, 1954, at Thai-Binh, Vietnam. It would seem that, ironically, he was trying to get just that little bit closer.
Capa’s photography is preserved in the legacy he left by co-founding Magnum photos in 1947. The prestigious photographic agency which started as a co-operative of photographers is 70 years old this year and continues. Henri Cartier Besson’s summarised its objectives, “Magnum is a community of thought, a shared human quality, a curiosity about what is going on in the world, a respect for what is going on and a desire to transcribe it visually.”
The lives of the two photojournalists are intertwined in many ways. James Nachtwey has also contributed to Magnun photos and worked for ‘Life’ magazine. Amongst many accolades, he has been awarded the Robert Capa Gold Award several times. (The award was established in 1955 for “best published photographic reporting from abroad requiring exceptional courage and enterprise”) In 2001 he founded the photographic agency Seven which continues to represent preeminent photojournalists. (VII, was named after the 7 founding members and leading photographers.) Nachtwey, like Capa, has borne witness through his photographic lens, documenting hundreds of wars, conflict and social issues.
The personality and characters of Robert Capa and James Nachtwey could not be more different. Capa’s flamboyant, larger than life, almost film star charisma deeply contrasts Nachtwey’s quiet, unassuming, lone character. But they share a passionate hatred of war and a deep concern for the suffering of people. Their work has been immensely important in showing the world not just the truth of war but also the enormous gap between reality and what politicians would have us believe. They both possess the qualities needed to document war: talent, sensitivity , humanity and courage. What connects them is their single-minded determination to follow a self assumed mission. To witness and report on war through the universal communication of photography.
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