James Nachtwey

by Peter Howe

Enter James Nachtwey's
Photo Gallery

It’s eight p.m. on Thursday evening at Time Magazine nine days after the destruction of the World Trade Center. Jim Nachtwey is taking a break from editing the day’s take of his pictures from Wall Street to talk to the Digital Journalist. It is the ninth day that he has been working on the story and he looks very, very tired. Although the word “lucky” seems totally inappropriate applied to anything that happened on September 11th 2001, Time and its readers can count themselves fortunate that Nachtwey is a contract photographer for the magazine, that his apartment is in the South Street Seaport complex, and that he was there at the time that the attack happened. The most remarkable of these circumstances is the last one. Nachtwey spends more time away from home than in his apartment. Wherever humanity’s seemingly limitless inability to live with each other explodes into violence is where you’ll find him. His work has taken him from Northern Ireland to Korea, from Afghanistan to Rwanda, from South Africa to Bosnia, Chechnya, Jerusalem and Kosovo. The list goes on.

Although bone weary he speaks with the quiet strength and authority of a man who has seen more death and destruction in his lifetime than most people. But even he didn’t expect it literally in his own back yard:

“When the attack first started, I was in my apartment in the South Street Sea Port, directly across Lower Manhattan. I heard a sound that was out of the ordinary. I’m far enough away so that it wasn’t alarming but it was definitely out of the ordinary. It came from the direction of the World Trade Center so I went to the window and saw the tower burning.”

After shooting some pictures from the roof of his building, Nachtwey gathered up his cameras and film and took the short ten-minute walk to the Twin Towers. By the time that he got there the second tower had been hit, and people were being evacuated from both buildings.

“It wasn’t as chaotic as you might think. I think that the real chaos was happening up inside the towers with the people who were trapped. On the street people coming out initially were not seriously wounded. They were frightened, some were hurt in a minor way, but I think that the real panic and the real terror and the real chaos was inside the towers.”

The chaos hit street level when first one and then both buildings collapsed. People who had been drawn towards the scene now started fleeing in panic in a futile attempt to outrun the enveloping cloud of smoke and ash. It was at the point that the second tower fell that Nachtwey almost became a casualty himself. He tells the story in a calm, almost matter-of-fact tone of voice:

“Once the tower fell, the people really disappeared. They all ran away or were trapped. So my instinct was to go to the place where the tower had fallen. It seemed to me, absolutely unbelievable that the World Trade Center could be lying in the street and I felt very compelled to make an image of this. So I made my way there through the smoke. It was virtually deserted, and it seemed like a movie set from a science fiction film. Very apocalyptic. Very strange ambiance of the sunlight filtering through the dust and the destroyed wreckage of the buildings lying in the street. As I was photographing the destruction of the first tower, the second tower fell and I was standing right under it, literally right under it. Fortunately for me, and unfortunately for people on the west side it listed to the west. But I was still underneath this avalanche of falling debris, of structural steel, the aluminum siding of the building, glass; tons of material were falling directly down on to me. I realized that I had a few seconds to find cover or else I’d be killed.

"I dashed into the lobby of the Millennium Hotel, which was directly across the street from the North Tower, and I realized instantly that this hotel lobby was going to be taken out. The debris would come flying straight through the plate glass and just destroy it. There was no protection at all.

There was no other place to turn, certainly no more time. It was about to happen any moment. I saw an open elevator and dashed inside. Put my back against the wall, thinking that it would afford some protection, which it did, and about a second later the lobby was taken out. I had seen someone standing outside, and there was a construction worker who dashed inside the elevator with me just as the debris swept through the lobby and it instantly became pitch black, as if you were in a closet with the light out and a blindfold on. You could not see anything. It was very difficult to breathe. My mouth, my nose, my eyes were filled with ashes. I had a hat on. I began to breathe through my hat. And together, this other man and I crawled, groping, trying to find our way out. I initially thought that the building had fallen on us and that we were in a pocket because it was so dark. And we just continued to crawl and I began to see blinking lights…. small blinking lights… and I realized that these were the directional lights of cars that have been destroyed and the directional signals were still on. And at that point I realized that we were in the street, although it was just as black in the street as it was in the hotel lobby, and that we would be able to find our way out. It took a couple of blocks to get clear of the smoke and we made our way out.”

It is common wisdom that in battle, whether you’re photographing or fighting, those with the least experience that are the most likely to be killed. Nachtwey’s familiarity with life-threatening situations played an important part in him being able to survive the collapse and to continue to work.

“It was all instinct and I was making very fast decisions with very little time to spare. And I guess that I made the right decisions because I’m still here. And I think that I was lucky too. I don’t fold up in these situations. I’ve been in them enough times to somehow have developed the capacity to continue to work…to continue to do my job…to continue to go forward. On my way out of the smoke and ash, I was actually photographing searchers coming in. Once I got clear I tried to clear my eyes as best I could and catch my breath, and I realized that I had to find my way to what now has become known as “Ground Zero.” It took a while. I had to work my way there. I had to elude some people who were trying to obstruct me and found a way in, and once I was there I spent the entire day there, photographing the firemen searching for people who’d been trapped.”

Although the fall of the second tower was the biggest threat to his personal safety, in many ways his first view of Ground Zero was the most traumatic.

“I was in a state of disbelief. It was very disturbing to see this massive destruction in my own city, in my own country. The scenes were very familiar. I’ve been in Grozny when it was being pulverized by Russian artillery and aircraft bombardment. I spent a couple of years in Beirut during various sieges and bombardments. So this kind of destruction was familiar to me, but now, it was literally in my own backyard. And I think that one thing that Americans are learning from this is that we are now part of the world in a way in which we never have been before.”

While the landscape was familiar those peopling it were different.

“The frontline troops in this particular battle were the firemen and they put themselves in jeopardy. A lot of them lost their lives. But they were frontline troops without killing anyone; they were going there to save people. That made it very different.”

The other difference was the absence of visible casualties, and this complicated Nachtwey’s emotional response to the scenes that he was photographing. In the late eighties LIFE magazine assigned him to do a story about the famine that was happening in the Sudan. They supplied a tape recorder for him to record his feelings at the end of the day’s work, and these recordings were to provide the text accompanying the photography. When he returned he had superb pictures, but the tape cassettes were empty. The reason? He was worried that talking about his experiences, even to a tape recorder, would diffuse his anger, and that he needed the anger to keep his photography sharp. At the World Trade Center it was not easy to use this motivation.

“I think because I didn’t see the dead. They were underneath and it wasn’t clear how many were under there at that moment. I didn’t witness people suffering because they were invisible. I didn’t feel it as strongly as for example when I went to someone starving to death, to see people cut down by sniper fire. It hadn’t hit home like that yet. It was really more kind of shock and disbelief. The anger is certainly building. I don’t think I’ve entirely dealt with this emotionally I’ve been so busy working. I haven’t completely processed this event.”

Another unfamiliar aspect of the situation for Nachtwey was working side by side with local photographers, many of whom he didn’t know. Given the nature of his work he rarely shoots in New York, and is unfamiliar with many of his hometown colleagues. Their work on this story has earned his unqualified admiration:

“I have never seen more amazing pictures from so many photographers as this story. New York must be full of incredibly talented photographers who probably very rarely have a chance to show what they can do at this level. The imagery has been stunning. I suppose a lot of people I’m not aware of, haven’t been aware of because I don’t shoot that much here myself. I don’t know the local photographers. I have a huge amount of respect for their talent.”

That these photographers showed a high level of professionalism was also gratifying to see. Under the circumstances this boiled down to respecting the rescue workers and not impeding their efforts.

“I think the measure of professionalism there was how they dealt with the rescue personnel. Were they getting in the way? Were they getting too assertive? Too aggressive? And interrupting the flow of the rescue operation, and I never saw anyone interfering in the least way with any fireman, any policeman, any ambulance. Everyone was extremely sensitive, extremely aware of where they were, what was going on and what was called for.”

As the result of this behavior there was very little animosity shown by the rescuers to the photographers.

“I think that the rescue workers were generally too busy to pay us much mind. And because we weren’t getting in their way they didn’t have to pay us much mind unless they felt like it for whatever personal reason they might have. The police were another matter. I think they instinctively try to keep us away from anything. I think that it’s just the nature of the relationship, unfortunately.”

He was also impressed with the way that publications reacted and the amount of space that they devoted to still images. It was as if journalism suddenly rediscovered its roots, and the public responded. Newspapers and magazines around the country were selling out. Even the new media scored some notable milestones. The first day that Nachtwey’s pictures were posted on time.com there were over two million page views, the equivalent of more than six hundred thousand people in just one twenty four hour period. Another notable achievement was that for the first time during the days following the tragedy the number of people visiting news sites on the Internet outnumbered those seeking pornography. We shall have to wait and see whether this is the beginning of the rebirth of photojournalism as some people have been predicting, but Nachtwey is optimistic.

“I hope publishers and editors pay attention to this. I think that there is power in the still image that doesn’t exist in other forms. I think that there’s even is a necessity for it because that many people wouldn’t be looking at still pictures unless they needed to. Six hundred thousand people looking at my website is small compared to a television audience, but I think that number is significant. This is sort of a test case of mass appeal.”

Throughout the interview the level of stress and exhaustion was apparent on Nachtwey’s face, in his body language and in his voice. He is a man who is used to pushing himself to the limit, but there has to come a point where that limit stops. After more than twenty years of exposure to danger and conflict, anguish and despair, violence and chaos most people would cry enough. Not him, not yet.

“Many years ago felt that I’d seen too much and that I didn’t want to see any more tragedies in this world. But unfortunately, the world continues, history continues to produce tragedies. And it is very important that they be documented in a humane way, in a compelling way. And because I’ve established credibility in the press…I feel the responsibility to continue. But believe me when I say that I would much rather these things never happen and I can either photograph something entirely different or not be a photographer at all. That’s not the way the world is. As far as I can see right now I am still healthy I understand the value in it and I think I still have a place. Having a place is a privilege and a responsibility that I cannot turn my back on. I have to continue.”

Looking back on the mindless criminal act of September 11th, 2001 it is frighteningly clear that retirement for James Nachtwey is many years away.

© 2001 Peter Howe

Enter James Nachtwey's Photo Gallery

See the Video Interviews with
David Handschuh, Angel Franco,
Ruth Fremson, Aaron Fineman,
James Nachtwey, Doug Mills
and Michael Williamson
Visit the other Galleries:
Main Gallery
The New York Times

VOICES From Behind The Lens

Write a Letter to the Editor
Join our Mailing List
© The Digital Journalist