Deborah Copaken Kogan Responds to Nachtwey's Reply
March 2003

by Deborah C. Kogan


In the two years that have passed since my book Shutterbabe was published, I’ve been misquoted, lambasted and lied about in the press more times than I care to remember. I’ve been called a stay-at-home mom, even though I earn an adequate living writing books and magazine articles, shooting photographs, lecturing, and performing. I’ve been called a soccer mom, though neither of my children, now 6 and 7 years old, have any interest in the sport. I was called a slut, a whore, and (this one’s my personal favorite) a “lactating nester shut-in-with-babes.” It takes a strong ego to endure such abuse, and sadly, I don’t have one. Each handful of mud slung my way stung in a way that would render me both speechless and miserable.

It is therefore not surprising to me that Mr. Nachtwey would be upset about the recent interview with me published in the Digital Journalist. In fact, I’m upset about it, too. Quite upset and quite angry. The day after the article appeared, I wrote emails to both Dirck Halstead and Anna Moorhead, thanking them for the exposure, encouraging them in their endeavors, but expressing my displeasure over the way Ms. Moorhead interpreted my words with regard to Mr. Nachtwey. To Ms. Moorhead I wrote, “I in no way wanted to denigrate him [Mr. Nachtwey]. I was merely saying I, PERSONALLY, could not live the life he lives. I in no way want to judge others for their choices, as we all have a right to choose the life, the path, the relationships that work for us.” To Mr. Halstead I wrote, “I think he’s [Mr. Nachtwey] a great photographer…and I think the journalist misunderstood. I was saying I, PERSONALLY, couldn’t live the life he’s living. In no way at all did I want to denigrate his work or his passions. And I don’t like to pass judgment on others. Everyone chooses the life-path they choose, and that’s their prerogative.” Neither Mr. Halstead nor Ms. Moorhead responded to those emails. Mr. Halstead yesterday reminded me we did speak on the phone a few days later, and he informed me that he had de-linked Ms. Moorhead’s article from the Digital Journalist site after I expressed my concern over the way my words and opinions regarding Mr. Nachtwey had been mangled.

Since I do not have a tape or any record of my discussion with Ms. Moorhead other than my own memory of what was spoken, I will not be able to prove that I did not speak ill of Mr. Nachtwey during our phone conversation. However, I know I never had any intention either then or now of speaking ill against a photographer whom I hold in high esteem, and I’m quite certain she misquoted me several times, adding Mr. Nachtwey’s name into sentences in which I was speaking in general about photojournalism and my own very personal decision to leave the profession.

To clarify, in that article, I never said my “idealistic view of Mr. Nachtwey’s dedication to his work has dulled.” Those are Ms. Moorhead’s own words. I said my idealistic view of the profession of photojournalism had dulled. I may have said, “Does he live his life with conviction, or is it denial?” but I did so in the context of speaking about denial as an aspect we all have within us, wondering, rhetorically, how much of it was required to continue covering wars, year after year, and how much of it was required to take that leap into domesticity by starting a family. I never said, “What are the negative aspects of how he is living?” I asked what the negative aspects of that life in general are, and how I ultimately—and personally—decided the negatives outweighed the positives. I never said I saw “Nachtwey’s lack of relationships as a weakness.” Again, these are Moorhead’s words, not mine. I said one of the things I noticed about the best photojournalists was that none of them seemed to be able to maintain families and still work, and that that choice did not appeal to me, again personally. I never said, “People like Jim who are obsessed with their work and have no human relationships are unanalyzed.” I said workaholics—again, in general—are often unanalyzed. I know Mr. Nachtwey has many close friends throughout the world, and I would never imply otherwise.

Furthermore, I most certainly never said—nor do I even believe—that, “He made that documentary because he has to justify not having relationships.” This is not, nor would it ever be, a statement that would ever leave my lips, as I understand all-too-well the need to record life, both others’ and one’s own. Ms. Moorhead asked me why I thought he might have done the documentary, and I responded, purely conjecturally, that he might have gone through that process as a way to better understand himself, just as I had gone through the process of writing a memoir to better understand myself. But “justify”? Never. In fact, I told Ms. Moorhead that I enjoyed the documentary, but ultimately found it a bit sad, too. Lastly, when I was referring to those “same old faces, screaming into their cell phones” I was referring specifically to the journalists I recently saw—four of whom were murdered the next day by the Taliban—in the lobby of the Pearl Continental Hotel in Peshawar, Pakistan, on the day Kabul fell in November of 2001, when I was there with my son. And I was referring to them in the context of suddenly realizing how different my life had become in 2001 compared to 1988, when I first saw some of those same faces. And how I mourned those faces when I heard they’d been killed. Remember, there were no cell phones back when I was shooting in the late eighties and early nineties. Lastly, I never, ever said or implied that “Nachtwey has been knocked off the pedestal Deborah held him on for years.” Once again, these are Ms. Moorhead’s words. It now appears to me that she had an agenda to pit me, specifically, against Mr. Nachtwey; had I known this when I was openly talking to her about all the compromises and choices I’ve had to make, both as both a professional and as a parent, I would have never agreed to continue the conversation.

In retrospect, I wish I’d done certain things differently. For example, I wish that I had written Mr. Nachtwey a personal letter of explanation the day I saw the interview as well as a public letter to the readers of this publication, expressing my dismay. But if I were to track down and try to rectify every insult or misstatement written about me or attributed to me, I would be spending the greater part of my time doing so, and this is time far better spent writing, photographing, earning a living and parenting my children. In fact, the reason I agreed to a phone interview for the Digital Journalist in the first place, instead of writing an essay myself, as I’d been asked to do, was that I simply had no time to write one, as I was on deadline for a magazine article. Every busy parent, every busy journalist, every busy hybrid out there understands this. Had I known how my words would be twisted, I would have never agreed to do the interview.

I feel tremendous sympathy for Mr. Nachtwey and greatly regret any pain he has suffered as a result of this contrived spat. I both understand and empathize, having also been the victim of wrongful invective. And I apologize for not having sent him a personal letter of explanation sooner.

However, I do need to address the issue of the Romanian orphanages, and here Mr. Nachtwey and I most definitely disagree. I do agree we met in Bucharest in 1990. (Actually, we met first in the summer of 1987, several times, when I was a college intern at Magnum, but I do not expect Mr. Nachtwey to remember this. I hardly do. We then met in Jerusalem at the American Colony Hotel in 1988, but again, the meeting was insignificant and unmemorable.) But this meeting in Bucharest was also during my second trip to Romania, the first of which lasted from Wednesday, March 21, 1990 until Thursday, April 5, 1990, which is the period of time during which I found one of the orphanages with my (then) boyfriend, a Romanian photojournalist named Doru Iordache and his friend (now deceased), also a Romanian press photographer, Ovidiu Bogdan. At that time, there were no rumors in the western press about these orphanages. It was only on Doru and Ovidiu’s hunch, based on gossip they’d heard from family and friends, that we went in search of these “Hospitals for Unrecoverables” in the first place.

When I came back to Bucharest, sent the film to Paris and, a few weeks later, upon my return to Bucharest from a brief respite in Paris, found out that my photo agency, Gamma, had not distributed the photographs because they were a) in black and white (instead of color) and b) too grisly to publish, I became upset, disillusioned and angry.

Before that call from my agency, I had run into Mr. Nachtwey in the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel. He had just arrived in time for the elections. (I have no idea whether or not Mr. Nachtwey had been sent to cover the elections, I just knew he came at the same time as hundreds of other journalists who descended upon the Intercontinental during that same time period, which for me lasted from Saturday, April 28, 1990 until Saturday, May 19, 1990.) When I spoke to him that first day—I was with a mutual friend of his, who’d come to Bucharest to celebrate her birthday—he mentioned that he had run out of black and white film and wondered if I might have any to spare. I had four bricks of black and white film (80 rolls) back at the apartment in which I was staying, as I was covering the elections for the French newspaper Libération. I told him I might be able to spare a few rolls and that I would contact him later. So when I received the call from my photo agency about their unwillingness to distribute my orphanage pictures, I made a decision to not only give Jim, gratis, half of my stockpile of black and white film (40 rolls, a number which Ms. Moorhead also got wrong by half, and “precious” was her adjective, not mine) but also to write out directions to the orphanage in Vulturesti, as I knew his clout in the photojournalism world would at least get the pictures published. I didn’t care about credit for having found the story then or now. I only wanted it to get published, by any means. It is only because Mr. Nachtwey has now challenged me on the veracity of my story that I must now be extremely specific with regard to times and dates and details, and I apologize for the tedium this may cause the reader.

Anyway, I met Mr. Nachtwey in his hotel room at the Intercontinental, handed him the film and the directions and told him about Gamma not distributing my photographs. He expressed thanks for the gift, dismay over the story of my agency, and he said he would go to the orphanage. He thanked me again, shook my hand warmly, as he is wont to do, and I left the room. Had he already known about the orphanages, as he now claims, he never let on to this fact in my presence that day.

The reason I chose to write about this incident in my book was not to be self-aggrandizing or to in any way denigrate Mr. Nachtwey for doing the very thing I’d asked him to do: to take those pictures, ASAP, and get them shipped off to New York. The reason I chose to write about the orphanages and my donation of film and information to Mr. Nachtwey is that it was, for me, a real turning point. As a story, it encapsulated what I felt was the essence of my very own personal coming-of-age: instead of caring only about succeeding in the cut-throat world of photojournalism, I’d finally understood that the duty to bear witness was the true responsibility one bore as both a journalist and as a human being.

In early 2000, before my final manuscript was due to be handed in for copy-editing on March 2, 2000, I sent a copy of the most recent draft to Mr. Nachtwey, as a gesture of good will, both to let him know that it was being published and to give him the opportunity to choose whether or not he wanted his name used or changed. (I did this for several other of the characters in the book as well, even though I was not obliged to do so.)

He called me back, after having read it, objecting to various descriptions of his physical being. Though I liked the specific words I used to describe him and wanted to keep them, I agreed to change those words and other small details about his appearance, and I did so without any fuss. I asked him how he wanted to be identified, and he asked me to remove his last name, which I also did. Then, at the end of our conversation, he said that I was also wrong about the orphanage story. He said he’d already gone to another orphanage before I ever gave him the film. I said that’s not how I remembered it at all, that—even if what he said were true—he never admitted this to me back then, and that I distinctly remember giving him that story and how thankful he’d been at the time.

I never made a promise to remove that story from the book, and I stand by it to this day. At the end of the conversation, he had other criticisms about the book in general and said he was baffled as to why I’d ever publish it. I thanked him for his opinion and his input, promised to delete his last name and the offending physical descriptions, and we hung up the phone.

Contrary to what Mr. Nachtwey must now believe, I have no plot or hidden motive to malign him, and, as my book clearly states, I have only the greatest admiration for his work. I also do not believe I have disparaged Mr. Nachtwey’s reputation in any way by writing down the details of that orphanage story. To the contrary, everyone who’s read and commented on the book to me thus far, whether friend, family or stranger, has said that he comes off as a real hero. Which at the time, to me, he was.

Deborah C. Kogan

Editor's Note
The original comments regarding Jim Nachtwey and the disputed story of the Romanian orphanage were made in an interview between Deborah Copaken Kogan and Anna Moorhead, a student in my Advanced Photojournalism class ( I assigned Anna to do an interview from the perspective of a college student after she read "Shutterbabe." She has my confidence as a serious student of journalism, and clearly understands the procedures and responsibilities inherent in this craft.

Anna had no agenda whatsoever, other than to better understand Ms. Kogan. She was surprised when Kogan's comments on the Romanian incident,a pivotal point in the book, took a negative turn regarding Nachtwey's motivations for making the film, "War Photographer."

I have looked at the notes that Anna took, and they are full and complete as contemporaneous logs of the interview. They meet all the professional standards of a good journalist.

The Digital Journalist regrets any pain that this interview may have caused.

Dirck Halstead
Editor and Publisher



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