Nachtwey Replies to Deborah C. Kogan's Remarks
March 2003

Peter Howe Interviews James Nachtwey


One of the features in the January issue of the Digital Journalist was an interview with Deborah Copaken Kogan that was conducted by University of Texas student Anna Moorehead. During the interview Copaken Kogan made some strong criticisms of veteran combat photographer James Nachtwey. While everyone who agrees to be interviewed for this publication should have the right to express their feelings freely, we also believe that credibility and reputation are among a photojournalist's most precious possessions, and the criticisms were of a sufficiently personal nature for us to offer to Nachtwey a forum for reply. He agreed to participate, and below we publish the results of an interview conducted with him shortly before he departed to join the 101st Airborne as they prepare for a possible war with Iraq.

Q: How long have you been covering conflicts around the world?

The first conflict I covered was Northern Ireland in 1981. Bobby Sands, an
Irish Republican prisoner and a member of British Parliament, was on hunger strike to protest conditions in the notorious H-Block in Long Kesh Prison. The streets of Belfast and Derry were the scenes of daily violence. Eventually, ten prisoners starved themselves to death - an awesome act of political commitment and personal will. It was the beginning of my work documenting conflicts and critical social issues. I trained myself for it for nearly ten years before I thought I was ready to make a contribution as a photographer. I haven't stopped since then.

Q: How long have you known Deborah Copaken Kogan?

I don't know her at all. If she were standing next to me right now I would not know who it is.

Q: When did you meet her, and under what circumstances?

I was in Romania in 1990, on my second trip documenting the conditions in the orphanages. I have a very vague memory of meeting Copaken Kogan then. We couldn't have talked for more than a few minutes. I had been there a month before, on my own, without an assignment, because I thought it was an extraordinary opportunity to explore a country that had been cut off from the outside world for decades. It was a chance to discover and document the legacy of a bizarre and repressive regime, even as the Soviet empire continued to unravel. There had been a few, sketchy rumors in the press about an AIDS epidemic in the orphanages. I contacted the Medicines du Monde office in Bucharest, met a Romanian doctor and looked up some local colleagues to check on the validity of the reports. I found an interpreter and a car and set out to investigate. During the course of several weeks I traveled throughout the country and discovered and gained access to a kind of Gulag of institutions in which orphans were kept in inhuman conditions. It was genuinely appalling. I carried my film back to New York, processed and edited it and took a selection of photographs around to some editors. At first, the pictures were met with disbelief. When the story checked out, I was sent back on assignment to continue my work. It was on that second trip that I briefly met Copaken Kogan. Once I completed the story on the orphanages, I stayed on in Eastern Europe, and spent the next half-a-year documenting the legacy of industrial pollution in six different countries.

Q: Copaken Kogan says that in Bucharest she gave you "a precious brick of Tri X film", and the address of the orphanage where she had been working, but at the time had not been able to sell the resulting story. In effect she gave the story to you. If this is true, why would she do this, and is this unusual in circumstances such as these?

The photographers who pursue this kind of work are by-and-large a generous and openhearted group of people. We routinely help each other in many ways.

One of the unwritten rules of the road is that whoever is leaving a location where film is scarce leaves their unexposed film to whoever is staying on. I have both received and given away film on many occasions. We also share information, bunk on each other's floors, give each other lifts in our cars, lend each other money, courier out film, share food, etc. We're all in it together, and what goes 'round comes 'round. It's a code, and it's a good way to live. I remember on that trip, I shot a lot more film than I expected, and I received rolls from four different photographers who were on their way out, including Copaken Kogan. The film was certainly considered precious, and I was extremely grateful to my colleagues for their generosity. However, to say that she handed me the story is totally false. As I said, I had already been working on it for some time. She might have told me about one particular orphanage that she had visited, but I had already been to many. In looking at the chapter on Romania in my book Inferno, I don't see a single image from the institution Copaken Kogan claims she told me about. That she might have shared information about an interesting location with a colleague is not unusual in our profession, and it is something that I always appreciate when it happens. But that is a long stretch from her claim that she told me about the whole story, and therefore, by implication, when I presented the story to editors, I was underhandedly taking credit for another photographer's research. Before her book was published she sent me a manuscript to read for accuracy. I pointed out that this inaccuracy and asked her to correct it before publication. She agreed she would, but when the book was published, there it was. Not only is the story untrue, but also in effect it gives her credit for the journalistic work I had done totally independently, and it implies that I clandestinely took credit for her work. That is a damaging statement, and it is untrue. I don't know why would she make such a claim unless it was to make herself appear important at the expense of both a colleague's reputation and the truth. The fact is that the orphanages in Romania had to be revealed to the world. It didn't really matter who did it. In the end many journalists, from all branches of the press and from many countries, contributed to our greater awareness of that atrocity, and out of that awareness came change. I made my own small contribution, and according to Copaken Kogan, she made her own. That's what matters.

Q: How did the documentary "War Photographer" come about, and why did you agree to do it?

The director, Christian Frei, sought me out. He had become aware of my work, and wanted to explore the idea of making a documentary. Initially he telephoned me, and then he traveled from Zurich to Boston, where I was having an exhibition. He spent a long time gaining my trust. I viewed his earlier documentary about a family in Cuba, and I could see that he was a serious and talented filmmaker. He was extremely patient and remained in contact with me for over a year before I said OK. It was not easy for me to be filmed while I was working, and it made me very uncomfortable to be interviewed on camera.

Because I believed he wanted to make a film that focused not on clichés and stereotypes, but on the heart-and-soul of what we do, I decided to give it a try. It was a chance to examine the motivations and struggles and contradictions of being a photojournalist. The film raised a lot of difficult questions, but it also allowed me to give answers. I hoped the movie would illuminate a group of people who are very little understood by the public. People see our pictures, but they don't realize what goes into making them. An opportunity came along to tell that story. Christian was the right filmmaker to do it. I was reluctant, as he can tell you, but I didn't think I should turn it down. It was not intended to be a complete portrait of me or in any way to portray my personal life. It was about my work.

Q: In her most personal criticism of you she says, "People like Jim who are obsessed with their work, and have no human relationships, are unanalyzed. There is great work, but at what cost? What do you value in life? Is it friendship and love? He made the documentary because he has to justify not having relationships." What comments do you have about this statement?

I think it's enough to say that Copaken Kogan is totally unqualified to make any statements about my personal life. We do not know each other in the least. Like I said, I would not recognize her if she was standing next to me. That she is so unqualified, yet made such a profound statement can only be taken as a personal attack. Why would she make such an attack? Again, the effect of her words is to elevate the choices she made in her own life to the disparagement of an entirely different set of choices made by another individual with a different background and different motivations. Was that her aim? Better to ask her. In any case, she spoke falsely once again.

Q: How difficult is it to maintain a personal relationship and continue to do the work that you do?

My life is unconventional, and I'm sure many of my colleagues would say the same about their own lives. It is often extreme. It does not have the same kind of ballast that provides stability for a lot of people. Personal relationships have a different set of circumstances and a different dynamic than for people who go home every evening. Photographers who travel and who stay away for long stretches of time, often in dangerous or remote circumstances, can't rely on normalcy. We have to reinvent ourselves, and our personal ties are often very deep because of that. I am fortunate in having many close, lifelong friends. Our friendships have been forged in trying circumstances. I think there are sacrifices that have to be made, particularly in regard to family life. It's up to individuals to determine for themselves the extent of that sacrifice. It is not to be taken lightly, nor is it to be judged by anyone else. Relationships aren't necessarily easy for anybody, and photographers have our own set of challenges, as well as the consequent joys of meeting those challenges. There wouldn't be much point in anything without love and friendship.

Q: When you first started working as a war photographer did you realize that sacrificing at least some aspects of a personal life was inevitable, and was this a decision that you consciously made?

When I started out, I didn't know what would lie ahead. I discovered it as I went along. There were serious decisions to be made all along the way. I made the choices that made sense to me. I have tried to follow my heart. I've had some tough moments, but I think I did the right thing. I committed myself to the long run. It hasn't been easy, but it's given my life meaning. Copaken Kogan obviously made different choices based on who she is. I'm sure she also had some difficult decisions to make, and I hope she did what was right by her own lights. There's no need to put someone else down for what they thought was right, especially if you don't even know them and have never talked to them about it.

Q: Ron Haviv once told me that he estimated that 80% of all the war photographs that we see in this country are the work of between 25 and 30 photographers. Putting aside whether or not these figures are exactly accurate, do you think this is what Copaken Kogan means when she makes the comment about the "same old photographers, the same old faces, screaming into their cell phones"?

To be honest, I don't know who she's talking about. I have never run into her in the field, other than the five minutes we met in Romania, and I have no idea who she was hanging out with. The people with whom I work are some of the most caring, well-read, generous, hardworking, resourceful, intelligent, passionate, committed and entertaining people you could ever run across. I'm proud to know them and proud to count myself among them. It's a welcoming and openhearted bunch that is not a clique at all, but more of a community that takes newcomers in and helps them along. Who are the "old faces screaming into cell phones" she talks about? No one I know.

Q: Moorehead in her interview states that among Copaken Kogan's colleagues you are known as the "god of photojournalism", and she goes on to describe you as a myth of a man. Do you regularly suffer criticism as the result of such exaggerated views, if indeed they exist in the minds of other photographers?

I don't know where that statement comes from. I'm anything but that. Just ask anyone who knows me.


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