Replies to Deborah C. Kogan's Remarks
Peter Howe Interviews James Nachtwey
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,
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
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
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
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.