Sunday, April 30, 2006

Fear Is Not What's Important

Photo by James Nachtwey - Afghanistan, 1996 - Mourning a brother killed by a Taliban rocket "Fear is not what's important. It's how you deal with it. It's not a matter of whether you feel it. It's how you manage it."

That's James Nachtwey in the excellent 2001 documentary War Photographer directed by Christian Frei. The temper of this subtle, but powerful documentary perfectly mirrors an extraordinary man, who one editor for Der Stern describes as appearing on the battle field in pressed jeans, an immaculate shirt and neatly parted hair. To watch Nachtwey in action is an astonishing thing. Considered the best in his field, he seems utterly unlike any combat photographer (or paparazzo) you could imagine. He's soft spoken, even described as shy, and he remains utterly, utterly calm and quiet in every situation he'd shown in.

Most impressive, however, is the philosophy behind his work:
Is it possible to put an end to a form of human behavior which has existed throughout history by means of photography? The proportions of that notion seem ridiculously out of balance. Yet, that very idea has motivated me.

For me, the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity. If war is an attempt to negate humanity, then photography can be perceived as the opposite of war and if it is used well it can be a powerful ingredient in the antidote to war.

In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war in order to communicate to the rest of the world what is happening, he is trying to negotiate for peace. Perhaps that is the reason why those in charge of perpetuating a war do not like to have photographers around.
I watched another film this weekend which focuses on the theme of fear: Peter Greengrass's United 93. Like a lot of people, when I first saw the trailer for this movie (it's almost a documentary or cinéma vérité in its style), I was prepared for the worst. When I heard Greengrass was the director, I though maybe he'd pull it off. And he did. It's a tense and horrifying film that left the audience (myself included) largely speechless, as it should, and though there are heroes in the movie, they act as humans, planning on the fly, acting in a rush. There are no stirring aisle-way Agincourt speeches because that's not what happened. That's never what happens, despite what Hollywood's been feeding us for decades.

Still, these men were heroic in the most human sense. They were successful in overcoming their fear and attacking their hijackers, but their success didn't prevent their death. As we know, however, it likely saved the lives of many, many others.

No comments: