Judge Mike Pinsky turns his lens on this documentary on James Nachtwey, famed photojournalist.
"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."—James Nachtwey
The camera is all about objectification. Through the surrogate eye, all things become real and true. In cinema, the camera serves as the invisible subject, the viewer's point of entry into the narrative. So much has been written (by me and others) on the power of the "gaze" in cinema, but at least we should say this: if the cameraman watches for us, what would happen if we were to watch the cameraman?
Christian Frei begins War Photographer, his documentary survey of the life and work of photojournalist James Nachtwey, with a view down the barrel of a camera. Nachtwey points and fires, like aiming a weapon. He haunts the devastated streets of Kosovo, the shantytowns of Indonesia between the train tracks, the smoke-enveloped stones of Ramallah in the West Bank. Through his camera, we see the chaos of the world that the comfort of middle-class American life does its damnedest to ignore.
But Nachtwey himself is a quiet man, almost unable to speak for any length of time. Friends like CNN correspondent Christiane Amanpour find him a mystery, calling him "single-minded," as if Nachtwey was merely the embodiment of a telescopic lens.
It is difficult to figure out exactly what Frei means to say in a film like War Photographer. Nachtwey occasionally talks about how he wants to convey experience of the world through the "discipline of the frame," but often such exposition tells us less about him than it does about the subjects he photographs. Indeed, Nachtwey does not want his photography to be about him (although he does seem proud of his New York gallery show late in the film), which, I suppose, makes a film in which he is the center of attention rather, well, problematic.
James Nachtwey seems to go out of his way to have no identity other than his camera. More often than not, Frei even lingers on the camera rather than on Nachtwey. Most other films about photojournalism (say, Medium Cool) would take the obvious route that the photograph, the camera gaze, is never really objective because of the presence of the human cameraman who shapes the frame. But Nachtwey resists revealing his subjectivity. A female editor with whom Nachtwey once had a romantic relationship admires his focus on his work but seems a little frustrated at his insularity. "He has his own library of suffering in his head," she muses. Nachtwey shares little of that. Only the photographs.
Not cynical, not angry. Watch how coolly Nachtwey describes the Rwandan Genocide. Watch him take a hit of tear gas in Ramallah like he is breathing in mist from a sauna. All this makes him a fascinating subject for a documentary, but not necessarily one that sustains 96 minutes. So Frei fills time with scenes of awful conditions around the world: all very important and terrible but not very helpful in illuminating what makes Nachtwey tick.
In the last act, the photographer finally opens up and starts asking whether photojournalism is parasitic, whether he is profiting off the suffering of others. By this point, we are quick to forgive Nachtwey for any lingering guilt: he has proved himself so humble and clear-headed throughout the film that any ethical questions seem almost tacked on just to generate some sense of conflict. The James Nachtwey we have met is a rare creature, an objective journalist, a genuine embodiment of the camera. And we have seen the images captured by that camera. The next question is, what do we do now for the people seen through that lens?
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