James Nachtwey, the much-decorated news photographer, has created some of the most powerful images we have of war, conflict, and humanitarian crisis. Nachtwey himself has curated an exhibit of his own images from Iraq, titled "The Sacrifice," now on view in New York City at the 401 Projects gallery. The show does artfully what all worldchanging work does: it changes the way we see.
Unlike photo essays of war that stay "over there," this one ends here, in American living rooms and city streets and playing fields. "The Sacrifice" reminds us that as we walk about in New York as most of us usually do, without effort or attention, we're doing things that many American soldiers returned from Iraq need to learn for a second time: how to walk, or to eat, or to concentrate, or to talk.
It's nothing short of a miracle that Nachtwey himself has survived relatively unscathed over 25 years of documenting war and struggle in places such as Afghanistan, Rwanda, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Kosovo, Chechnya, and Israel. As someone said in War Photographer, a 2001 documentary film about Nachtwey, "there are no old war photographers." In 2003, he was in Baghdad traveling with U.S. troops when a grenade landed in their open Humvee. Nachtwey was injured; Michael Weisskopf, a Pulitzer Prize finalist and senior correspondent for Time magazine, lost his hand as he tossed the grenade away.
The entry to the 401 Projects gallery’s main space is through a long, narrow hallway that is hung with an array of large images three rows high, all showing soldiers arriving in the ER. A few steps into the exhibit, one’s field of vision is filled with bodies contorted and bleeding, recreating the chaos of the emergency room. The ERs are like a battlefield all over again, as new pains of needles and knives and the alignment of shattered limbs compound recent wounds. Without the sounds these pictures imply, one hears what is going unspoken at the moment of the picture-taking, a desperate hope that whomever is suffering on those stretchers will live.
For 30 feet, we are pressed against torsos whose limbs have been ripped off, checked in and hastily identified with numbers penned on the skin. The numbers, for whatever the codes correspond to, are in the thousands. Nachtwey catches the intense focus of the medical personnel in frames whose composition owe as much to Fra Angelico as to Cartier-Bresson. Much of the time, doctors and nurses fix their eyes on devices that tell them whether these bodies are moving toward life or death, mostly without sterile face masks to hide their anxiety. In Nachtwey’s hands, the camera is the device that delivers the fates of so many to us, creating the same hope that life goes on, for this one soldier at this one moment.
As the gallery opens up into a conventional white cube, larger pictures detail the gravity of wounds and ceaseless work. In one of the only operating theaters that looks to be in a building, with pristine white tile and huge overhead lights that have a beam not unlike a halo, seven people attend to a soldier whom we see only as one leg on a sheet. The sheet is soaked with what looks like gallons of spilled blood. In all of these pictures, what appears to be depicted from a distance is simpler than the story that comes from a closer look. There is a shot with technicians engaged in what seems at first like a delicate hand surgery; they are working the wedding ring off a bloodied finger of an unconscious man. Another frame is filled by a resting man’s pale and naked back, draped across a spotlessly white hospital bed like a pieta; it is a soldier with a broken neck. There is one shot of a soldier’s legs, boots still on, the bones chipped and pitted from an explosion, the picture gives no indication of whether the man is alive or dead, but it is certain that he will never use his legs again.
The last pictures are also of legs -- artificial ones. They belong to men in ordinary workout clothes, who are back home and engaged in learning to walk again. Staying alive, the one goal of the emergency room, diffuses into the work of mastering prosthetic limbs, and of returning to a familiar life among loved ones. Doctors are replaced by family. Towards the end of the exhibit, one images shows a soldier on the floor of a drab rehab facility, intently doing sit-ups. He is in an Army t-shirt, with a crew cut and the singular focus of a soldier in his eyes. His legs stop at the knees. A woman is seated on a mat next to him, looking distracted and exhausted. Beside her are two children. The balloon she holds is as incongruous as a Spongebob Squarepants bandage would be in the ER.
The last images are soldiers fighting to be at leisure. From the compressed spaces of hospital tents, they move out into the wide spaces of rehab facilities, golf courses, and the sea. Golf becomes a heroic pursuit; surfing seems more than ever like a defiance of physics.
“The Sacrifice” runs through April 24 at 401 Projects, 401 West Street, at Charles Street, West Village, (212) 633-6202.
Note: James Nachtwey won a TED Prize this year, as reported from the scene by Ethan Zuckerman on Worldchanging global. - Ed.