James Nachtwey & the Campaign Against XDRTB ~ Caught in the Conventions of Photojournalism
his mother at Svay Rieng Provincial Hospital, Svay Rieng, Cambodia.
Family members provide much of the personal care at hospitals in
the developing world. Photograph & Caption © James Nachtwey/VII
Let's start with the obvious, since I want to talk about what I think are more important things. James Nachtwey is an extraordinarily talented photographer. In his work he has captured the dangers and depravities of war and famine and other forms of systematic, man-made devastation. And he's done so in ways that have proven both profound and powerful. It is perhaps only a slight overstatement to say that he is unrivaled. Yet, despite his own admirable aims, Nachtwey is operating within conventions that are highly constraining.
O.K. - now for the critical part. Here I am prompted by this post Jörg Colberg made at Conscientious yesterday.** Jörg used a recent undertaking by Nachtwey to raise a set of general critical questions about photojournalism. He is uneasy about the genre and its conventions - at least as these operate in our current circumstances.
Background: Last year Nachtwey won a TED Award. As part of that extravaganza, winners are granted "wishes." Nachtwey used his wish to request help in mounting a campaign that he was then working on. At the time the subject remained "secret." Earlier this month a coordinated publicity campaign revealed that the subject is the prevalence and spread of extremely drug-resistant Tuberculosis (XDRTB). Nachtwey had traveled to a half-dozen countries (Cambodia, South Africa, Swaziland, Thailand, Siberia, Lesotho, India) to photograph the epidemic. His stated his wish this way:
“I’m working on a story that the world needs to know about. I wish for you to help me break it, in a way that provides spectacular proof of the power of news photography in the digital age.”You can find the web site for the Nachtwey's campaign here. Like Jörg, I resisted the multiple pleas I received (directly and indirectly) to post on the project and thereby publicize the campaign. Like Jörg too, I have various reservations. And like Jörg not just the campaign but my own reservations make me uneasy.
Jörg focuses his attention on the content - more accurately, on the conventional style - of the images Nachtwey has made. He finds the images troublesome; so do I. But I want to put that off for a bit. That is because I think the ways - the tacit purposes for which - the images are deployed is troublesome too. Indeed, Nachtwey's style is crucially, a reflection of the way he understand the aims of his campaign.
 Nearly all public problems, actual or threatened, tend to be aggregate phenomena - think of epidemic, forced displacement, war, famine, etc. None of Nachtwey's images, however, give any sense of that basic fact. This is true of this project, but is true as well of his earlier work.* He not only focuses on individuals but does so in an especially intimate way. This is intentional; in this interview following the publication of his book Inferno, he observed:
“Virtually every picture in Inferno was made at close range. I like to work in the same intimate space that the subjects inhabit. I want to give viewers the sense that they’re sharing the same space with a photo’s subject.”In this respect, Nachtwey's work epitomizes the conventions of American (at least) photojournalism - think of such iconic images as Walker Evans's portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs or Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother.' The problem is that by presenting individuals as the exemplars of collective or group circumstance, we too easily lose sight of the aggregate nature of the phenomena and become absorbed in the pathos of individual hardship and suffering. The image I've lifted above - the pietà transported to contemporary southeast Asia- is a perfect example.
 The aim (at least tacitly) of photojournalistic conventions is to elicit 'compassion' among viewers in hopes that they will move from compassion to some political (collective) response. In the "Afterward" to Inferno Nachtwey makes this explicit:
“What allows me to overcome the emotional obstacles inherent in my work is the belief that when people are confronted by images that evoke compassion, they will continue to respond, no matter how exhausted, angry or frustrated they may be.”Unfortunately, as I've noted here before solid psychological research (by, say, Paul Slovic) suggests that this move is virtually impossible. This research establishes that compassion is highly individualistic - it founders more or less immediately if we move from concern for one individual to concern for as few as two. Yet, any plausible remedy to a major (or even not-so-major) public problem requires not just individual "awareness," but concerted, coordinated action. And that action must aim to remedy general patterns. Even if one were to insist that public awareness is a first step, it would be important to establish how - by what mechanisms - that public awareness could be coordinated into action or even support for action. All this is a political problem - one of constituting a 'we' out of the vast distribution of individual awareness. As political theorists as diverse as John Dewey and Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt remind us, we should not be naive about the obstacles and difficulties that stand in the way here. My own view is that campaigns animated by celebrity are unlikely to be effective.
 The TED Awards, at best, are a recognition of accomplished individuals, prizes that allow them to pursue some 'wish' in a more or less ad hoc manner. Nachtwey fits the bill. There is no sense in which there is a permanent or even persisting organizational outcome to his campaign. This is not meant as a criticism but as a description of the situation in which he is operating.
Nachtwey's campaign has emerged as a philanthropic enterprise in which various firms donated talent and labor of various sorts. This becomes clear in the credits to the XDRTB.org web page:
"XDRTB.org is a project of the Sapling Foundation, a 501(c)(3) organization. © 2008 XDRTB.org. All Rights Reserved. Design donated by Radical Media. Website design and development by Mammelfish. Site hosting donated by PEER1. Video on demand donated by Akamai."All neatly tax compliant or, at least, set up to be able to claim tax credit. But note - the tax code precludes non-profits form acting politically. The funding mechanisms here insure that this plague will be defined as a problem of charity or philanthropy. And the providers in the field - all good NGOs - rely on the same sorts of funding. Again, I am not criticizing - I make monthly contributions to Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières, but I also understand that that is necessary as a remedial gesture and in no way constitutes political action.
 Here we arrive back at Jörg's worries. He is concerned that Nachtwey's photographs (and not just his) are not effective in the same way that similar work has been in the past. This is a crucial worry since, as Nachtwey himself makes clear in his 'wish,' his aim is to establish the continuing relevance of photography in a 'digital age.' Yet, if what I have claimed here is close to being on point, it is unlikely that photojournalism ever had demonstrable effects of the sort that either Nachtwey or Jörg are ascribing to it. Here I think Sontag is correct when she insists that photography has important effects largely when it is taken up and used by those who already are engaged in some movement or other.
Recall that, as I noted here early on, Evans and Lange and others were "embedded" in a government program, not in a philanthropic organization. Recall too that their work - like that of virtually every other photographer I find compelling, including Nachtwey - trespasses across the conventional boundaries of photojournalism and art photography. (I've made the case here and here that that distinction is more or less useless as a guide to thinking about photography and how it is used.) It seems to me that Nachtwey's campaign will be most successful if - beyond perhaps attracting attention and funds to relieving the pain and suffering of those with XDRTB - it prompts a re-thinking of how we use photography in such cases. This is where, I think, Jörg and I and perhaps even James Nachtwey, might agree.
* If you are interested in Nachtwey's previous work, I recommend Susie Linfield, “Beyond the Sorrow and the Pity,” Dissent (Winter 2001), pages 100-106.
** Jörg has just added this helpful update to his first post.