James Nachtwey, a renowned war photographer, gave a presentation to KU students and communities in regard to the Common Book Program at 7: 30PM on March 2 in Woodruff Auditorium in the Kansas Union.
Nachtwey’s presentation was titled “The Unvanquished”. He showed a large amount of photographs that he shot and noted the stories behind each picture in chronological order. At the same time, he related his work to Henmingway’s novels, especially the 2015-2016 KU Common Book, “A Farewell to Arms”. In his lecture, he said it is important for the public to be able to view difficult pictures to discover sympathy and compassion. He said problems cannot be solved until they are identified.
The presentation drew a variety of people, including KU students, faculty and staff, photographers and community members from all around. Katie Pudas, a freshman studying journalism, said two of her journalism professors encouraged her to go to the event, and she thinks Nachtwey gave a great presentation.
“Before he came, I’ve see a few photos of his in different classes so I knew it was going to be difficult to see, and I would say that was right,” Pudas said. “I was impressed by the narration he gave of the photographs. He did a good job of explaining and putting it into perspective and just helping those of us who haven’t been in those situations understand what it’s like and the importance of the photographs, which I thought was really cool.”
Pudas said his work amazed her, and she thinks the photographs of his are impactful. She said the images that stuck out the most are about a woman in Somalia, who looks like a skeleton and about children in war zones. She said the presentation not only struck her visually, but also made her reflect.
“He put stuff in perspective…just how much privilege that we have living where we live and what our daily problems are…” Pudas said, “it helps check yourself almost; we’re really lucky and we need to do what we can to help those people, which I think is the goal why he goes out and photographs these awful things, so people are aware of what’s going on and they are able to help make a difference.”
Pudas also said she agrees with his point that the world ignores issues like this, and she personally thinks these issues is rather like a matter of making a choice of human lives than a matter of making a political choice on whether or not those lives are worth to be saved. She said she also thinks media have to focus on how to prioritize on reporting by adhering to journalism ethics.
“I think what he was talking about was really the core of journalism in how there’s a duty to report what’s ethical and giving a voice as in helping things to be seen that are normally overlooked,” Pudas said, “I think that’s why a lot of students in journalism school are in the journalism school, because they really value that.”
Unlike Pudas, Jeff Jacobsen,Staff photographer for the Kansas Athletic Department andAndrew Hartnett, a student at Johnson County Community College, knew Nachtwey beforehand, and they appreciate the chance of seeing him speak. Jacobsen said he thinks Nachtwey help all photographers and all people to study the history of photography and understand where we came from and where we are going. He also said he respects Nachtwey’s work, the ways he accomplishes what he does, and his impacts on the next generation.
“(What struck me the most is) his commitment to do the very best that he possibly can at whatever expense it takes both physically and mentally,” Jacobsen said. “The essence that he talked about in all his photographs of getting in close and be there and being a part of what is going on. Too many young photographers don’t understand that and really truly do need to do that.”
As a photographer, Jacobsen said he feels humbled, but he also realized there’s a need for great photography in all aspects of life, not just in war or conflict.
“The lessons that you can learn from the way he approaches how he goes about his work and the passion that he brings to it and the conviction in his heart, that’s what all people that pick up a camera should do,” he said. “Its not about shooting a quick snapshot, slapping a filter on it on your phone and thinking that you’ve made a piece of art. This is true art.”
Also a big fan of Nachtwey, Hartnett appreciated that his presentation is rich and detailed, and he said his work leaves him speechless.
“I feel like I have plenty of mixed feelings and sense of anger, or sadness or just feeling kind of robbed,” Hartnett said. “You feel sort of…there’s no word for it… You can’t explain the type of work like that.”
The images that struck Hartnett the most were the pictures Nachtwey took in Rwanda, especially, the images of “a human skeleton crawling in the feeding center” and “the guy holding up the white flag in between no-mans land.” Other than the strong visuals, he said he learned a lot on the technical side from Nachtwey’s presentation as well.
“The composition is very stunning,” Hartnett said, “It’s sophisticated and of course I feel like there’s that element, and there’s just that pure emotional content. There’s the intimacy. It’s how close he is to his subject.”
Just like Pudas, Hartnett said Nachtwey’s work has the potential to encourage changes in providing help to the needy.
“The key point that he was making is that great photography, any kind of work of that nature really can affect people and they can cause them to act, because they finally have the knowledge or a stimuli to act on from that. I feel like that’s the most powerful thing.”
Carol Holstead, the Associate Professor in the School of Journalism said it was her who came up with the idea of inviting Nachtwey to talk to the KU community.
“I knew James Nachtwey, and I’ve admired him for so long,” Holstead said. “I and many many other people, especially photographers are in awe of him, and then I just said, ‘yeah, we should invite James Nachtwey. He’s this incredibly amazing war photographer and has done so much for humanitarian causes.’”
Holstead said despite the change of schedule, they still had a great turnout. According to Holstead, except the KU community, many photographers came to Lawrence, and the journalism school held a reception for those photographers to meet James Nachtwey.
“As soon as he walked in the room, it was like fans; it was like this little clutch of students or something who are just in awe of him,” Holstead said. “I looked over at one point, and they were just all standing around, including this one Pulitzer Prize winner, but they were… gazing upon him. They didn’t even know what to say to him, like they were talking to their idol. It was really charming and it was really funny.”
Holstead also said the presentation really drew out some people who deeply know his work and feel magnified in his presence. She said there were people coming from Philadelphia and Omaha Newspaper.
According to Holstead, Nachtwey showed more than she had expected.
“I knew he would show work and I knew it would be beautiful, but what I wasn’t expecting was the depth of his presentation and the very deep thoughtful way he connected A Farewell to Arms to the photographs he had taken, which made that presentation work on so many levels for students, because it shows how his work is the same but also different from Hemingway’s work and perspective,” Holstead said.
Holstead also said she appreciates his hard work on preparing for the presentation to make it more meaningful. She said the most difficult images for her to look at are the ones involving children.
“Because children are innocent victims and they’re like animals,” she said, “You can’t really explain to them what’s happening to them and why. So those pictures of children who are being warehoused in Romania just ruined me.”
Holstead also these images make her feel helpless in that she is unable to do anything about their situations. However, she thinks that his work might energize the next generation in encouraging journalism students to have a humanitarian focus or work for non-profits, or in general, just becoming more sympathetic.
“It’s just a way to sensitize people to the pain and suffering that we want to turn away from because it’s just easier not to think about it,” she said.
According to Holstead, Nachtwey produces both moving content and great quality in his photographs. Furthermore, she thinks the affect of his work has substantial influence.
“We are human beings and the things we see can affect us deeply and we forget. We move on,” Holstead said, “But I think that will lodge it somewhere in people’s brains, so wherever they are, they see someone struggling, they may think about in their own community people who don’t have enough food or need some kind of care.”