James Nachtwey's glossy and hauntingly beautiful war photographs are admired the world over, but is there an ethical risk of romanticising people's suffering?
At the opening of James' retrospective at Milan's Royal Palace, curator Roberto Koch invited eight photojournalists from around Europe to discuss the issue. Is beauty in an image detrimental to conflict coverage, or can documentary photography benefit from looking good – and indeed, are there wider-reaching risks or benefits from showing people multiple views of war zones?
Joining the discussion were Canon Ambassadors Alvaro Ybarra Zavala, Carolina Arantes, Daniel Etter, Ilvy Njiokiktjien, Magnus Wennman, Paolo Pellegrin, Mashid Mohadjerin and Simona Ghizzoni.
Roberto Koch: Do you feel that the aestheticisation of war photography and documentary photography is problematic? Or does it help make certain issues more acceptable to the viewer? And does this have any impact on your work?
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: I actually had a situation at the beginning of the year where I took a portrait of a family who were fleeing their home in South Sudan, and I used lights when I photographed them. The shot had a glamorous look to it somehow. It wasn't intentional – I just put the whole family together and took this picture – but it caused a big discussion in the Netherlands because it ended up on the front page of the main national newspaper, and people said the photograph was too aestheticised to show how dire the situation is in South Sudan.
Although I tried to participate in this discussion, I never really understood the major issue, because I think this picture reached a lot of people, and it was part of a series of pictures that did show the situation in South Sudan.
Mashid Mohadjerin: I think the problem is that people expect you to show misery in a horrifying, terrible way, whereas in most remote and desperate situations, there's also so much beauty. It's there already – we don't put it there. But people feel it's a contradiction to see beauty and war together, so it's not always accepted. It's difficult, because sometimes I catch myself looking for a more horrible situation than the one I'm looking at, and it doesn't make sense to make it look worse than it actually is.
Paolo Pellegrin: I think in the Western artistic tradition, beauty is what we have as the first layer. We see things through beauty, so beauty connects us to subjects. Form and shape and composition are the tools that we have as photographers to try to convey meaning. So I think that trying to make the best possible image not only honours photography, it also honours the subject. I'm always a little bit uncertain and uncomfortable when I hear the accusation: 'It's too beautiful.' Too beautiful compared to what?
The other key point is what Mashid was saying. One of the mysteries of life is that there is beauty in tragedy. It's not only one thing. Beauty can exist in an act of courage – when you feel the human spirit wanting to overcome a situation. I'm never offended by so-called beautiful images. I simply think, 'the photographer made the best effort to produce an image that was worthwhile'.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yeah, it's oversimplifying it if you think that an ugly image, or an image you've taken very quickly, which isn't well composed, is more honest.
Alvaro Ybarra Zavala: I think beauty is a great way to confront stigma and prejudice, such as Islamophobia. Photography can show the beautiful side of stigmatised topics.
Roberto Koch: I don't think photographers started this debate about beauty. I haven't heard of any photographer contesting the fact that a beautiful photograph could be a good photograph. It comes from the world of art criticism.
Mashid Mohadjerin: There's also the issue of the kind of images that come out of certain places. For example, photographers are still taking stereotypical images that feed the misconception that the whole continent of Africa is hungry and at war. We need to think about how we can show the other side of certain places, such as countries in the Middle East or Africa – perhaps the happy side, perhaps the other things that are happening, as opposed to only showing the miserable side.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: This came out of a colonialist way of thinking, back when all photographers came from the United States or Europe and went to far off, exotic places to take pictures that would shock the audiences back in their home towns. Unfortunately, I think we still have a little bit of that view when we go to certain places – we go to Sudan or to Somalia, and we think we have to show what we 'already know' about that place.
Daniel Etter: Yeah, people end up reinforcing the stereotype. But thankfully, I think there is counterbalance by local photographers.
Ilvy Njiokiktjien: Yes, but is their work being shown that much?
Daniel Etter: It's not being shown enough, but it exists.
Paolo Pellegrin: At the same time, we do have to show the news. I mean, there are horrible situations going on – for example in South Sudan now – so are we not going there to show that? The main thing is that we need to be respectful – I think that's something that also comes with the beauty that we're showing.
Roberto Koch: Do any of you set out to create shocking images, in order for your stories to have stronger impact?
Magnus Wennman: No, not shocking. I mean, when you do a story you have to find the best way to make the viewers understand it, and take it to their hearts. And that doesn't have to be done with shocking imagery – it can be done with compassion and respect, by showing people images that they can relate to and understand. A very quiet image can feel shocking to you if you can relate to it.
Paolo Pellegrin: When I think of the history of conflict photography, it's not the graphically shocking images that have had the greatest impact. It's the images that have a quieter way of telling a story and connecting emotionally with the viewer. Blood doesn't really work. You look at it, and you're shocked, but that's it, I think. The human connection always has more impact.
Carolina Arantes: I think it's a delicate issue. I find James Nachtwey's images very shocking, for example.
Paolo Pellegrin: You do?
Carolina Arantes: They're very strong, and sometimes it hurts looking at them. But I think the ethical standpoint behind the images absorbs the shock, to an extent. His image of the bodyguard saving the Syrian boy in Greece, for example, was a shocking image for me – but it's quite poetic too, and it has an ethical position. But beautiful or not, shocking or not, the question for me is: are the images really working? How can photography be effective in the current, messed-up global situation?
Roberto Koch: And do you have an answer to this question?
Carolina Arantes: No, I don't.
Simona Ghizzoni: Let me return the question to you, Roberto: as the curator of Nachtwey's exhibition, what's your opinion?
Roberto Koch: I think the main point is that the work by James is characterised by an ethical mindset. In that sense, his work is a good example of how a single image can have an impact by making people ask questions. I always thought that a good image should raise questions instead of giving an answer – because there's never an answer.
Daniel Etter: I think the real beauty of photography is that, in a sense, it's unfinished. You present your thoughts, your ideas and your emotional reactions. But then each time, the story is completed by the eyes of the viewer. So an image only really exists when it is seen, and each time it is perceived in a different way. I think that's a beautiful idea, because it means that it's not about you and the subject – there's also this vicarious entity, the viewer, who is part of the moment of creation.
Another crucial element is that these photographs are documents. The shocking, the not shocking, the silent, the colour, the black and white – these documents can be used to collect memories of history, but also to ensure accountability. And I think, ultimately, that's the most important thing. The form, the shape, and how it's done may differ, but at the root, documentary photography is a record of things that we do to each other. And I think that's a pretty big thing, to be engaged in the creation of these documents.
Alvaro Ybarra Zavala: I think the strength of Nachtwey's work is that it opens up questions about who we are, what we are like as a species, and why we're returning and making the same mistakes generation after generation.
Roberto Koch: Do you think a good photograph could be defined as good because of its necessity? Can it be powerful because it helps us to understand something, and because no other kind of document – or any other visual expression – could have the effect of that photo?
Alvaro Ybarra Zavala: Absolutely. Imagine a world with no photographers. And while there are ethical questions associated with shooting somewhere that's foreign to you as an outsider [because you risk bringing your preconceptions of a place into your photographs], it's always worth the effort of creating those documents. Otherwise we could all be left in the dark, and that would be very dangerous.
Read more about the Canon Ambassadors on the Canon Europe Ambassador Programme pages.