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James Nachtwey: Testimony to an Inferno

07/23/02 12:00AM By Lois Eby
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(Host) Weeks after friends urged her to see an exhibit of disturbing photographs at Dartmouth's Hood Museum, commentator Lois Eby is still reflecting on the unforgettable images.

(Eby) I studied the 20 or so photographs of James Nachtwey for over an hour. These are hard photographs to describe, not because the composition or lighting is complex, but because the subject matter is painful. Most likely you will know a lot about the photographs when I tell you where they were taken: Rwanda, Bosnia, Chechnya, Somalia, the Sudan, Afghanistan.

But the photographs move beyond known or expected images because of the photographer's skillful, perceptive and compassionate eye. Perhaps the most moving photograph for me, if I had to choose, would be one of a naked young girl, maybe three or four years old, her only covering an identification bracelet on her wrist. Dirty tears stream down her face in silent misery. She stands, while other children sit at her feet, too downcast and bereft even to cry.

A thick book containing the photographs on display and hundreds more was also in the gallery. While the show of photographs is no longer at the Hood, it's possible to seek out the book, called "Inferno," in libraries and bookstores or find reviews and images online. The word "Inferno" describes well the events to which Nachtwey bears witness, yet in the afterword to the book, Nachtwey speaks of how "our planet is being transformed from a divided place into a world united by a common existence and a shared history." He wants us to see and remember the events and people he photographs. He wants us to know that their history is now entwined with our own, a concept perhaps easier to grasp since September 11.

Nachtwey also states that "The trajectory of events in the final decade of the 20th century has been extremely painful." The nineties? Painful? I thought to myself. Was he unaware of the giddy highs of the American economy as the century came to a close? Was he not drinking lattes at Starbucks? I guess not.

In bringing together these images from a wide variety of devastated countries, Nachtwey offers us a more complete picture of our time. These photographs highlight the great disparity between rich and poor countries. Nachtwey also points to the actions of political and religious leaders who either cause or allow such suffering among ordinary people, either through negligence or in order to achieve their own self-serving goals. He puts into stark relief our own focus on material comfort. But most of all, in his photographs James Nachtwey shares his compassion and invites us to become engaged in the humane relief of a suffering world.

This is Lois Eby.

Lois Eby is a painter who comments on the arts, women's issues and civil rights.
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