Would You Die For The Photo? An Eerie Peek at War Photography


Nachtwey at work in South Africa

UPDATE: James Nachtway was just reported shot a couple of hours ago in Thailand. Wound was to his left leg – no bones hit…and of course Nachtway went immediately back to work Saw it here in Time mag. Makes the post below all the more intense IMHO! Respect and quick healing wishes to Nachtway!
I’m no photojournalist – but I have huge respect for those men and women who put themselves in dangerous zones, risking their lives, to show the world some of its most important (horrifying) images. I’ve been asked before if I’d consider taking pictures in the line of fire and my answer is simple: Hell No. I just do not have the balls. Hang me out a chopper, put me on the side of a rock wall or a mountain face, I’m game. Guns and bombs aimed at you? I’m out. Thankfully, however, there are others who are compelled to risk their lives for the shot that tells the story.

I’ve long been a fan of the work famed photojournalists James Nachtwey, Larry Burrows and João Silva and was recently again reminded, through a conversation with a friend about war zones in Africa, of the power that photography (and photographers) have to effect change in the world. These three photographers all have riveting stories about how they have pointed their cameras at the extreme edge of human experience to show us all what is happening — in places that most people would rather not go. They go to hell-zones and aim their pictures at our opinion, so we can make up our minds, from the couch. The consistent motivation for these three photographers – and the many others I have met and admire – is an unshakable belief that there is a vital story that must be told. Hats off to them.

Nachtwey. Photography legend James Nachtwey, who was the subject of the Academy Award nominated 2002 documentary War Photographer, says in the film,

For me the strength of photography lies in its ability to evoke a sense of humanity…used well it can be a powerful antidote to war. In a way, if an individual assumes the risk of placing himself in the middle of a war in order to communicate to the rest of the world what it is happening – he is trying to negotiate for peace.

The full video clip of this quote is here. Christian Frei’s film War Photographer follows Nachtwey. With a meta technique of filmmaker shooting photographer, Frei follows the brave veteran for two years while traipsing into violence and suffering.  The film discusses Nachtwey’s motivations and how he deals with taking on all the pain of the world.  Check out the film’s website here and for Nachtwey’s moving Ted Talk click here.

Burrows. Larry Burrows, whose had a history of creating insanely powerful work from Southeast Asia from the late 60s and early 70s, helped to bring the Vietnam war’s ugly truth to the world.


Larry Burrows - Photo: Roger Mattingly, Digital Journalist

His photos in Life magazine brought the reality of America’s deep involvement in the jungles of Vietnam. Photos, like the one below, “Reaching Out,” came to encompass and translate the long and sad campaign and helped to shift public opinion of the war – which ultimately played a large role in America’s withdrawal from Vietnam. Burrows paid the ultimate price for this work when he and three other photo journalists were killed when their helicopter was shot down over Laos in 1971.

Silva. Sometimes the price these photographers pay is shy of death, but still severe. Like so many soldiers, photo journalist João Silva lost both his legs stepping on a land mine in Afganistan. Silva explains:

“I’ve spent enough time out there for my number to come up. I was one of the few who kept going back to Iraq. People think you do this to chase adrenaline. The reality is hard work and a lot of time alone. Firefights can be exciting, I’m not going to lie, but photographing the aftermath of a bomb, when there’s a dead child and the mother wailing over the corpse, isn’t fun. I’m intruding on the most intimate moments, but I force myself to do it because the world has to see those images. Politicians need to know what it looks like when you send young boys to war. If it’s humanly possible, if the prosthetics allow me, I’ll go back to conflict zones. I wish I was in Libya at the moment, without a shadow of a doubt.”

As of this writing, Silva is back to work as a New York Times photographer. Check out his work here.

Below are a selection of photos from Nachtwey, Burrows and Silva, plus a handful of other famous shots, from the midst of the hell of war. A respect for those willing to die for the story. #Gratitude


Afghanistan 1996 - James Nachtwey


Larry Burrows - Vietnam 1966, "Reaching Out"


Kosovo 1999 - James Nachtwey


Anbar Province, Iraq (Photo: João Silva)


Eddie Adams/ AP - Vietnam

ChaseJarvis_EugeneSmith -TimeLife:Getty Images

Eugene Smith/Time -Life/ Getty Images - World War II


Larry Burrows - Vietnam


Vietnam - Nick Ut/AP


[A 2011 Guardian special report on the life of a war photographer collecting blurbs from photogs on why they do what they do. Read the full piece here — note that there are some graphic images involved.]

32 Responses to Would You Die For The Photo? An Eerie Peek at War Photography

  1. Mark January 24, 2013 at 9:16 am #

    War Photographer is a fantastic film, and really shows the compassion and humanity that James Nachtwey has. Another good film is the currrent documentary on Don McCullin. Well worth a watch if you can: http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2013/jan/06/mccullin-review-documentary-don-mccullin

    • Pujan January 24, 2013 at 8:20 pm #

      Thanks for your suggestion on War Photographer.
      Really thought provoking. As he said, I guess the society has deeply drowned into commercial and celebrity nonsense to actually witness the brutal reality that common people face around the world.

  2. Rab January 24, 2013 at 9:18 am #

    Many, many have died. Just down the road from the Omaha beach in Normandy, France is the War Correspondents Memorial. Name after name engraved in stone following the tides of war around the world. It’s a sobering place but well worth the visit.

    • Tadeo January 30, 2013 at 7:34 am #

      Well, Normandy was a weekend party when compared with Stalingrad. ther´´s much of mistification around D day but the really heavy part of war was not France nor Pearl Harbor.

  3. Elaine January 24, 2013 at 10:08 am #

    James Nachtwey is the absolute best. I’ve followed his career for years.

  4. Scott January 24, 2013 at 10:09 pm #

    James Nachtwey’s Ted Talk is quite an eye-opener, and should be essential viewing for anyone to understand about war and humanity. Very recently, HBO released four documentaries on contemporary photojournalists: Witness: Rio, Witness: Juarez, Witness: South Sudan, and Witness: Libya. Photojournalist Eros Hoagland does both the Rio and Juarez segments, and they are quite good (especially the Rio one, as Brazil prepares for the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016 by “pacifying” the favelas, or slums). These are definitely worth checking out. Here is a link to the Witness: Rio website:


    Thanks for posting this, Chase. I have only the utmost respect for the photojournalists who risk their lives to show us the realities of war.

  5. EddieBaba January 25, 2013 at 2:15 am #

    “Hell no, we won’t go!” Some photographer’s also carried standard-issue M16’s, as well as their Nikon F, in the Vietnam War. In my early days, I assisted a product photographer who was an Army photographer in Vietnam in the sixties; he documented soldiers’ wounds in the morgue before they were put into body bags and sent back home. He told me that he’d jump up on the operating table, straddled over the soldier to quickly get the shots he needed; as he said, “the smell was pretty bad, so I worked fast.”

    As a commercial photographer, on his elaborate “big room sets,” using his large format camera, he had as many as 10 or more strobes going at a time and a lot of power, requiring numerous pops of the strobes (stopped way down) to get everything in focus. He shot tons of Polaroid and only film when it was perfect; as he always said, “I’m only as good as my last shot!” Being a perfectionist, he annoyed a lot of his assistants and stylist. But I learned a great deal from him, especially “not excepting anything less than my best shot” even if it bugs people!

  6. faisal January 25, 2013 at 7:20 am #

    These pics have a lot of depth.

  7. Ryan Brenizer January 25, 2013 at 9:28 am #

    Thanks Chase. Silva is also a member of the “Bang-Bang Club,” which is a great book and a flawed but compelling movie, which focuses not just on the way they put themselves out there, but the nuances of the psychology they need, as well as other issues like white privilege in African war zones, which (along with some precautions and a lot of luck) is what’s letting Nachtway take that shot without getting shot.

  8. John Miller January 25, 2013 at 9:51 am #

    This (Would You Die For The Photo? An Erie Peek at War Photography) is outstanding, Chase. It adds such an important perspective for those of us who follow your site/work.

    I only wish you would interview some of these “war” photographers and use your talents to help us learn about how they view their work – and how they see photography vis-a-vis video. These courageous photographers will soon be fading from view.


  9. Billy B January 25, 2013 at 4:49 pm #

    Don’t forgot about Robert Capa!

  10. Matt Black January 26, 2013 at 6:11 pm #

    These are all haunting.. I just recently finished watching the HBO series “Witness”. A lot of brave and amazing photographers out there.

  11. Joshua Balog January 28, 2013 at 8:23 pm #

    The military still has photographers and videographers carrying camera and gun into war. You don’t just have the past to look to, new images are uploaded daily to dvidshub.net and defenseimagery.mil. The photographers mentioned are amazing, but you should check out what the men and women in uniform today are doing.

    • Tadeo January 30, 2013 at 7:47 am #

      I agree on the quality side of the imagery but we all have to realize that the military photographers and photojournalists serve two different purposes. the job of a military photographer is to capture imagery that can be used as propaganda to give an adequate image of conflict for the military interests to the public opinion. i´´m not saying military photographers have no consciousness of the horrors of conflict, i´´m just saying their images are selected (perhaps not by them) to favour the “patriotic” and “heroic” over the raw reality of conflict. on the other hand, the vision of photographers like Nachtwey is to show what is happening in order to make people realize something is not right at all and maybe stop the thing by means of external (public) pressure.

  12. Jason February 1, 2013 at 6:30 am #

    The Vietnam Image always gets me, so much emotion is captured in that one shot. Without doubt one of the most famous pictures ever taken. I bet there are many more that have never got to the stage of development

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  19. John Donahue February 2, 2014 at 11:54 am #

    Thanks Chase, great piece. Their work is so important, and always makes me stop and think, yet I don’t often think about the story behind getting me those images.

  20. Aimee February 2, 2014 at 4:17 pm #

    The strength and will of a photographer’s drive to capture an image is based on each photographer’s personality.
    For the most part, many of us (photographers) shoot for the love of it regardless of the circumstances. If a photographer is covering a story knowing that it may pose some danger to them (war, gangs, environmental, etc) that is something that we are knowing when accepting a story.

    Sometimes it’s the fact of visually capturing the story for it’s political/social importance to the world is just enough to go as far as needed to get the images needed to complete the story.

    James Nachtwey has seen it all as a photographer! Gratefully his injury (today in Thailand) was minor enough that he could continue shooting. There’s many angels looking over photojournalists around the world. And many will keep going until their time has come to stop.

  21. David June 11, 2014 at 1:59 am #

    Very moving images showing the true atrocity of senseless war. Not for me as a photographer, but for those brave enough to do so, highlights what really goes on, pretty much always unnecessarily.

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