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Documenting humanity

James Nachtwey, one of the greatest war photojournalists of our time, once said "photographers were telling people what was actually happening". As a result, from the beginning of his career, he has been determined to venture into dangerous conflict and war zones to document crucial issues and reveal them to the world.

Thanks to his extraordinary courage and dedication, Nachtwey has captured numerous vital images over the past 42 years. Recently, he brought a collection of 126 prominent images from global wars and natural disasters to display at “James Nachtwey: Memoria Exhibition”.

Organised by the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand, the exhibition at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre is a large-scale retrospective show that reveals the tragic effects of wars on both combatants and civilians.

“James Nachtwey: Memoria Exhibition” marks his debut in the Asia-Pacific region and unveils his latest images showcasing the current circumstances in Ukraine for the first time. With great support from the Royal Photographic Society of Thailand, visitors can enjoy this exhibition free of charge, while in other countries, visitors are required to pay for admission.

Life spoke to Nachtwey when he was in Bangkok for the exhibition opening. The 75-year-old American explained why he chose Bangkok as one of his exhibition venues.

Photojournalist James Nachtwey. (Photos: Royal Photographic Society of Thailand)

“Bangkok has been my base in Asia for many years. I have come to appreciate the culture, the people and the aesthetics of the country. Although I am not a Buddhist myself, I appreciate Buddhism very much. I also have many friends here. I wanted to give something back to Bangkok and this exhibition is my gift,” he said.

“James Nachtwey: Memoria Exhibition” depicts images of war, conflict zones and natural disasters such as agent orange, industrial pollution in Eastern Europe, the siege of Kabul, criminal justice in America, the attack on New York, genocide in Rwanda, and wars in Iraq and Ukraine. The photographs capture not just significant moments, but also convey a powerful and emotional narrative. Nachtwey’s work features a remarkable aesthetic quality, enhancing the visual impact of each image. Through his photography, Nachtwey reveals the truth about the experience of those affected, ensuring their stories are not forgotten.

With his 126 images, Nachtwey aimed to promote the recognition of humanity.

“We might have different nationalities, ethnic origins, religions and cultures, but there is something that unites all of us as human beings, regardless of the situation. A picture is made with a recognition of humanity. Each picture captures a moment in humanity. You can see how people express themselves through gestures and the look in their eyes. No matter what your background is, you can make a human connection. When that connection is made, changes become possible. Consciousness can evolve into a sense of conscience. And when this happens on a broad scale, that change is possible,” he said.

Ukraine, Bucha, 2022. (Photo © James Nachtwey)

Nachtwey continually emphasised the importance of independent press.

“It is essential that a free society has a free and independent press. The work of the press is essential for society to function where the citizens must be informed in order to make intelligent decisions themselves.”

The exhibition poster in Bangkok is titled Sudan, Darfur, 2004 and depicts a mother comforting her son, who was being cared for in a medical centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières. Nachtwey spoke of his time there.

“In 2004, there was another genocide being perpetrated against the people of Darfur which is a region of Sudan. There were a group of militias organised by the government of Sudan to attack people in Darfur, burn villages, destroy agriculture and kill people. As a result, many homeless people had to live in makeshift refugee camps and there was starvation and disease. I photographed that situation. This photo was taken in a small clinic in a very remote area set up by the NGO called Médecins Sans Frontières, one of the very few that was allowed to operate in Sudan.”

Ukraine was documented when Nachtwey was there for seven weeks. The photo Ukraine, Kharkiv, 2022, depicts a man fleeing with his bicycle, with a large flame behind him. Ukraine, Bucha, 2022, shows corpses of people in black bags, with half the face of one peering lifeless from a bag.

Sudan, Darfur, 2004.

The caption for the photograph says “those murdered by the retreating Russian forces were slowly collected and brought to the town cemetery for possible identification”.

“It has been important in helping establish international support for Ukraine by showing what is being done to the people and the lies being told by Putin, who says that it is not a war, it is not an invasion and they are not attacking civilians; all of those things are lies. The work of the press has made that very clear. We have documented what is happening on the ground; it has created great support for Ukraine and having this documentation has helped facilitate that,” said Nachtwey.

Nachtwey earned his degree in art history and political science from Dartmouth College in 1970. He was inspired to become a war photographer after seeing images from the Vietnam War and the US civil rights movement. Without a background in photography, he had to learn how to take photos by himself. After preparing himself to be ready in conflict and war zones for a decade, he began his freelance photography career by covering the Northern Irish hunger strikes in 1981.

“I went there on my own and started photographing what was happening in the streets. When I started to photograph this historical moment, I felt that this was the right thing for me to have chosen,” said Nachtwey.

War images from Ukraine.

Through his diligent work and exceptional images, Nachtwey’s work has been published in many international publications including Time, National Geographic, Life, El País and L’Express. In 2003, he was seriously injured in Baghdad when a grenade was thrown into the military vehicle he was in while accompanying soldiers on patrol. Despite his injuries, he continued working until he passed out.

“There was not much I could do. I was worried, but I had to keep working. My colleague had his hand blown off. The medic was taking care of the soldiers and my colleague because his hand was gone and I was less injured. I had two operations in Baghdad and then, in Germany. It took me a few months to recover and several months of therapy. After that, I went back to Iraq to document a story about military medicine. I photographed the medics who flew to the battle zones and worked in the combat field hospitals. It was like going through the looking glass because I was photographing many of the things that I had experienced myself,” he said.

As a war photographer, Nachtwey believes that the best part of his work lies in effecting change in dire situations.

“It has proved valuable to society and to the people who work in photography because we are working to change the situation, correct the injustice and bring recognition to what is being done to them.”

Effects of agent orange in Vietnam. (Photo: Royal Photographic Society of Thailand)

“James Nachtwey: Memoria Exhibition” runs on the 7th floor of the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre until Nov 26. Admission is free. For more information, visit

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