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Committed witness

© James Natchwey
© James Natchwey

In May 1998, major riots occurred in Jakarta (Indonesia) as a result of the economic collapse in all Asia. Thousands of demonstrators went to the streets to protest against president Suharto and it ended in a mass violence with hundreds of people killed. Reuters cameraman, Des Wright, saw American photographer James Nachtwey next to a church on fire and surrounded by dozens of furious Muslim people with machetes. The crowds captured three Christian men from Ambon Island and they killed them on the spot cutting them off in pieces. Then, they looked for a forth one through the streets. James followed the entire chase taking photographs in black and white of the Christian man with blood coming out on his face. Wright: “They were torturing him like children playing with a puppy. And James got down on his knees three times for twenty minutes begging and saying that there was no reason to kill that man. The crowds didn’t want to listen and killed him anyway.” And Nachtwey took the image of the final execution.

With this case I start my next essay (still in progress) that pretends to build an opinion on the difficult role of photojournalists as witnesses.

Maybe photographers won’t change the world (most probably not and they don’t have to), but their role is essential to wake consciences up and provoke opinion among the population. Some people assure that without journalism there is no democracy and freedom. Photographers must be there, in the front line, to let people know.

This job carries risks and difficulties. Photojournalists face many different kind of situations where they have to use their common sense. No one has rights to judge or blame them for doing or not doing when they are covering tragedies and atrocities. Their intervention into the real has to remain in their own privacy, because they can’t be forced. This fact can be obviously applied to the polemic image of Kevin Carter (who won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 photographing a starving child in Sudan stalked by a vulture), to the stunning photo of a cold execution in Saigon taken by Eddie Adams and it can be also applied to Jim Nachtwey when, spite of his pleas to stop the torturers of Jakarta, he finally photographed the assassination because he thought it had to be shown to the public opinion.

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