Article by Peter Maass

James Nachtwey’s Inferno

George  |  December 1999
For more than a decade, photographer James Nachtwey has chronicled the war zones of the world—Rwanda, Bosnia and Chechnya among them. Now, a new book, Inferno, brings us his vision of hell on earth.

When you drove into wartime Sarajevo along Sniper Alley, you passed a wall that bore the slogan “Welcome to Hell.” This dark greeting would be appropriate for each of the bloodied nations that photojournalist James Nachtwey visited in the last decade of the twentieth century. Romania, Somalia, Sudan, Bosnia, Rwanda, Chechnya: These are just a few of the hells he came to know and photograph in his intimate and haunting way. As you turn from one page to another of this chilling book, you are repelled and captivated at the same time. The starving of Sudan, the corpses of Bosnia, the mutilated of Rwanda, the orphans of Romania—you want to avert your gaze from them, but you cannot. Look, the photos demand, Keep looking. Do not turn away. Horror takes hold, deeper than you expect. After all you have seen on the evening news, how can another set of dead or dying eyes have such a strong effect? It is simple, really. The awfulness and awesomeness of Nachtwey’s photos implicate not just the governments or warlords or thugs who are directly responsible, but anyone who could have done something and did not. Anyone is everyone. You. These hells are not of another world or another time. They are here, they are now. Viewing his photographs is as necessary as it was, in 1945, for German civilians to see the concentration camps they had lived next to. The purpose today is to provoke action, not guilt; the pictures are catalysts, not reminders. Nachtwey’s book could have no title other than the one he has chosen, Inferno