‘Inferno‘, by James Nachtwey
Back in August, I’d spent 14 weeks in Kabul over the elections, which normally means that one resembles one of those tormented bears in a small zoo enclosure, swaying from side the side and trudging back and forth. Fantasising about all the things I could do once home constituted therapy and so I began to draw up lists, one of which was returning a faulty lens (you guessed it, E-mount Sony Zeiss). While logging into my account to arrange the lens exchange, Amazon dangled some book suggestions in front of my nose. With about thirty photo books on my wish list, it wasn’t long before fourteen books were on order, due to arrive about when I got home. Full points to Amazon; zero points for Tom’s powers of resistance.
I picked a selection of books I knew I wanted to own, along with a few I was far less sure about, but intrigued by. I always buy used books, where possible, but still choked a little at the final bill, but reminded myself of the years of pleasure and engagement they will give me. They will still be there, for every turn in my own photographic journey and they will change as I do.
Having just been home, I thought I would write up some quick reviews to give you an idea of what to expect, starting with Nachtwey’s ‘Inferno’.
First Impressions: I’m familiar with James Nachtwey’s work, but have never seen original prints or owned any of his books. My exposure has been via the web and printed media, where he maintains heavy commitments despite advancing age and injury. He’s a man well worth reading up on and his images are borne of the same passion that has led him to risk life and limb for so long. HIs images hit with force and so does this book. It’s HUGE. Aside from being thick enough to protect you against most medieval weapons, it’s long and deep (5.5 x 26.9 x 36.3 cm). I was expecting a large book, but I felt like I was standing on the deck of Orca, seeing Jaws for the first time, muttering, “we’re gonna need a bigger boat”, only I was thinking about my book shelf.
In many respects is a very simple book. Solidly built, with simple charcoal grey/black cover and thick off white pages. Certainly, the impression given is the one intended: ‘pow!” Leafing through the pages was a little bit of an anti-climax, however. The print quality is so-so, although I think the style was quite intentional. I found the images rather ‘news print like’ and therefore lacking visual depth, but I wonder if this was intentional. A similar key-line border surrounds each image and so a particular feel is generated. It is a flat, literal ‘in your face in front of you’ ambience, which I assume was a deliberate effort to de-romanticise suffering and steer well away from ‘the Salgado look’, which some find a little too pretty. Its the anti-aesthetic approach, however, I think they may have got it wrong. I ‘m not sure it enhances the work, but rather detracts from it because the lack of visual depth makes the images look less real. You are less absorbed and engaged as a result. Each appears more a representation than a reality and their content is seemingly less accessible; the human content that is. I feel less close to the subjects than I might have been and this was unexpected. Most of the images are double page spreads, which combined with the size of the book mean you need arms like Mr Tickle. Its like sitting on the front row of the cinema; you can’t take it all in at once and have to continuously scan and ‘build’ the complete image, which is tiring.
The imagery is all hard-hitting and there is no respite. It’s an assault on the soul from cover to cover; the sheer number of images depicting human horrors forming a liquid torrent that is unstoppable. Herein lies the book’s potency: sheer force and it does this very well. I would also venture that the book could have been edited more tightly, as there are quite a few images that seem weak and out of place. I would have preferred a smaller, leaner book with much better print quality and fewer double page spreads, although others may feel differently. Inferno receives high accolades in the reviews and I feel this way about Nachtwey’s work, absolutely, but less so about the book. It’s a tour de force, but perhaps one that is not quite in tune with how I like to engage with photographs and their content/message. Somewhere in the effort to knock you off your feet, the relationship between the viewer and the images after first impressions, got lost.
Bought new, this is one very expensive book. Even used, it is hardly cheap and right on the limit of what I was prepared to pay for a book, but despite what may seem to be criticism, I am very glad I now own it and will be able to explore it in my own way. This is not a book for the coffee table. It really does carry a weight well beyond its physical mass, exacerbated by its dry relentlessness. For me, it is a book to delve into and explore, but then to be closed firmly, respectfully and put away again before it’s weight leaves not a residue, but overwhelms.
I think it also highlights individual motivations and characters. I greatly respect James Nachtwey’s for undertaking his lifelong mission with such resolve and bringing these images to our attention, but I know I could not inhabit this world in his way. I found this work far darker than even Don McCullin’s Vietnam work and I am at a loss as to explain why, but this in itself is something to ponder. I also question whether there is something important missing: hope? ‘It’ feels defeated and may leave you feeling the same. I therefore have to wonder if this is the best way to empower and motivate people as agents of change. Mr Nachtwey is known to draw great strength from his deep personal faith and, to use an analogy, this book is ‘hell’. However, as all religions have recognised, in order to be truly motivated, we also need occasional glimpses of heaven too. This may all sound a little facile, after all the world is what it is, but it’s a question of what we allow ourselves to see and what we choose to show. It is not a case of delighting in the news anchor’s story of a puppy that was found safe and well after crossing the Atlantic on an empty oil barrel (after a piece on the Rwandan genocide), but recognising how human beings are motivated. Without hope, what is left?
If you are considering this book as a ‘big purchase’ at the expense of other books, I recommend you look elsewhere. You can buy two or three books for the same money, all with powerful content and excellent print quality. However, if you have a full collection of books and can afford it, (oddly) I do recommend this book. There are very few like it.
I bought my copy for about half price (used) on Amazon (http://www.amazon.co.uk/Inferno-James-Nachtwey/dp/0714838152). Aside from some dust that had gotten into the fabric on the front cover and a slight crush on the bottom right corner, its perfect.