CULTURE- ART FEATURE- This tragic moment: Nachtwey bears witness

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The second time I viewed photographer James Nachtwey's exhibition, "The Unvanquished," I was alone in Les Yeux du Monde, save for a Festival of the Photograph worker re-hanging a few pieces. I moved slowly through Nachtwey's powerful images of violence and human suffering, my head reeling and my chest tightening. By the time I reached a mosaic of black and white photographs documenting a Romanian orphanage and saw the stark picture of a small naked child crouched at one end of a rusting, mattress-less bed frame, the tears fell. I stood, noting the balance of the composition– the child on the right, a stain running across the floor on the left– and wept for its subject.

Nachtwey's show is crushingly sad. 

And shatteringly beautiful. 

Although the images are emotionally wrenching, you must see them. Nachtwey, winner of numerous photographic and humanitarian awards, is doing vital work. 

A self-taught photographer who began his craft in the 1970s studying the photojournalistic images of the mid-20th century greats– Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith– Nachtwey says he is less interested in making art than in moving people to act. 

"My pictures aren't about photography," he said during his recent Festival of the Photograph appearance at the Paramount. Instead he wants his work to mobilize aid to areas of the world in need.  

Nevertheless, his images are aesthetically stunning. A photograph of Pakistani heroin addicts is almost entirely black except for two seated figures illuminated from above, the shadows of bars crossing their worn bodies. In a shot from Afghanistan, two pairs of legs straddling a tank's gun barrel dangle into the frame, creating a jagged outline of negative space on the left that echoes the skyline of shelled ruins on the right.

Nachtwey's skill at composition is so exquisite that it's easy to momentarily forget the gravity of his content, only to have it jerk you back to awareness. His color images introduce yet another gorgeous element that simultaneously distracts from and enhances the drama of the moment, especially evident in his images of 9/11.

Discussing his firsthand experience of the Twin Towers collapse, he said, "It was like so many other places I'd been. Everyone was running this way, and I was running that way." Because Nachtwey has the courageous compassion to head into the world's maelstroms, we should be brave enough to see what he brings back. 

In his words, "Witnessing pain and sadness is an act of love."

James Nachtwey's exhibition, "The Unvanquished," is on view through June at Les Yeux du Monde. 115 South St. 973-5566.