James Nachtwey on a Photo’s ‘Social Value’ and Forgoing a Family for His Work

Legendary war photographer James Nachtwey has appeared on 60 Minutes with Anderson Cooper to reflect on his career — discussing the importance of photography and his own personal sacrifices.

In a personal interview, Nachtwey describes why he has kept visiting conflict zones with his camera for over 40 years.

“I think it has real social value,” he tells 60 Minutes. “That before we can solve problems, we have to identify them. And I think the work of journalists and of photojournalists is to identify issues that need to be dealt with by society.”

‘A Still Photo Has a Power Unlike Anything Else’

Nachtwey says that he is “extremely conscious of hands and eyes” when he is photographing. “I think those are the two most expressive parts of people,” he says.

The above photo shows a survivor of a machete attack in Rwanda, Nachtwey says the man couldn’t talk so he approached him very slowly.

“I just made eye contact with him and I showed him my camera. He allowed me to take the picture, he even turned his face more toward the light without me asking,” Nachtwey tells Cooper.

“I don’t wanna feel like I’m taking from people. I want them to feel like they’re part of what I’m doing. And I think he understood what his scars would say to the rest of the world.”

Nachtwey highlighted the power of children in an image, over his career he has photographed young victims of Agent Orange in Cambodia, orphans locked up in squalid conditions in Romania, and a father protecting his wounded daughter in El Salvador.

“An image of a child in distress, when it’s seen by a parent anywhere in the world, will relate to that picture, it doesn’t matter their culture their nationality their religion, or anything else they’ll just make a human connection with that child it’s very natural,” says Nachtwey.

“And I think that’s the case with photography when you’re showing humanity and people react in a human way and all the other categories vanish.”


Nachtwey has been shot in the leg, and wounded by bombs, mortars, and grenades. It has taken a toll on him with shrapnel still lodged into multiple parts of his body and he has damaged hearing.

But because of his career, Nachtwey has forgone a normal life; making personal sacrifices so that he can pursue war photography.

“I decided a long time ago that if I was gonna do this, I would have to put myself at risk, and anything could happen,” he says.

“I realized that if I were to pursue what I’m doing, and I was very driven to do that, I wouldn’t be a good father, I wouldn’t be a good husband, and all that would fall apart. I just didn’t want that to happen. So I had to forgo it.”

It turns out that Cooper is himself a fan of Nachtwey, telling the photographer that it was he who got the broadcaster interested in journalism.

“We live in an age where journalism is, you know a lot of people don’t think very highly of it and to me, James Nachtwey is a great example of just how important it can be and how beautiful it can be and how moving it can be,” adds Cooper.