If war is hell, is war photography a kind of sympathy for the devil? Can a man who depends on death for his livelihood also be a humanitarian? This Oscar-nominated portrait of one of the world’s most famous war photographers, James Nachtwey, dances around such questions, even as it accepts the American photographer’s view of himself as an antiwar photographer. Nachtwey has risked his life covering the major conflicts of the past two decades, including Rwanda, Bosnia, and El Salvador. He’s also a dedicated mass-market photographer whose commitment to his craft hinges on a faith in photography’s power to move not just the committed activist, but also the casual newsweekly subscriber.
Filmmaker Christian Frei provides only basic biographical details about his subject and declines to speculate on the sources of Nachtwey’s ambition. This sacrifice of context in exchange for you are there! immediacy — a miniature camcorder strapped atop Nachtwey’s Canon in the West Bank provides harrowing footage — is what makes War Photographer at once a frustrating and brilliant documentary.