Time Stands Still: “these pictures are my testimony”

posted by Carlyn Aquiline, Literary Manager and Dramaturg

I mentioned in my post on Saturday about Time Stands Still—and Tracy (our artistic director, who’s directing) has been mentioning in the press—that the play’s heart is personal, about the relationship between the main character, Sarah, and her boyfriend, James. But playwright Donald Margulies was exacting in the character detail he created for Sarah as a conflict photographer and James as a war correspondent, and in certain references to how they operate in a war zone. One of the sources I came across early in my research that ended up being essential to all of us—Tracy and me during our pre-production preparation, and then the cast once they were here in residence—was a documentary film called War Photographer, about the photojournalist James Nachtwey, considered by many to be the greatest war photographer of all time. Much footage was caught by a tiny video camera attached to the top of his camera, allowing us to virtually see through his lens as he’s shooting photos in Kosovo, Jakarta, and the West Bank, among other places. In between, Nachtwey—a quiet, reserved man—speaks eloquently about the importance of his work, and the apprehensions that come along with it. On his website he says, “I have been a witness, and these pictures are my testimony. The events I have recorded should not be forgotten and must not be repeated.” The theme of “witnessing” is huge in Time Stands Still, so it’s exciting that in War Photographer we get to witness the witness in action. See clips from the film, starting at this YouTube page, and exploring along the right margin for additional clips from there:


Nachtwey also wrote of suffering and of the conflicted feelings that many war photographers speak of in another of our key sources, an excellent book called Shooting Under Fire: The World of the War Photographer, edited by Peter Howe. In it he says:

It’s not easy to witness another human being’s suffering. There’s a deep sense of guilt—not that I caused the situation, but that I’m going to leave it. At some point, my work will be finished, and if I’m lucky, I’m going to get an airplane and leave. They’re not.

            It’s a hard thing to say, but there’s something a bit shameful about photographing another person in those circumstances. None of this is easy to deal with, but overcoming emotional hurdles is just as much part of being a photojournalist as overcoming physical obstacles. If you give in, either physically or emotionally, you won’t do anybody any good. You might as well stay home or do something else with your life.

            People understand implicitly when a journalist from the outside world shows up with a camera, it gives them a voice they wouldn’t otherwise have. To permit someone to witness and record at close range their most profound tragedies and deepest personal moments is transcendent. They’re making an appeal; they’re crying out and saying, “Look what happened to us. This is unjust. Please do something about this. If you know the difference between right and wrong, you have to do something to help us.” It’s that simple, that elemental.

            I try to connect with people in a very respectful manner, to let them know that I appreciate what they’re going through. I’m not there to threaten them. I’m not there to exploit them. I’m there to give them that voice, and I want them to understand that I feel respect for them and for what they’re experiencing.

            But it takes a toll. You carry a weight, you carry a sadness, you carry anger and guilt. And it doesn’t go away; if you have a conscience, you carry it with you, always. Sometimes I think it’s ruined my life, and other times I think it’s given my life meaning.

To hear more from James Nachtwey—and to understand why he had such an impact on the artists of our production—check out this 20-minute video where he accepts his 2007 TED Prize, shows his life’s work, and asks TED to help him continue telling the story with innovative, exciting uses of news photography in the digital era:


And to see Nachtwey’s photos, see his website at http://www.jamesnachtwey.com/


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