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Can a photograph change the world? Meeting with two of the world’s most committed photographers

06 Oct 2011
Olympic Museum

Agora on 21 September 2011 at The Olympic Museum

21 September was International Peace Day and the time for a fascinating discussion, when The Olympic Museum brought together two of the greatest contemporary photo-reporters, James Nachtwey and David Burnett, for an exclusive meeting.

One mission: to bear witness

For James Nachtwey and David Burnett, the mission of the photo-reporter is to bear witness. It is about giving a voice to the people who live through war, showing what words cannot describe, what, sometimes, the authorities want to hide. For them a photo must be very moving to tell the story of what is really happening. During this exceptional evening, all the guests were in turn surprised, often horrified and sometimes touched by the photos presented by their authors. As underlined by Gianni Haver, Professor of Image Sociology at the University of Lausanne, it is a rare opportunity to hear the comments of the photos’ authors. And this is just what the Agora’s guests had.

History with a small “h”

James Nachtwey confided at this meeting that he “photographs history, not with a big H, but with a small h”. For over 30 years, he has travelled the world to photograph conflicts, and the ravages of famine and disease. When Jean-Philippe Rapp asked him what drives him and if he is always ready to take on a job despite everything he has seen and experienced, Nachtwey replied modestly that his only aim was to help people understand the conflicts, and that he would never stop telling stories through his photos. For him, photography is a real vocation.

From war to sport

From an early age, David Burnett wanted to understand the power of photographs. At 25, he bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam, then at war. Though he too has witnessed the most terrible atrocities of war (his photos of children burned by napalm have been seen around the globe), he has also chosen to turn to peaceful battles. Keen on sport, he has taken photos of the Olympic Games for over 20 years. What interests him about sports photography is endlessly trying to find the image that will go down in history. With respect to this, Gianni Haver, as a specialist, wanted to know at what moment you know you have “the” picture. The two photographers replied with one voice: you don’t know. You just try to anticipate, create an opportunity, be in sync with the events and follow the crowd.

Unplanned, improvised and unpredictable

Even the way the media pick up a photo cannot be predicted. Jean-Luc Iseli, a former co-editor-in-chief of “L’Illustré” magazine, asked about the relationship that the photographer maintains with the use of his shots by the media. The reply from James Nachtwey was simple: if the aim of making people aware is achieved, he accepts the rules.

The discussion could have continued for a lot longer. Members of the audience, who were fascinated, would undoubtedly have had many more questions to ask these two giants of photography… As to the question “can a photo change the world?” the answer is “yes, undoubtedly”. But photographing conflicts is above all speaking about peace in an attempt to restore hope.

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