2008 President’s Award: James Nachtwey + Speech

"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 message above is James Nachtwey’s statement to the world on the opening page of his Website. There are few major conflicts to which the photographer has not been a witness. Starting in Northern Ireland in 1981, Nachtwey has traveled the globe as the world‘s premier war photographer. His stark, tragic images span every major conflict since then, including the wars in the Middle East, the former Yugoslavia, Africa, Chechnya and Iraq. He was in New York on September 11, 2001, and his photos of the destruction of the World Trade Center are among the most powerful of the thousands of images produced by that disaster. A contract photographer for Time since 1984, Nachtwey has won the Overseas Press Club‘s Robert Capa Gold Medal—for photography from abroad requiring exceptional courage—an unprecedented five times. In 2003 he was severely injured when a terrorist threw a grenade into the military vehicle in which he was riding in Iraq. In recognition of his unsurpassed contribution to international journalism, the OPC chooses Nachtwey as the 2008 recipient of its President’s Award.

Nachtwey has been there with his camera at almost every major international news event of the past 25 years. Above, ground zero on 9/11. Below, the West Bank, 2000. Right, a woman cares for her sick child in West Darfur, Sudan, 2004.

Nachtwey’s OPC Acceptance Speech

It seems like last week that I attended my first OPC dinner, but it was in 1984. It really goes fast. The span of a career or of a lifetime is like the blink of an eye in the great scheme of things — but in that nanosecond of eternity, think how much we see and how much we are given to learn. We witness injustice and cruelty, suffering, greed, arrogance, betrayal. But we also learn the value of integrity, tolerance, respect, loyalty, trust, kindness, compassion, courage, friendship, humor — all in a heartbeat within the immensity of time. Things, that if we were lucky, our parents taught us, and we then spent our lives learning for ourselves – lessons that as journalists we use as weapons against darkness, searching for the best within ourselves and aiming our work at the best instincts of our audience.

One of the things we learn is the value of teamwork. Getting the story right and into the public eye requires the hard work and dedication of a lot of people. As a freelance, I’ve been extremely fortunate to have worked with many of the best in the business, and I want to thank every one of you.

Through the years, since 1984, my professional home and family has been Time Magazine. I’ve worked with inspired editors from Ray Cave to Jim Kelly to Richard Stengel. The photography department at Time has been nothing less than brilliant, and I count my lucky stars to have been part of their team. Whatever I might have brought to the table wouldn’t have counted for much unless they believed in me and empowered me to keep going out there. My heartfelt thanks to a long line of devoted colleagues — to name just a few — Arnold Drapkin, Robert Stevens, Alice Gabriner, and MaryAnne Golon, who I met when she was an intern and we were both starting out and who is now director of photography at Time. And very special Thanks to the person who for 19 years was my champion and guardian angel, Michele Stephenson. You’ve all made a place for me, and whatever recognition I’ve ever received belongs just as much to you. I’d also like to honor my colleague, Michael Weisskopf, who made a huge sacrifice that saved my life and the lives of two American soldiers in Baghdad. Thank you, Mike.

As journalists who report from abroad, we all know the value of colleagues who often go unsung — the fixers and translators and drivers who take such great personal risks and who work with such devotion to make what we do possible. Whatever abilities we might have, we absolutely need the assistance of people who know the language and the culture and how to navigate hostile terrain. I don’t know how many times I’ve only been as good as my driver. They love their countries. They truly value journalism. When we leave, they stay. I think it’s only fitting that I dedicate this award to our colleagues from foreign lands who have given all of us so much.