All great photographers start somewhere. Widely regarded as one of the world's most eminent image-makers, James Nachtwey began his career in the early 1970s. Fresh out of university, the American art history and political science graduate embarked on a journey that would see him document some of the most impactful global events of the past four decades.
The young photographer did not have any formal photographic training. All he had was a deep, unwavering conviction that photography was his calling. "I believed in it, and I believed I could do it," James told budding photojournalists during a talk at a Canon Student Development Programme seminar at the 2022 Visa pour l'Image International Festival of Journalism. "So, I began to teach myself. I rented a darkroom space, I borrowed a camera, I learnt how to develop a film and make prints.
"I would go to bookshops and stand in the aisles looking at books by great photographers, putting them back on the shelves because I didn't have enough money to buy them. I had great mentors who I'd never met, and I learnt from them by studying their work."
It took 10 years, he says, "before I felt the least bit qualified to become a war photographer, which was my ambition". James has since been awarded the Robert Capa Gold Medal by the Overseas Press Club of America five times, the World Press Photo of the Year award twice, and has been recognised with numerous other accolades for his exceptional coverage of the events that shape our world.
After cutting his teeth as a newspaper photographer, James went freelance in 1980, spurred on by images of the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement. LIFE photographer Larry Burrows was a huge inspiration for James, as he found his images to be "tremendously moving and informative".
James' belief now, as it was early in his career, is that photojournalism is a powerful tool that can bring about positive change in the world. "I was driven by the idea that a war photograph could become an anti-war photograph," he explains. "An image of social injustice could become an indictment crying out for change. I believed people would care if photographers showed them something worth caring about. My motivation was to use photography to say something about, and to ask questions about, what's happening to people."