I used to think the tension in James Nachtwey’s photos came from the subject matter. Everything he shoots is so intense and scary how could there not be tension? I mean holy effing christ, you’re getting shot at or someone is telling you the horrors they experienced or you’re looking at the results of horrors they experienced and there’s got to be serious drama in any image made, right?
I sent Jim out on assignment once where I knew there was only the smallest percentage of a chance that something dramatic would happen. This is a very bad situation to send a photographer into, because the writer will draw on past events to manufacture drama when it doesn’t occur live which forces us into a situation where the editor wants to pull stock to create drama in the photography (I’m always on the lookout for these “traps” that are created when a writer oversells a story). When I heard nothing dramatic happened on the assignment I was prepared to be disappointed with the images not living up to the eventual rewrite of the story. But, hey wasn’t I surprised to see a couple images leading up to the drama that never happened, filled with tension and impending doom. Jim nailed it.
You see, the subject matter he shoots may be intense but Jim knows what he’s feeling or seeing doesn’t always translate directly to film so he uses the framing, timing and relationships between subjects and objects to create the tension.
Can you feel it?