James Nachtwey’s Images of XDR-TB

In 2007, legendary war photographer James Nachtwey won the TED prize in honor of his life’s work documenting conflicts and social issues around the globe. In addition to awarding him $100,000, the prize also allowed him to make a wish that the TED fellows would assist him in fulfilling. His wish was to photograph an issue that had been under-documented and under-reported in the media: tuberculosis – a preventable, treatable, and curable disease that millions worldwide continue to suffer from. He is particularly concerned about mutations of the disease, MDR-TB (multi drug resistant) and XDR-TB (extremely drug resistant) which are considerably more difficult and more expensive to treat.

Last week I viewed the results of this project – an exhibit of his photos at 401 Projects gallery in New York City (open until March 25, 2010).  The large black and white prints tell a powerful and dramatic story, and it was incredible to see how Nachtwey uses every photographic tool at his disposal to make such compelling images.  The photos can be viewed on the XDRTB.org website, which also contains more information about the issue and the ongoing campaign against the disease.  After you look through the photos and just try to digest the story, I encourage you to go back and study why they are so powerful beyond simply the subject matter.  They are often photos of patients in bed or in treatment, but he has made them so much more.


Look at how he:

-uses composition, point of view, and light and shadow to strengthen and accentuate the essential subject.

-draws your attention to the subject he wishes to focus on, yet provides layers of information in the image that encourage further viewing and closer inspection.

-makes use of the element of time and captures a very specific moment, gesture, or emotion.

-uses basic compositional techniques of balance, scale, and line to create cohesive images.

I could go on, but as you can see, this is a wonderful opportunity to study how Nachtwey is using the most basic elements of photographic composition and design – ones that we have all learned about in photography books and classes and which we all have at our disposal to make our images stronger and more successful.

On the flip side, I ran across this blog post which challenges his use of traditional photo-journalistic conventions and visual language.  It is interesting to read and consider as well as you look at the photos.