The Hippo


Oct 14, 2019








James Nachtwey, Sign in Times Square, 2001 (printed 2014), digital chromogenic print, Currier Museum of Art, Manchester, New Hampshire. Museum Purchase: The Henry Melville Fuller Acquisition Fund, 2014.22.7. James Nachtwey.

Related upcoming events

Creative Studio: Celebrating Heroes Saturday, Sept. 12, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
Screening of War Photographer 
Sunday, Sept. 13, at 2 p.m. (nominated for an Academy Award)
Docent-led Exhibition Tour Sunday, Sept. 20, at 2 p.m.
Community Conversations: Life After Wartime Saturday, Oct. 17, at 2 p.m.
ARTalk: Photojournalists James Nachtwey and Greg Marinovich in Conversation Wednesday, Oct. 28, at 6:30 p.m. Discussion about challenges in documenting human conflict and what motivates them. $10.
See “Witness to History: James Nachtwey — Afghanistan, Ground Zero, Iraq”
Where: Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester
When: On view Sept. 11 through Dec. 14
Admission: Free during the weekend of Sept. 11 through Sept. 13 in remembrance of all those who died on 9/11 and in conflict overseas, $12 for adults, $10 for seniors, $9 for students, $5 for youth
Contact:, 518-4902
Send photos: If you want to send photos and personal stories to hang in the show, bring photocopies (originals will not be returned) and a 50-word caption during a visit or email them to


The art of war
Currier showcases James Nachtwey’s war and 9/11 photography

By Kelly Sennott

Some people run away from tragedy. Others, like James Nachtwey, run toward it — though in Nachtwey’s case, tragedy often finds him, which is how the war photographer found himself in New York City on Sept. 11, 2001.

The Currier Museum of Art’s latest show, “Witness to History: James Nachtwey — Afghanistan, Ground Zero, Iraq,” is on view Sept. 11 through Dec. 14 and takes a look at this tragedy and others he’s seen first-hand. 
About Nachtwey
Nachtwey was born in 1948 and graduated from Dartmouth in 1970. He began his documentary photographing career in 1980 and has spent the better part of it in war-torn countries. His portfolio? The break-up of Yugoslavia. The war in Chechnya. Civil unrest in Northern Ireland. The genocide in Rwanda. Liberation struggles in South Africa. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
So it was unusual that he was in his New York City loft the morning of Sept. 11. He’d flown in from France late the night before, according to an old Time magazine article. He’d only just had a cup of coffee when a crowd of people outside his window caught his eye. They were pointing up toward the sky — at the north tower of the World Trade Center, which was in flames.
Nachtwey packed his cameras, loaded the film he had and ran toward the disaster. The photos he took that day are among the most iconic images of the attack.
But by coincidence, Nachtwey had also photographed in Afghanistan in the early ‘90s when the Taliban had come into power and allied themselves with Al Qaeda. Post-9/11, he traveled back to the country and to Iraq to document the war.
Currier curator Kurt Sundstrom said Currier staff had been looking into acquiring some Nachtwey photos for the museum’s collection even before the 2013 photo exhibition, “Visual Dispatches from the Vietnam War.” But when he met Nachtwey in New York to see the work, it was hard to fathom just choosing a handful. It turned into eight. Then 10. Then 12.
“And finally, we ended up on 17. We created what we called the 9/11 portfolio internally,” Sundstrom said during an interview at the museum a few weeks before the show’s opening.
A handful of prints had just arrived and were assembled in the space, as was a miniature gallery model, tiny Nachtwey photos tacked on its walls.
“And then we said, well, why don’t we just do a show?” Sundstrom said.
After all, Sundstrom said, Nachtwey is considered the greatest war photographer working today. And while each individual photo has incredible composition and narrative, Nachtwey also had plenty of material, enough to create an even larger story about the war and its effects.
The show
This exhibition’s content is not for the faint of heart.
It’s divided chronologically into five parts: Afghanistan pre-9/11; New York City during 9/11; Afghanistan post-9/11; the Iraq war; and the aftermath, when American soldiers come home. Stories behind some of these images are available via video and audio. Wall text is a little more sparse than usual.
“Mostly because we want people to look and reflect on the sacrifice, rather than the art or historical connections,” Sundstrom said.
Crushing buildings, injured civilians and haunted soldiers are some of the many subjects within the 24 prints, 17 owned by the Currier, lining the walls. Some have been in news publications like Time or National Geographic. Others have never seen public eyes before.
The most expansive piece is “The Sacrifice,” a 32-foot-long mosaic made up of 60 photographs, taken in American military units in Iraq.
Within the show, viewers will find context to the happenings, including a timeline of significant events from 1989 (in Afghanistan) to today. They’ll also find the consequences of war in numbers — how many people were killed in the World Trade Center (2,753) and how many Afghan (26,000) and Iraqi (133,000) civilians have died as a result of war or by direct violence. How many uniformed American men and women have died in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (6,800), and how many who do return home have high mortality rates due to drug overdose, suicide or vehicle crashes. On a separate wall there’s space for viewer responses and visitor photos.
“He’s never printed at this level before in his career,” Sundstrom said. “He’s had museum shows, but they’re just usually of his black and white photographs. We wanted to do this in a larger scale.”
One of the reasons for putting on this show was to showcase how talented Nachtwey is, not just as a documentary photographer but also as an artist.
He pointed to the high detail of Nachtwey’s prints — he clearly must have spent hours editing, Sundstrom said — and to the compositions, which, remember, were taken quickly during extreme duress.
“James was able to capture the scale of the destruction,” Sundstrom said, gesturing to “Firefighters at Ground Zero,” which looked, in Sundstrom’s words, “like the gates of Hell opened up.”
One of Sundstrom’s favorites: “Signs in Time Square.” A flag waves overhead, and on a digital screen, signs flash. One says “Wow is too small a word.” Another, “The rocket’s red glare.”
“And it’s a photograph! But it’s almost a collage that he created. Instead of cutting things out, he’s waiting for it all to come together,” Sundstrom said. “James is regarded as the greatest war photographer working today.”
Before the show opened, Currier staff brought in about two dozen viewers to see it — veterans, soldiers, refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan. Some cried. Others said nothing. 
“We wanted to make sure we were being sensitive. Because we had this one perspective on this, and we wanted to have multiple perspectives,” Sundstrom said. “The American veterans, some of them didn’t want to talk because it was just still too raw for them. But the one who did talk, he said, ‘I still see this stuff every day. This is nothing new.’ Or, ‘I have images of this stuff on my phone.’ So it’s nothing shocking to them, but what it does do, is it brings back memories that they may have pushed down.”
But then, a show like this is supposed to elicit strong reactions. While staff have tried to keep politics out of it, there’s enough content that visitors should get the message.
“I’m hoping people’s responses will be, we need to make these decisions [to go to war] a little more carefully,” Sundstrom said. 

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