‘Every time I go to a war zone, something breaks inside me’

Dominic Nahr: "I’ve always wanted to see more than you see on TV or in magazines." Dominic Nahr / NZZ

Acclaimed Swiss photographer Dominic Nahr has covered many conflicts around the world. He has just returned from Ukraine and speaks about his work, his motivation and how he copes with all the suffering he witnesses.

This content was published on June 20, 2022 - 12:00
Dominic Nahr (photos), Yves Bossart & Lisa Wickart / SRF 3, Ester Unterfinger / SWI

Nahr has covered crises in Somalia, Haiti, Afghanistan and Gaza. He was in Fukushima after the nuclear disaster and in Cairo during the Arab Spring. His pictures have been published in newspapers and magazines such as Time, the New York Times, National Geographic and Le Monde.

He was speaking on the radio talk show FocusExternal link on Swiss public radio, SRF.

Focus: How does it feel to be back in idyllic Switzerland after living in a war zone? It must be a culture shock.

Dominic Nahr: Usually it is, but this time it was different. I’d just come back from Ukraine and was waiting for my luggage at Zurich airport, and I realised how near the war is. Suddenly it’s part of our modern world. It was as if I was still in Ukraine. The only difference was that I couldn’t hear any air raid sirens.

Focus: You have worked as a war photographer for 15 years. What does experiencing war at such close range do to you?

D.N.: You work better and learn things you need to know for your next deployment. But getting used to war would be dangerous. If you find the work easy and the suffering no longer upsets you, you have a problem. You always take something away with you. Every time I go to a war zone, something breaks inside me mentally – perhaps physically too. When you get back, you have to try to rebuild yourself – to be complete again. Every deployment chips a part of me away.

Dominic Nahr

Dominic NahrExternal link was born in Appenzell, Switzerland, in 1983. He grew up in Hongkong, studied film and photography in Toronto and lived in Nairobi for a few years.

He has worked as a war photographer all over the world. His work is represented in the permanent collections of the National Gallery of Art, Fotostiftung Schweiz, Magnum Photos, Ryerson Image Centre, The Ransom Centre, The Wedge Collection, Getty Images and various private collections.

In 2015 he was named Swiss Photographer of the Year by the Swiss Photo Academy in Zurich.

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Focus: Why are you attracted to war zones?

D.N.: It’s always been important to me to capture things so we don’t forget them. 9/11 was a significant moment for me. I was 17 or 18 and living in Hongkong when I saw the images on TV. I remember feeling an urge to be there. I don’t know where that urge came from, but I wanted to be there when history was changing. It’s an honour to be part of a process like that. I find it really exciting.

Focus: Is it also about testing your limits or getting a kick?

D.N.: I somehow ended up as a photographer, and this has become my way of leaving something behind to the world. But sure, the adventure is also important. I want to experience different things. I’ve always wanted to see more than you see on TV or in magazines.

Focus: You get very close. In conflict zones don’t you have to be able to distance yourself, or even be cold?

D.N.: I think humans can do a lot more than we believe. In war zones you have to trust your body and mind and believe that you can do more than you think. It’s a balancing act. I have to be able to feel something in order for my pictures to be powerful. But there’s always the danger that you’re either not feeling enough or you’re feeling too much. In 2011 I was in Mogadishu in Somalia. I was documenting the famine after the tsunami. Children were dying at my feet. I was too emotional, and the journalist I was working with had to get me out. I was too involved and couldn’t take any good pictures.

Focus: How did you feel?

D.N.: I almost went crazy. I thought I had to take photos of everything, document everything – every dying child. I almost fell in too far.

Focus: What do you remember more from a war zone: images or smells?

D.N.: Every war smells different. But when we went to the frontline in Ukraine, we all agreed that it smelt more of war than in other places. Everything was on fire; we could smell the gunpowder and hear and feel the bombs. I find smells more powerful. Smells can sometimes send me back to a war zone no matter where I am.

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