Trail of war photographer led to Hollywood

"War Photographer" follows James Nachtwey to the world's conflict zones.

Although it didn't win, for the first time since 1991, a Swiss documentary was among the nominees for the coveted statuette at Sunday night's Oscars ceremony.

This content was published on March 25, 2002 minutes

Christian Frei's movie, "War Photographer", was nominated in the prestigious Best Documentary category. His film is a portrait of American James Nachtwey's work in the world's conflict zones.

Nachtwey has spent more than 20 years travelling to the globe's hot spots to document the effects of war on local populations. His most famous recent contribution was his photography of the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks against his hometown of New York.

"War Photographer" is Frei's fifth documentary. Although his movie was well received at the International Documentary Film Festival in Amsterdam last year and at the Solothurn Film Days this year, his nomination came as a surprise.

"I was totally amazed and very, very happy because it's the final goal to a journey," said Frei. "There's no better way to tell somebody they have done a good job. "

The last Swiss film to score an Oscar was Xavier Koller's "Journey of Hope", which received the statuette for best foreign language movie.

Chance discovery

Frei's choice of subject came somewhat by accident. He didn't have a particular interest in war photography, and Nachtwey was a sudden discovery made during a trip to the United States.

"I was on my way to the Chicago film festival when I discovered Nachtwey's photos in a magazine," Frei told swissinfo. "I was amazed by these pictures and I was also very interested by the text describing a man who didn't fit the cliché of the loud, swaggering paramilitary man."

Nachtwey is often described as an anti-war photographer. According to Frei, when the American began his chosen profession in the early Eighties, he focused on the action in hotspots such as Northern Ireland, approaching the action with a long lens and using colour film.

Today says Frei, Nachtwey is much closer to his subject. "He's more and more interested in the consequences of war, in the incredible sadness of war, in the suffering, in how it shows on people's faces. He is focusing more on these aspects, because it tells us more about violence."

For the Swiss filmmaker, this is a chance to see what is behind the pictures of war seen every day in the media.

"I wanted to see how Nachtwey felt after taking his pictures for 25 years, how he reacts to war, violence, famine," Frei told swissinfo. "The main purpose of my film is to show Nachtwey's approach, his feelings and just how the world's best photojournalist works."

Technical solutions

Nachtwey took some convincing before he accepted Frei's proposition to be the subject of his latest documentary. Because of the risks he takes to get his pictures, the photographer refuses to take any responsibility for anyone accompanying him.

Frei found a solution to Nachtwey's dilemma though, fixing miniature video cameras to the photographer's reflex. "Several people had already tried to produce a documentary about him and his career," said the Zurich filmmaker. "But none of them had proposed this solution, so he wasn't interested."

The mini-cams also had other advantages. A photographer like Nachtwey is looking for authenticity, and the presence of a film crew of three or more people would have detracted from the final result, according to Frei.

The cameras also add another dimension to the film. "As the spectator, you are sitting on the photographer's camera," Frei said. "You hear his every breath, you see exactly how he chooses his pictures, how he approaches people in war zones."

Despite having his cameras riding shotgun on Nachtwey's lens, Frei believes the film remains firmly in his grasp.

"Of course you get to see his perspective, it's an authentic insight into his work. But you also have my cinematographic perspective, which follows James Nachtwey in his work, but at a distance."

Danger zone

Frei and his cameraman, Peter Indergand, followed the photographer around for two years, into conflict zones such as Indonesia, Kosovo and Palestine. The filmmaker and his partner had to learn how to deal with danger.

"It wasn't something I enjoyed, but it was part of the project," said Frei. "I had to learn about landmines, booby traps, and I had to be responsible for my security and that of my cameraman."

The danger wasn't as omnipresent as most people would believe, though. "War is not like in fiction," added Frei. "There is less action involved, less adventure than we might think."

"It's very rare to be under fire, even for a war photographer like Nachtwey. There are a lot of boring days in wars, and boring in a very sad sense."

The real danger lies elsewhere according to the filmmaker. "In uncertain situations, you have to be very careful about what you are going to do, whose car you get into, who you are following."

Frei says the technical solutions chosen for the film helped reduce the risk factor, since the special cameras allowed him and his cameraman to step back when they felt it was too dangerous. "Nachtwey risks a lot more than I would, but it's part of his job."


With "War Photographer", the spectator gets three different perspectives: the photographer's, the cinematographer's and Nachtwey's finished photos.

"You can make up your own mind about what is going on and what you think of Nachtwey and his work in the field," Frei told swissinfo. "It's a unique way of showing the same situation in various ways."

Despite the lengthy amount of time spent working close to the filmmaker and being his subject, Nachtwey didn't go out of his way to help Frei. "He didn't cooperate in way that would make things easier. But I think that's normal, he had to adapt himself to the way we worked."

Despite being unsettled at the prospect of being the subject of a documentary, the photographer was satisfied with the final cut.

"He felt that it is not himself on the screen, but a view of him," said Frei. "I think the film comes very close to what his work and his personality are about though."


"War photographer" cost SFr800,000 ($483,000) to make and took a long time to complete, almost four years from start to finish. Frei considers it a privilege to have that amount of time to finish his product.

"In Switzerland, we make our films like watchmakers, taking our time. It's a different approach, which, without focusing on the sensational, has its own strengths."

For the filmmaker, this approach relies heavily on public funding. "If I had had to rely on private money, I would have been forced to do it in a very different way, being far more sensational."

"I didn't have commercial considerations in the back of my mind, which is, I think, the right way to do it," added Frei. "I would have lost my artistic freedom."

The Swiss filmmaker isn't planning to change his ways if he wins the Oscar. "I feel very strongly that I'm based in Switzerland as a filmmaker and we have a tradition of very good Swiss documentaries. I consider myself a part of this tradition."

by Scott Capper

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