TIME Behind the Photos

James Nachtwey: How Photography Can Change the World

Watch the TIME photographer's moving acceptance speech as he receives the Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Society of Magazine Editors

Recognized for his 30 years of work, Nachtwey is more than a war photographer. “At the heart of his work are the world’s injustices: Famine. Poverty. Disease. Human rights violations,” said Kira Pollack, TIME’s director of photography. “More than any other photographer, he is able to express hope in the midst of human suffering.” Below, TIME LightBox publishes Nachtwey’s acceptance speech.

Receiving this kind of recognition from this particular group is a tremendous honor – but I’m only one among many journalists who’ve committed themselves to covering conflicts and revealing social injustices, that have been hidden or ignored, but that are crying out to be corrected. It’s the combined work of all of us, together, that builds the critical mass of information and insight that creates change and helps make the world a better place. And I want to dedicate this award to those who have only been silenced by imprisonment or by giving their lives.

We’re the point people, the first link with reality in a collaborative, journalistic chain. Each of us is a single mind, a single sensibility – one pair of eyes and one pair of ears – one heart – moving through the real world in real time, to tell the stories of what happens to people, one-by-one, at the sharp end of history. We navigate dangers, endure hardships and get our hearts broken by what we witness, over and over again, because we believe that peoples’ opinions matter – that our society cannot function properly without the information we provide and without the stories we tell.

Our work is aimed at our readers’ best instincts – generosity, compassion, a sense of right-and-wrong, a sense of identification with others – on a human level, across cultures, beyond the borders of nationality – and perhaps most importantly, the refusal to accept the unacceptable.

We question the powerful. We hold decision-makers accountable. The chain we help forge links the people we encounter in the field to millions of other individual minds and sensibilities. And once mass consciousness evolves into a shared sense of conscience, change becomes not only possible; it becomes inevitable.

It’s a continuous struggle, never-ending, and we must always remain in the fight. The people whose stories we tell have not given up hope, even in the most dire circumstances. Why should anyone else give up hope for them?

Millions of readers care about what happens in our world because we give them something to care about. But no matter how powerful the words or images might be, without bold and committed editors who share our sense of purpose and who give us space to tell our stories, we’re just howling in the wind.

So, I want to take this moment to thank all of you for your support, your guidance, your professionalism, for wanting so much to get the story right, and for knowing that every story does not have to sell something, there’s also a time to give.

James Nachtwey is a TIME contract photographer, documenting wars, conflicts and critical social issues.

Read next: On the Set of Selma with James Nachtwey

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