May 19, 2016 5:46 PM EDT

James Nachtwey, one of the world’s most renowned conflict and humanitarian photographers, has been awarded Spain’s prestigious Princess of Asturias Award for Communication and Humanities. He has been a contract photographer with TIME for 32 years.

Nachtwey, 68, has devoted his life to bearing witness, documenting tragedies and their aftermath. He began his career as a newspaper photographer in 1976, influenced by pictures from the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War. He moved to New York in 1980 and got his first international assignment a year later in restive Northern Ireland.

In a written announcement about the prize, the jury cited Nachtwey’s commitment to documenting decades of humanitarian crises and wars “without renouncing the ethical principles of the reporter or adorning what the camera sees.” He was called “an insightful witness of human suffering” who has “served as a guiding example for generations of photojournalists worldwide.”


James Nachtwey, covering the Rwandan civil war, carries a baby girl orphaned by the massacres there to a shelter. Zaire, 1994.
Gilles Peress—Magnum Photos

Reached by telephone, Nachtwey said he didn’t know until Wednesday that he had been nominated. He was surprised Thursday morning to hear he received the honor.

“It’s very meaningful for me,” he said. “When you read the list of former recipients, it’s quite humbling because so many of the people on that list have inspired me throughout my life.”

Some of the past recipients whom he said “it’s a great source of inspiration to be among” are Stephen Hawking (1989, concord), Václav Havel (1997, communication and humanities), Doris Lessing (2001, literature) and Francis Ford Coppola (2015, arts).

“Most especially Nelson Mandela, who is my personal hero,” he said. “To be in any group of people that includes Nelson Mandela is the greatest honor I could ever ask for.” (Mandela received the honor in 1992 for international cooperation.)

James Nachtwey at 401 Projects gallery in New York City, 2010.
Christopher Anderson—Magnum Photos

Asked what makes this award particularly special, Nachtwey said it’s because it’s not specifically a journalism or photography award—“it’s beyond that.” In 2006, he was awarded the Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. In 2012, he was awarded the Dresden International Peace Prize.

For more than three decades, Nachtwey has traveled the globe, focusing on the human plight. From Bosnia to Chechnya, to Eastern Europe and the Middle East and Afghanistan, his images have shattered and provoked and informed. He is a witness. His photographs are evidence.

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