Documenting the Plague of AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa: By Photographing This Disease's Devastation, James Nachtwey Appeals `to Stop the Madness, Lend a Hand, Restore Humanity.' (Reporting on Health)

Article excerpt

For a photographer, a single word can be worth a thousand pictures.

During the past 20 years, my work has taken me to the darkest corners of the planet--man-made infernos that make Dante and Hieronymus Bosch look like straight, social documentarians. To my eyes, recent history has unfolded like a serial apocalypse. "Genocide" is a word so heavily freighted with memory, and responsibility that it caused the most powerful, technologically advanced nations in the world to turn their backs as more than a half million people were slaughtered in the space of a single season with weapons that were no more than farm implements. The destruction of food as a weapon of mass extermination is a phenomenon so unthinkable that it makes a euphemism of the word "famine." "Ethnic cleansing" is a sanitized term for the wholesale murder, rape and mass deportation of one's neighbors. The uninhibited military assault on civilian populations politely passes as "civil war." Such words have become synonyms for the bloody homestretch of the 20th century.

The images conjured by these words burned a hole in my consciousness that I can only attempt to fill with the stark hope that publishing pictures in the mass media not only informs, but also makes an appeal to stop the madness, lend a hand, restore humanity.

As we entered the third millennium, the plague years descended upon sub-Saharan Africa. AIDS will probably wipe out more people than all the wars, famines and natural disasters of the past decade put together. The drama of the AIDS epidemic is more subtle than the older calamities that rocked the African continent. It plays itself out behind closed doors. People are suffering silently, in hospices and hospital wards and in isolation inside their homes. Most Africans cannot afford the cocktail of drugs that forestalls the effects of the disease. AIDS is a death sentence, and people are dying quietly, one by one, in the millions.

The frontline troops in this war are the gentle souls who have committed themselves to the saintly task of attending the dying. …