James Nachtwey grew up in Massachusetts and graduated from Dartmouth College, where he studied art history and political science. Images from the Vietnam War and the American civil rights movement had a powerful effect on him and were instrumental in his decision to become a photographer.
In 1976 Nachtwey started work as a newspaper photographer in New Mexico. In 1980 he moved to New York to begin a career as a freelance magazine photographer. His first foreign assignment was to cover civil strife in Northern Ireland in 1981 during the IRA hunger strike.
Since then, Nachtwey has devoted himself to documenting wars, conflicts, and critical social issues. He has worked on extensive photographic essays in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Lebanon, the West Bank and Gaza, Israel, Indonesia, Thailand, India, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, the Philippines, South Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Rwanda, South Africa, Russia, Bosnia, Chechnya, Kosovo, Romania, Brazil, and the United States.
Nachtwey has been a contract photographer with Time magazine since 1984. In 2001, he became one of the founding members of the photo agency VII. He has had solo exhibitions in New York, Paris, Rome, and around the world.
He has received numerous honors such as the Common Wealth Award, Martin Luther King Award, Dr. Jean Mayer Global Citizenship Award, Henry Luce Award, Robert Capa Gold Medal (five times), the World Press Photo Award (twice), Magazine Photographer of the Year (seven times), the International Center of Photography Infinity Award (three times), the Leica Award (twice), the Bayeaux Award for War Correspondents (twice), the Alfred Eisenstaedt Award, the Canon Photo Essayist Award, and the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Grant in Humanistic Photography. He is a fellow of the Royal Photographic Society and has an honorary doctorate of fine arts from the Massachusetts College of Arts.