James Nachtwey‘s speech to the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference just went up on the TED blog, and it’s really worth the 20-odd minutes to watch.

Nachtwey’s work is the pinnacle that young photojournalists aspire to; his images grace the covers of countless photography course packets. But being ensconced in our collective awareness and esteem seems sometime to work to his disadvantage: As in, “Oh, more Nachtwey, haven’t we seen enough?”

Nachtwey’s reticence is equally well-known, so it’s no surprise that this talk begins with his apology for relying (against the TED “law”) on written notes. “As someone who spent his entire career trying to be invisible, standing in front of an audience is a cross between an out of body experience and a deer caught in the headlights,” he explains.

But after hearing this photojournalism master talk–his words accompanied by photographs spanning his decades of conflict and social issue documentation–I can’t help thinking what a shame it would be to ever stop looking at his images or to stop forcing him to speak (against his natural inclination).

One photo of the ghostly body-shaped shadow left on the floor of a house where a man was burned alive reminds Nachtwey of a cave painting and “how primitive we still act.” He muses that heroine addicts in a cell-like room look like “characters in a Beckett play.” Put this visual eloquence together with his unwavering belief in photography’s ability to improve horrible situations, and you quickly see that Nachtwey deserves all the reverence we pile on him–and maybe more.

~Miki Johnson