He grew up in Massachusetts and attended Dartmouth College. In college, he studied Art History and Political Science, graduating in 1970.
He was inspired to become a photographer by images he saw from the Vietnam War and the American Civil Rights movement. He is a self-taught photographer, learning his skills while he worked as an apprentice news film editor and truck driver. He began his career as a newspaper photographer in 1976, moving four years later to work as a freelance magazine photographer. In 1981, he traveled overseas to Northern Ireland during the IRA hunger strike. From then on, Nachtwey was set on documenting wars, conflicts, and critical social issues.
1984 Natchwey started working with Time Magazine as a contract photographer.
Throughout his career he has received numerous honors and had several exhibitions.