In 1994 I was in my final year in university in Cape Town. The transition to majority rule was messy, violent and filled with atrocities by all parties to the conflict.
A bomb by the military wing of the Pan Africanist Congress destroyed a pub that I, and other students, frequented. Members of the Afrikaaner Weerstands Beweeging, a Nazi-like white-supremacist movement, had attempted a bombing campaign of their own.
The press was filled with stories of “black on black” violence as the Inkhata Freedom Party fought the African National Congress. Hidden somewhere within this, illusory, bogey-like, was the brutal state security apparatus still attempting to hold back the tide.
I was 16 when Nelson Mandela was released from prison, 17 when I started university. There wasn’t much point in joining anti-Apartheid organisations, as far as I was concerned. Not that Apartheid was clearly dead, but I was looking to what had to come after. In 1993 I started visiting the townships with a student-run charity – the Students Health And Welfare Centres Organisation. I taught high-school biology. Hardly sexy but in a country with mass illiteracy there is no root to prosperity that doesn’t pass through education.
In the mean time far braver people than I were holding the world to account. People like Ken Oosterbroek, photographer at The Star, Greg Marinovich of Associated Press, Kevin Carter and Joao Silva. Maybe you don’t know their names? You probably know their images.
The Bang Bang Club
Photographers don’t routinely come out from behind the lens but, in the aftermath of the death of Ken Oosterbroek during the run-up to the 1994 elections, and the suicide of Carter, Silva and Marinovich sought catharsis. A way of dispelling, or contextualising, the demons that conflict photographers must deal with. Their book is the must-read The Bang Bang Club.
“During our momentous 1994, Joao was in a bad emotional and psychological place. South Africa had successfully thrown off the bonds of Apartheid, but at a hefty price. The violent sideshow of the Hostel War, as we called it, had been devastating for many of the township residents and migrants alike,” writes Marinovich.
“Even for us occasional interlopers, cameras at the ready, and an easy escape at the end of the day, there was a price to be paid. For Joao it was survivors’ guilt as he witnessed his best friends killed, wounded and commit suicide in the space of a few months. In addition he felt bad that, as he said, the last thing he did for his friend Ken (Oosterbroek) was to take pictures of him.”
“The truth is that it’s the photographers who usually end up taking the biggest risks of all,” Nicholas Kristof of The Times says in On the Ground. “A reporter can get information from a distance, but a photographer or cameraman has to be right in the middle of the action.”
What they photograph leaves an imprint.
Here are some of their work: Joao, Kevin, Ken and Greg, as well as James Nachtwey who was an honorary member of the club.
And here is the fateful day when Ken got killed. Gary Barnard is holding Ken. He committed suicide a shortly afterwards.
Can an image really mean anything?
Maybe this image didn’t end the famine in Ethiopia. The international outcry that followed this picture may have lead to Kevin Carter’s depression and subsequent suicide.
But how about these, from another war?
The US military certainly felt that they could have won the war in Vietnam but that the press lost them the public support. From the wars in Iraq, conflict journalists are now “embedded” instead of running loose.
Not that war is safe for journalists. Reporters Without Borders records 35 journalists killed, 154 journalists imprisoned and 112 bloggers jailed in 2010.
War that becomes taboo
Are these photographers really heroes? What principle do they stand for? Are they addicted to the Bang Bang?
Of course they’re hooked on the adrenalin and, of course, the world looks very different through a camera lens. Moments of clarity in chaos.
But, if war has become a taboo in the West – as described by Umberto Eco in Five Moral Pieces – it must have something to do with the images of the consequences of such conflict. For the West, wars are hardly the economy-destroying, population-shattering experiences of the past. But they are deeply at odds of our hopes for ourselves.
That governments find it harder to launch wars is as a result of the bravery of photographers willing to stand amidst the bullets to take only pictures.
The question that cannot be answered is how, while war becomes a taboo in the West, we deal with conflict when it is still glorified amongst totalitarian regimes and terrorist organisations; the people who oppose us?
Maybe language needs to change too. We still have wars on “want,” “poverty,” “drugs,” “obesity” and “illiteracy” as if violence will solve any of these problems.
But that isn’t the task taken on by the conflict photographers. Their role is to confront us with the consequences of our societal choices. Many of them don’t survive this calling.
For Joao Silva, the Bang Bang caught up with him in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan on 23 October. He stood on a mine and was severely injured. Even as paramedics attended to him, he continued to take photographs.
He is currently in Germany, and is stable and resting.
My thoughts are with him and his family. Thank you and please rest.