The Bang Bang Club

The Bang Bang Club

In any walk of life, there are those who seem determined to make their presence felt, those that go above and beyond the call of duty, whatever duty that may be, and do things that are truly extraordinary.

Such was the case with four men in South Africa in the early 1990s.  Their names were Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, João Silva and Ken Oosterbroek.  Photojournalists by trade, they documented the conflict between the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party during the transition from apartheid to democracy.  Of course, the four aforementioned men were not the only ones who covered the violence that erupted in the townships, but their names are remembered for the reputation they created for themselves, and – ultimately – for the personal consequences of their actions .

Both Carter and Marinovich won Pulitzer Prices for their work.  Carter’s image of a starving young girl being stalked by a vulture is perhaps one of the most extraordinarily haunting imagines of the era.

Ken Oosterbroek, aged just 32, was killed by peacekeepers in Thokoza Township on 18 April, 1994, just nine days before South Africa’s first all-race elections.  Ironically, Nelson Mandela once said, ‘Let’s hope that Ken Oosterbroek will be the last person to die.’

Kevin Carter, so terribly traumatised by his experiences, took his own life on 27 July, 1994.  He drove to Parkmore near the Field & Study Centre, an area where he played as a child, and ran a hosepipe from the exhaust and through the window of his car.  He then succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning.  Part of his suicide note read as follows:

“I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. …depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky…”

João Silva continued working long after his experiences in South Africa, but on 23 October 2010 he stepped on a landmine while on patrol with US soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan.  He lost his left leg below the knee, his right leg from just above it.  Now walking on prosthetics, he works for The New York Times in Africa.

Greg Marinovich was shot and wounded four times while working both in South Africa and Afghanistan, and yet continued to cover conflicts in Angola, Bosnia, Chechnya, Croatia, India, Mozambique, Russia, Rwanda, Somalia, Zaire and Israel-Palestine.

The Bang Bang Club was a name they did not choose.  It originated with a South African magazine article where they were referred to as ‘the bang bang paparazzi’.  Protesting the misrepresentation of their work, the foursome insisted that ‘paparazzi’ was dropped, hence they became an unofficial ‘club’.

They have been credited, alongside others working at the time, with bringing the harsh and brutal reality of what was actually happening  in South Africa to the breakfast tables of the world.  Some of their images were considered far too graphic for South African newspapers.  Those images were then available for sale to Reuters, AP, The Sunday Times and others, and were widely exposed throughout the public domain.

Having harboured an intention to do the very same work when I was younger, I consider the lives of the above four men and ask myself why they – and I – would be seduced by such a wild, reckless, utterly unpredictable and routinely life-threatening vocation.  Despite the sense of duty, the need to expose the horrific abuses of human rights that were being routinely perpetrated, there must also have been a personal need to run the gauntlet, to place themselves in such positions of vulnerability.  Every day they woke up without knowing if that day would be their last.  Every day they saw death, mayhem and carnage.  They reported on the worst of all human catastrophes – famines, floods, civil war, mass displacement and genocide.  The images that they captured served to not only enlighten the world as to the extent of Man’s inhumanity to Man, but also – arguably – to desensitise us to the plight of those suffering such calamities.  It has been suggested that the constant diet of such images and stories – the tyrannies of Pol Pot and Idi Amin, the Ethiopian famines, the ethnic cleansing programs in Bosnia, the Chechen-Russian war; the list goes on over numerous decades – actually ceased to provoke any real degree of empathy or emotional response.  As long as it was ‘over there’, then it was no concern for us.

Be that as it may, there are those still working to bring knowledge of such events to us, and – in the process – risking their lives to an extent that the vast majority of us could never comprehend.

Without them we would be ignorant, and as Dalai Lama XIV so accurately stated, “Where ignorance is our master, there is no possibility of real peace.”

The Brief and Extraordinary Life of Robert Capa

The Brief and Extraordinary Life of Robert Capa

Picture this: Ingrid Bergman is on-set.  She’s playing the role of Irene Wagner in Roberto Rossellini’s ‘Fear’, based on the novel by Stefan Zweig.  She receives a telegram, perhaps a phone call.  She is informed that her one-time lover, Robert Capa, is dead, killed by a landmine in Thai Binh, Vietnam.  Capa was there on assignment from Magnum, the world-renowned photographic agency he co-founded, covering the First Indochina War.

So ended the brief but extraordinary life of Hungarian émigré, Endre Friedmann, born October 22, 1913.

Friedmann, or Robert Capa as he came to be known, was arguably the finest war and adventure photographer of all time.  After fleeing Hungary he arrived in Vienna, aged just eighteen, and from there he travelled to both Prague and Berlin.  He started studying at the German Political College, but Nazism was on the rise, and he was barred from his studies because he was a Jew.  He moved to Paris in 1934, and here he met a German-Jewish refugee by the name of Gerda Pohorylle.  Capa taught her photography, and she accompanied Capa to Spain to cover the Civil War in 1936.  In July of ’37, Capa went back to Paris for a short while. Gerda, now calling herself Gerda Taro, stayed in Madrid to continue covering the war. She was ‘killed in action’, crushed by a Loyalist tank in a confused retreat from Brunete. They had been engaged to be married.  The shock, from which Capa apparently never recovered, was such that he never again considered marriage.

Capa, ever the adventurer, went on to cover the second Sino-Japanese War, World War II (including being the only photographer who landed with Allied forces on Omaha Beach in 1944), the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and the First Indochina War.  His friends included the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Pablo Picasso, Gary Cooper, John Steinbeck and John Huston.  Eisenhower awarded Capa the Medal of Freedom, and in his home country of Hungary, both a stamp and a gold coin were issued in his honour.

He maintained a relationship with Elaine Justin from February of 1943 to the end of the war, and then some months later he and Ingrid Bergman became lovers.  In December of 1945, Capa followed Bergman to Hollywood where he worked for American International Pictures for a short while.  In the summer of ’46, Capa travelled to Turkey and his relationship with Bergman ended.

And so his life continued for a further eight years, forever challenging himself, his contemporaries, the world itself.  He was responsible for some of the most iconic war images ever produced, perhaps the most famous being ‘The Last Man to Die’ on April 18, 1945 when US forces fought to secure a bridge in Leipzig.

Capa became friends with John Steinbeck, and together they travelled to Russia and collaborated on Steinbeck’s, ‘A Russian Journal’.

Capa was responsible for the photographs that accompanied Irwin Shaw’s book, ‘Report on Israel’ as the state was being founded.

Capa, alongside Henri Cartier-Bresson, William Vandivert, David Seymour and George Rodger founded the Magnum Agency, and was President in 1952.  Magnum was the first cooperative agency for freelance photographers in the world, and – even now – is renowned for the sheer excellence of the work produced by its members.

He accompanied Truman Capote, John Huston and Humphrey Bogart to Italy, and documented the making of ‘Beat the Devil’.

Capa, as much as anyone, was one of those truly ‘larger-than-life’ characters, one of those people whose identity informed their own work, the work of others, and exceeded anything we could call an ‘ordinary life’.

Impulsive, daring, almost fearless in his approach to his work, that same Devil-may-care attitude was demonstrated in everything that he did and everything he was.

As I have said before, perhaps the greatest fear for such a personality is to walk the earth unseen, unrecognised, unremembered.

Robert Capa, in a too-brief forty years, left his footprints and fingerprints in so many places.  Even now, the essence of his personality remains in so many lives.

As the saying goes, a man dies twice: Once when he stops breathing, and again when his name is mentioned for the last time.

Sixty-three years on, Capa is perhaps as alive as he ever was, and his legacy will last for many generations yet to come.

FRANCE. Normandy. June 6th, 1944. US troops assault Omaha Beach during the D-Day landings (first assault).
GERMANY. Leipzig. World War II.
April 18th, 1945. An American soldier killed during a house to house fight against German troops
FRANCE. Golfe-Juan. August 1948. Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot. In the background the painter’s nephew Javier Vilato.
SPAIN. Bilbao. May 1937. Crowds running for shelter as the air-raid alarm sounds.
USA. Hollywood. 1946.
April/May 1946. Filming of “Notorious” Director: Alfred HITCHCOCK. Starring Ingrid BERGMAN, Cary GRANT, Claude RAINS and Louis CALHERN.
FRANCE. Paris. 1944.
Crowds throng the Champs Elysees during the celebrations on the 26th August 1944 for the liberation of Paris.
USA. Idaho. Sun Valley. October 1941. Gary COOPER.
ISRAEL. Haifa. 1949-50. Arriving immigrants.
USA. Idaho. Sun Valley. October 1941. American writer Ernest HEMINGWAY.
FRANCE. Nice. August 1949. Henri MATISSE in his studio,
Pablo PICASSO with his son Claude.
August, 1948. Pablo PICASSO, artist, with his family.
FRANCE. Paris. September 2nd, 1944.
Photos taken in PICASSO’s studio, on Rue des Grands Augustins, a few days after the liberation of the city.
ISRAEL. Near Haifa. 1950. Child at the Sha’arHa’aliya transit camp for new immigrants


Imagery and Imagination…

Imagery and Imagination…

It seems to me that the human mind is a vast and hitherto unexplained territory, capable – I believe – of so much more than we have been led to believe.  The mind and the brain are not the same.  Of this I am certain.  You can’t convince me, no matter how many neuroscientists you wheel out, that six pounds of hamburger is capable of thought, imagination, memory, invention, and all that human beings have created down the centuries.  The brain is a car battery.  It generates electrical impulses that travel through the central nervous system.  Yes, it controls glandular function, heart rate, blood pressure and the myriad things that make the body work, but does it dream?  I don’t think so.  Is the ‘brain’ the driving force behind a man’s intellect, his passions, his self-belief, his self-destruction?  No, I really don’t think so.  I believe the brain – as an organ – has no more to do with our thought processes than the heart – as a muscle – has to do with who we love.

Perhaps this is neither the time nor the place to voice my theories about the relationship of spirit, mind and body.  But, simply stated, I believe Man is spiritual in nature; he possesses a mind which is capable of recording the sum total of all his experiences, and it is from the relationship between spirit (which is the person, not something he has, but something he is) and the mind that is borne imagination, personality, character, idiosyncrasies, and the million other qualities and attributes that make each and every one of us unique.  For there is no doubt that we are all unique, and  no one will convince me that singularity and individualism is down to nothing but neurological differences.  Sorry, but it just don’t wash!

And so, to imagery and imagination.  When you buy a camera – at least this is the way it used to be, especially with a single lens reflex  – you’d get a standard fixed focal length lens of 50mm.  What does that mean?  Well, 50mm is near-as-damn-it the lens which gives you a view that is the same as the human eye.    You take a photograph with a 50mm lens and you’ll get what you just looked at, no wider, no more narrow a view than what’s right there in front of you.  The 50mm lens mimics the field of view of the human eye.  A ‘telephoto’ lens brings things closer, but you get a narrower field of view; a wide-angle lens does the opposite – it will give you a much wider view but everything will appear slightly further away.  Essentially, lenses other than 50mm encompass a view that it not restricted by the limitations of the human eye.

That, to me, is fascinating.  You can take a photograph that is more than the human eye can embrace.  You can take a detailed and precise photograph of things that the human eye cannot see.  Therefore, if nothing else, photography lends itself – as both a science and an art – to seeing beyond human parameters, both microscopic and universal.

As for time itself…well, photography serves to capture and preserve so many moments that would otherwise be forgotten, if not emotionally, then visually.  But that is another gift, for those moments – once captured – have the power to bring back the most vivid memories and the most profound emotions.

Photography is an interest that has travelled with me for the better part of forty years.  I don’t doubt that it will continue to travel with me until my own journey is done.


Writing with light…


Back when I was a child, during a somewhat strange childhood, I found myself at Kingham Hill School.  I boarded there for two years.  It was the third and last boarding school I  attended between the ages of seven and sixteen, and – certainly more than the earlier two – that school had a profound effect on the way I turned out and the direction I took in life.  Kingham Hill was established by Charles Baring-Young of the Barings banking family.  He wanted to use his money to establish a means by which underprivileged children from the East End of London could receive a decent education.  He established Kingham Hill as a ‘home for wayward and orphaned children’, and – being an orphan – I got in.  By that time (1981), it wasn’t just kids from the East End of London that showed up, but from all over the world.

During those two years I read voraciously, pursued studies in the trumpet with a great teacher (and there found a passion for Scott Joplin, Louis Prima, Louis Armstrong et al, those things then very swiftly taking me to the blues, to country, to rockabilly and all the other genres of music that I love).  I also discovered a fascination for photography.  It was not only the stunning images in National Geographic magazines that captured my imagination, but the very physicality of taking pictures – the equipment, the colours to be found in the lenses themselves, the very notion of preserving a fraction of a second in time and holding it for ever.

I was a lonely kid, I guess.  I was very shy, struggling to find friends and any kind of anchor in a somewhat confusing world, and books and music and film and photography were my escape from all that I considered banal and mundane.  The ads for Nikon cameras in those NG magazines seduced me completely.  That’s what I wanted, and that’s what I had to have.  I had a family friend, a man we called ‘Uncle Maurice’.  He was a merchant seaman, and had been a dear friend of my mother’s.  When my mother died in 1971 he continued to visit us when he was on shore leave, and he had a Nikon Photomic.  He showed me photos he’d taken all over the world – the Mediterranean, South-East Asia, Hong Kong, Japan, the United States.  He made a deal with me.  If I wanted a camera, then whatever I managed to save he would double it.  And so, at thirteen years of age, I obtained a Fujica ST605N.  It was not the one I wanted, but it was a camera, and from that point until now I have always maintained an abiding passion in the subject.

A little while ago I started posting some of the pictures I’ve taken on Facebook.  People have messaged me and asked about them, and they have also asked for more.  I thought I should put a little gallery of them on-line, and so here we are.  Some of them were taken with a Nikon F4S, others an FE2.  I love film – the uncertainty, the spontaneity, the fact that so often the image you expect is not the one you get.  I resisted the advent of digital, but finally I had to succumb.  I used an Olympus PEN at first, then a Fuji X100T…and I waited and waited, and finally Nikon produced the digital camera I always wanted, the Df.

And so, given the nature of my life, the fact that I am a nomad and a wanderer; given that I will never be desk-bound nor tied to someone else’s schedule; given that I am fortunate enough to be able to travel the world and see some amazing things, it is a joy to be able to capture some of those moments and keep them as reminders.  What’s even better is that you can now share them so easily with anyone who might be interested.

Why do we take photographs?  Well, perhaps we all share the same fear: to walk the earth unseen, unknown, unrecognised, unremembered.  Maybe a photograph is a way to remind ourselves that we were there and we had something to contribute.  Or maybe we take them to remind ourselves of good times, of better times, of times that we shared with people we love, some of whom may no longer be around.  Whatever the reason, it doesn’t really matter.

Photo-graphy means ‘writing with light’, and that – just by itself – is magic enough for me.