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.”