This year South Africa will celebrate twenty years of democracy since Nelson Mandela’s election in 1994. However, the transition didn’t take place in one day. From 1991 to 1994 violence dominated the country. At the same time, there also was a raging war between the Inkhata Freedom Party (IFP) and the African National Congress (ANC).
Whilst, most of the media based their articles on police reports, there were a few journalists who had ‘first-hand’ experience of what was happening at the time. These journalists bravely protested and tried to awaken the world to the gruesome reality of the rivalry between these prominent political parties. This group of four young South African photojournalists became know as the ‘Bang Bang Club’
The four members, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva, went into the townships to denounce the violence that was a rife in those areas at the time. They are famous thanks to their bravery and the dangerous risks they took.
At first they were named by a local lifestyle magazine, ‘Living’ as ‘the Bang Bang Paparazzi’. Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich were offended and persuaded the editor, Chris Maris, to change into ‘the Bang Bang Club’.
About the members
Kevin Carter was a war photographer like the others three. He is most well known for taking the picture showing the little starving child and the vulture in Sudan. Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for this one in 1994. The same year, he killed himself after suffering from years of emotional trauma.
Greg Marinovich worked for the New York Times while in South Africa, and spent eighteen years doing conflict documentaries around the world. He also won a Pulitzer Prize for spot news in 1991 for a series of pictures showing the brutally murdering against a man supposed to be a Zulu spy. Currently Marinovich is a photographer, film producer and freelance journalist.
Ken Oosterbroek was the chief photographer for ‘The Star’, a South African newspaper. He won a lot of prizes like the second World Press Photo prize in 1992 for General News stories. Oosterbroek take pictures in trains linking South Africa’s townships and central Johannesburg. These trains were violent places because of the people armed by knife or home-maid weapons. He was killed in 1994 during a clash between the ANC and a white militia group in a Johannesburg township.
Joao Silva started to take pictures in 1989 for a local South African paper and worked for ‘The Star’ in 1991. He is based in Johannesburg. In 2011 a landmine in Afghanistan seriously injured Silva when he worked for ‘The New York Times’. But after a reconstructive surgery he went back to work for ‘The New York Times’ and he is still a journalist.
Witnessing history first-hand
In 2000, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva co-authored ‘The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War’ a novel based on their experiences as a Bang Bang Club member, even if it was an informal group. As the story tells, they witnessed many brutal scenes. Indeed, Kevin Carter was the first photograph to see the first known public execution by necklacing. The woman, Maki Skosana had been accused of being a policeman’s girlfriend.
‘I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures; they created quite a stir. And then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a terrible thing to do.’ (Carter)
The necklancing consists to put a rubber tire and petrol in a person and setting on fire.
‘Her necklancing was the ritual, public execution of a person who had betrayed the community, a punishment reserved for those who collaborated with the state, traitors.’ (Marinovich)
All four were close to the action. And the two writers deal a lot about their feelings in the novel. They talk about a mix between voyeurism, guiltiness and the duty to inform. In front of really dangerous situation the first thinking is how to get the right picture and how to survive according to Greg Marinovich.
Moreover Joao Silva explains that it’s a passion to ‘witness history first-hand’, to show the reality of a war zone. They know that they don’t change the world but he said that if they can change one mind, something has been done.
‘We don’t change the world with pictures but we try to inform the world.’ (Silva)
The polemic on Kevin Carter
In April 1993, Kevin Carter was posted in Sudan to cover the civil war and the famine. He takes a picture to this little child and a vulture near to him. This picture won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. However prior to that the photograph was heavily criticized because of the sensitive nature of the scene. Furthermore Kevin Carter was unable to defend himself when others journalists ask him what he did to help the child.
The picture was presented as ‘The little girl and the vulture’ but since 2011 a new point of view was emphasize. A Spanish photojournalist, Alberto Rojas, who works for ‘El Mundo’ tried to find the little girl several years after the polemic. Rojas went in Ayod, the city where the picture was taking. He also was friend with the journalist José Maria Luis Arenzana who where in the camp with Kevin Carter in 1993. In the picture the plastic wristband is a proof that a Non-Governmental Organization supported the little child. After few days, Alberto Rojas find dad’s baby and learn that it as a boy and no a girl. The man didn’t know about the picture’s success. The journalist also learns that the boy didn’t die for the famine but fourteen years after by malaria fever.
A lot of publications said that this polemic was Kevin Carter depression’s main point.
After the death of Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter (1994)
Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva were posted around the world as war photojournalists. Joao Silva covered Georgia War, the siege of Sadr City in Bagdad and the ethnic violence in Kenya in 2008. He also was an embedded journalist, following the US army in Afghanistan and Iraq. Embedded journalists join the military camp to be in a war zone, they have a kind of protection when they are closed to military. After he lost his legs in a landmine in Afghanistan, Silva took time out to recover. Now he is a journalist for ‘The New York Time’. Unlike Greg Marinovich who quit the field after four injuries.
To be a lucky witness or a voyeuristic?
The main question about war journalists is what to do? Is it a journalist role to help people or take pictures of people who need help? There is no answer, no good ethic according to the journalists. On the other hand, they bring people’s attention to a crucial problem.
When Marinovich took a picture of the alleged Zulu spy, Lindsay Tshabalala, he struggled with regret and the reason why he photographed this man’s murder.
‘ The fact I was winning prizes for shooting Thabalala’s gruesome death trouble me, but when I passed a huge newspaper billboard proclaiming ‘SA Lensman Wins Pulitzer’, I could not but feel a surge of pride.’ (Marinovich)
The Bang Bang Club was to denunciate the violence in South Africa during the transition between Apartheid and first democracy and risking their life for this work.
‘We were convinced that the only way to stop such killing was to show what those death looked like, what those daily body counts actually meant.’ (Marinovich)
In 2010, a movie called ‘The Bang Bang Club’ was released based on the Marinovich and Silva book honour Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek memories.
In 2011, a South African journalist Anton Hammerl was killed while covering Libyan civil war.
Even if the limit between journalism and voyeurism is not specifying, journalists are able to die for the information and change some mind.