Monday, April 25, 2011

Iconic Monday: The Bang Bang Club

I have not seen the new movie, but I will. It comes out just as the photography and media communities grapple with the loss of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros--one of those unpleasantly weird coincidences that happen from time to time--and with any luck it will help shed some light on the work of war photographers. At the very least the film will serve as a conversation starter.

The Bang Bang Club was a group of four photographers--Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and Joao Silva--who covered the end of apartheid in South Africa. Memories being such tricky, unreliable things, it is easy to recall that time as more peaceful than it actually was. The period leading up to the national elections in 1994 was tumultuous and violent. It continued after the election as well, as white supremacist groups tried to create breakaway homelands. The world's press corp on hand to document it. It was the story of the day.

One of the iconic images of the period is the shot above, which shows the famed photojournalist James Nachtwey at work during the election period. Nachtwey was not a member of the Bang Bang Club, but he often worked closely with them. This image was taken by another famed photographer, David Turnley of the Detroit Free Press. While memories can be unreliable, pictures like this one are vivid reminders of actual events. In this case, the image also crystalizes the moral imperatives that are part of the war photographer's daily life.

The story of the Bang Bang Club--the name came from an article about the photographers printed in a South African magazine--is a looping tale of moral imperative, which I suppose someone thought it would make for a compelling film. There is an aspect of war photography that is predatory--all journalism is, in a sense, but the issue are so acutely apparent when the subject matter is violence and cruelty. Risking one's life to take pictures of war--that can be seen as the ultimate selfless act, or the ultimate selfish act, or both, depending on how you prefer to look at it.

Ken Oosterbroek was killed on April 18, 1994, caught in crossfire between  the National Peacekeeping Force and supporters of the African National Congress in Tokoza township. War photographers often find themselves in crossfire; it is part of the narrative of the profession, in both a real and metaphorical sense.

It was on March 11, 1994 that that Bang Bang Club's Kevin Carter, made another iconic image of the violence in South Africa--the execution of several members of a white supremacist group called the Afrikaaanse Weerstandsbeweging, or ABW.  That day, he and Nachtwey decided to cover the black homeland of Bophuthatswana, whose president, Lucas Mangope, had provoked demonstrations with his decision to not participate in the national elections. Mangope also invited far-right extremists into the homeland to contain the unrest. The stage was set for a confrontation between the Bophuthatswana army and the extremists. Carter later described the scene to the photo magazine I edited:

At one point Jim Nachtwey and I spotted a fast-moving group of six armored cars of the Bop army. They were careering around, shooting off their guns, apparently because they'd routed the AWB. Jim and I decided to keep going and went to investigate a factory fire, and soon after we drove right into a convoy of 15 to 20 AWB cars and pickups. Jim swerved to avoid colliding with them and casually said, "Holy cow, Kev, we're in the middle of the AWB."

As he spoke I looked past his shoulder and saw an AWB guy right behind us pull out a shotgun and point it at us. I yelled, "Duck!" Jim swerved the car sharply and I heard the boom of a shotgun. It didn't hit us, but just behind behind the AWB convoy there was a Bop army group and intensive fighting broke out.

Jim and I were in a terrible position, right next to the AWB convoy. So he swing the car around again and calmly looked at me and said, "Kev, when the car stops, roll out and take cover...."

As I rolled out of our car, I grabbed my bulletproof vest, put it over my head, and tried to make some pictures in the middle of the shooting. When [the shooting] died down, one of the Bop armored cars drove around a Mercedes that had gotten trapped, and Bop soldiers shot the hell out of it. Then they drove straight up to our car, with all their guns pointed at us. We stood up with our hands raised, one hand open and a camera in the other....Finally the soldiers lowered their rifles and relaxed a bit.

At that point Jim and I moved forward to see the shot-up Mercedes. There were three wounded AWB chaps inside, and they started getting out. One was close to death already, and he fell onto the ground. One slid out the backseat and slumped against a rear wheel, and the third came out of the front seat with his arms raised.....I photographed the scene from every angle for about 20 minutes until I couldn't think of any more ways to shoot it.

I didn't know what to do about the wounded men. We were working in a country where law and order and any form of government had broken down. There was no authority to appeal to. I said to some of the soldiers, "Take your prisoners and get them out of here," But nothing happened.

All of a sudden one Bop policeman apparently discovered the body of a local woman who'd been shot in the back, presumably but the AWB. The sight must have infuriated him. He just walked the 50 meters from the woman to the Mercedes and shot the right-winger slumped against the rear wheel. My back was turned at the time and the sound of the gun gave me a hell of a fright.

When the second man was shot, I managed to turn around and focus one camera--but there was no film in it. After I loaded it I moved in and photographed the three dead men--the two who had been executed and the badly wounded one.

Carter gave us that interview in the late spring of 1993, shortly after he'd received the Pulitzer Prize for an image he'd made the previous year--another of the iconic photos of the era. 

In March, 1993, Carter traveled to southern Sudan, where he photographed a young girl weakened by hunger. Looking on was a vulture. The picture ran in the New York Times on March 26 and provoked an avalanche of letters and phone calls. People wanted to know what happened to the girl. The newspaper later explained that the she had gotten up and walked away from the vulture, but that her fate was unknown. Then the moral questioning began: How could a photograph shoot such a scene and then just walk away? Carter, a sensitive man who had had mental health issues in the past, was overwhelmed by the criticism. He killed himself in July, 1994. According to reports, his suicide note said he hoped to "join Ken, if I am that lucky."

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