The scene sears itself on the retina. A starving Sudanese child, a fragile black body of skin and bones, head bowed in utter defeat on the sun-baked ground. To the left, in the background, a vulture sits and waits. It may have been one photograph too man for Kevin Carter, who won a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for it. When he died by his own hand in the same year, was it perhaps the last image in his tired and tortured mind?
Carter was a member of the so-called Bang-Bang Club, a group of South African photographers who were drawn into the mayhem and violence of apartheid's death throes during the late 1980s and early '90s. They were a kind of apartheid paparazzi whose beat was the black townships where the bloody vendettas of a black-white, and sometimes black-black, power struggle were being fought out. Greg Marinovich, who picked up a Pulitzer in 1991 for his pictures of the murderous war in township hostels, was another. So was Joao Silva, who won the South Africa press photographer award in 1992 for a portfolio of township action pictures. They are among a handful of photographers featured in The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War (William Heinemann, 254 pages).
In a foreword to the book, Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes them as a "remarkable breed." Certainly they were a breed apart, regarded by their colleagues and editors as arrogant, unruly and often irresponsible. They drank hard, smoked marijuana and had rocky private lives. But there was no questioning their courage or their commitment to action — the more dangerous the better. After he had won his Pulitzer, said Marinovich, "I could ask for assignments to almost any place as long as people were killing each other there."
Marinovich's assignments took him to the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Like Carter and the rest he also covered famine, drought and civil wars in other parts of Africa. But it was in the adrenaline rush of battlegrounds in the black townships near Johannesburg that the Bang-Bang Club really came together. And it was also there that, tragically, it came apart.
Ken Oosterbroek was a tall, quietly intense young man who won a South African press photographer of the year award in 1989 and 1991 and who was chief photographer for the Johannesburg daily Star. He hired Silva to help him cover the political violence in the townships, and the two became friends. In 1992 Silva was told by the newspaper's management that he was showing signs of post-traumatic stress syndrome and should stay out of the conflict areas. He ignored the order. As the beer flowed at a barbecue where the Bang-Bang boys got together, Oosterbroek was heard to remark, almost in jest, "One of these days one of us is going to get whacked." In Thokoza township, in 1994, only two weeks before the general election that was to forever end apartheid rule, Oosterbroek himself was killed in a crossfire between security police and black activists.
Marinovich was seriously wounded in the same incident, and as he recovered, South Africa moved into a new phase of post-apartheid democracy. While the Bang-Bang boys welcomed the change they could not help missing the bloody street dramas that impelled them to the edge and the images that stayed with them and haunted their dreams. They also dwelt on the photographer's ultimate dilemma, the morality of being a dispassionate recorder of death and destruction, of taking pictures rather than giving aid: When should a photographer stop being a photographer?
Kevin Carter stopped on a day in July 1994 when he used the familiar silver photographer's duct tape to attach a garden hose to his car exhaust. The suicide note he left was rambling, but there was no question of the state of his troubled soul. Sometime earlier he had written, "I feel alienated from normal people. The shutters come down and I recede into a dark place with dark images of blood and death in godforsaken, dusty places."
In those dark places came questions that Carter could not answer. Like other photographers before him, and the ones who will come after, he watched people die in front of his lens and simply took pictures. He admitted he had not helped that child in the Sudan. But after he had taken the picture he sat under a tree and wept.
Find a war situation somewhere in the world, and you'll find a similar corps of photographers who follow the action. This book reminds us that wherever they may be, every time the shutter is released there is usually a personal price to pay.