Authors Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva were members of the so-called Bang-Bang Club, a group of South African photographers working during apartheid and named for their propensity to photograph violence, “bang-bang” in local slang. Though the name applied to a larger group it most commonly applied to four photographers: Marinovich, Silva, Ken Oosterbroek, and Kevin Carter. Of these four, Oosterbroek was killed in a firefight in April 1994 and Kevin Carter committed suicide in July of the same year.
I haven’t read a large body of journalist perspectives on conflict zones—usually I’m drawn to survivor memoirs or fiction inspired by these conflicts—but The Bang-Bang Club is refreshingly honest, direct, and generous towards both sides of the conflict. Marinovich doesn’t shrink from observing that, after Ken’s death, he and Joao attempted to turn him into a heroic icon; similarly, at the beginning of the memoir he notes without malice that Ken, at least initially, has trouble breaking free of the racism inculcated in him by national attitudes. Marinovich and Silva also recognizes their own flawed behaviors, whether briefly wanting to deny Kevin his moment of fame regarding his famous Sudan photograph, or cutting himself off from fellow photographer Gary Bernard, who eventually committed suicide. The straightforward, conversational telling heightens rather than diminishes the impact of witnessing people being dragged out of their homes and hacked and burned to death in the streets while policemen and bystanders turn a blind eye; of women ululating a victory cry as they beat another woman to death; of “necklacing,” the practice of placing a petrol-filled rubber tire around the victim’s neck and setting it alight; of slicing the tendons in a man’s leg so he can’t escape as his own friends take him to be killed; of a Walkman wired as a bomb so that the explosion rips through the head of an ANC lawyer the moment he presses play; of girls being “jackrolled,” abducted and gang-raped for days on end before being returned to her parents with the thanks of the abductors, for the enjoyment their daughter brought them. Narrated from Marinovich’s point-of-view—albeit with startling leaps into the other photojournalists’ perspectives—The Bang-Bang Club is an honest, brutal examination of their experience chronicling apartheid conflict between 1990-1994, and additionally interrogates the ethics of photojournalism.