The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War

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.

I’m no stranger to survivor accounts and trauma narratives, so I was struck less by the images than by the way the book unfolds.  Marinovich does an excellent job of balancing between telling the individual stories of the Bang-Bang Club members, explaining the history of South African conflict and the issues surrounding apartheid, and walking us through the war zone.  The memoir opens with Ken Oosterbroek’s death in 1994, and so before we even know who Ken is—who any of these photographers are—the shadow of his death (not Kevin’s, as might be expected) falls over the rest of the narrative and serves to underscore the haunted lives these photojournalists lead.  Where we tend to view war photographers and journalists as heroic, these people are never anything more than human, falling in and out of love, smoking weed, losing jobs and finding jobs, screwing themselves over, envying each other, striving to take the next great photo, chasing war.  They variously enjoy the adrenaline rush and muse that “one of us is going to get whacked, one of these days” (175).  The narration of this experience is, I think, enough to make this a worthwhile read on its own, but what I found most striking, and what moved me to read the book, was its interrogation of the role of photography in the combat zone.

Greg Marinovich and Kevin Carter independently won the Pulitzer Prize for their photography, the former for a series of photos depicting the killing of Lindsaye Tshahabala, a Zulu man who was stabbed repeatedly and set on fire, and the latter for his photo of a famine victim in Sudan, both pictured respectively below:

A man hacking at a man set on fire in South Africa.
15 Sept 1990. An ANC supporter hacks at a burning Lindsaye Tshahabala as a young boy flees. (Greg Marinovich)

Marinovich describes how, on more than one occasion, he felt disturbed by his own actions at photographing rather than intervening on the victim’s behalf: “I had felt utterly impotent as I took pictures of a starving father as he realized that his last living child had died on his lap, watching through the lens as he closed her eyes and walked away.  Good pictures.  Tragedy and violence certainly make powerful images […] But there is a price extracted with every such frame: some of the emotion, the vulnerability, the empathy that makes us human, is lost every time the shutter is released ” (153).  He notes that his first big break into photojournalism was the result of photographing a man’s brutal murder.

It was Kevin Carter’s photograph that spawned a similar-sounding outcry among readers of The New York Times, which bought the picture and eventually submitted it for the Pulitzer.  In the memoir, we are shown Joao and Kevin in the Sudan on what seems like an uneventful trip that lacks good photos; Joao snaps a shot of a child similar to the one above, sans vulture; Kevin snags the shot above.  In terms of this experience, it doesn’t seem like anything extraordinary.  To readers, however, the photo spoke more to the remove of the photographer behind the lens.  They wanted to know what happened to the child.  Did Kevin take her to a feeding center?  Did he chase the vulture away?  In Marinovich’s telling, we see Kevin extremely disturbed by the photo he just took; he compares the girl to his daughter Megan, expresses his desire to hold Megan, expresses impotence, in a way, in the face of the situation here.  Later Joao remembers Kevin sitting under a tree and crying.  When Kevin accepts the Pulitzer, his story gradually evolves as he tries to find a version he’s comfortable with: he took the picture, then chased the vulture away, then sat down under a tree and cried; or he picked up the girl and took her to the feeding center; or she got up and walked, and the feeding center was in sight so she must have made it.  We are shown that Kevin himself was tortured over his lack of reaction to the starving child—why didn’t he pick her up and carry her the few hundred feet to the feeding center?—and he ultimately feels, as readers of the Times did, that this says something about his own humanity.

A vulture awaits the death of a starving Sudanese girl.
Mar 1993. A vulture seems to stalk a starving child in the southern Sudanese hamlet of Ayod. (Kevin Carter/Corbis Sygma)

One of the secondary issues of The Bang Bang Club is the problem of photographing from a remove.  Kevin himself noted, of earlier photographs, that “I was appalled at what they [attackers] 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” (39).  On the one hand, we have the intrinsic value of these photographs as news, as galvanizing calls to action: this is the power behind emblematic photos such as the tanks in Tienanmen Square, or the naked girls fleeing in Vietnam.  We are horrified, and our horror makes it harder for us to be removed from the conflicts in question.  But on the other hand, we have the responsibility of the photographer: they are there to shoot the photos that will wake the world, but where does the responsibility as photographer end and where does empathy begin?  There are no clear answers, and Marinovich makes no attempt to provide us with one, simply wondering what he would have done, and noting what his colleagues and friends had to say about Kevin’s photo as well.

I appreciated as well the barely-resolved nature of the ending, which gives us an indication of which side was responsible for the death of Ken Oosterbroek, and abruptly ends there.  We are left with the sense that there is no real closure for this or any wartime event, however closed the wounds become, and that the images, stories, and memories of the dead have scarred these figures irreparably.  That said, we end on a note of hope: they have found some proof, the “bang-bang” had died down, and the remaining members of the Bang-Bang Club have assignments outside of South Africa.  However, this also speaks to the idea that they will go on chasing war, and the images of war will never leave them.

The story is intense but straightforwardly told, and in some ways strikes the perfect balance between opening our eyes to the horrific violence of early 90s South Africa and cushioning the impact of that blow.  As such, I highly recommend it, especially for those who have less experience with journalist or war narratives.  The power of the narrative telling alone, I think, is enough for one to be moved.

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