Fear and loathing behind the lines

Pulitzer Prize-winning South African news photographer Kevin Carter was found dead in his car on July 27, 1994. (Reuters/Stringer)

Pulitzer Prize-winning South African news photographer Kevin Carter was found dead in his car on July 27, 1994. (Reuters/Stringer)

Photographer Kevin Carter paces the office, cameras bobbing. Worn jeans fit his wiry frame like a rumpled second skin.

His face is chalky from late-right excess but his eyes glow with adrenalin for the job at hand: another foray into another volatile township.

He drives fast and well, with studied carelessness: elbow resting out o the open window, hair flying in the wind, exchanging jokes with me as I sit beside him, notebook in hand.

It’s April 1992 and feuding between “comrades” and hostel-dwellers in Alexandra township’s “Beirut” section is threatening to erupt into war. As we enter the township, the sound of gunfire engulfs us.

Today promises action, violence probably death. Kevin walks trance-like up the street towards the action; as single-minded as a junkie with a fix in sight.

My presence is forgotten and feel fear as I realise I’m alone in the midst of a vicious war. The war began a few days earlier when the hostel-dwellers and their families occupied houses bordering the hostel. A fierce fight is now in progress for the recapturing of a pitifully small scrap of land.

I thread my way behind houses between shacks and under washing lines to get nearer the hostel, where the shooting is. I keep clear of the street running deeper into the township and past the hostel.

Across the street comrades are holed up in shacks: they and the hostel-dwellers are trying to shred each others’ fortresses to pieces with relentless gunfire. No one is at work.

Men from both sides have stayed home to fight it on and guard their homes from take over or destruction. They stand grouped behind shacks, poised behind walls, firing wildly in the direction of the hostel.

Every now and again a comrade shielding himself with a dustbin lid dashes across the road, to take information or ammunition—I’m not sure which - to their hideout. I’ve lost sight of Kevin.

The last time I saw him he was lying in the dust behind a drum, metres from the comrades’ hideout. The sound of gunfire is overwhelming. Every burst brings an involuntary cringe to my body and I feel as though my eardrums will burst.

I catch sight of a man with an AK47 half-wrapped in a blanket leopard-crawling his way across rough walls towards the hostel.

I take shelter with an old woman, who almost pulls me into her little house. Shacks shake, children cry. Then suddenly the gunfire stops.

A photographer emerges from his hideout. “In every war they break for lunch,” he says calmly. Just another war veteran in just another Beirut. Feeling braver now, I weave my way through dense dwellings towards the hostel.

I come to a clearing, where Kevin squats, chatting easily with a group of young comrades taking a break. There they sit, guns on laps, smoking an enormous “joint”. Their eyes are bright and wild.

They laugh excitedly, feeling the power of their guns and of their weighty task of protecting their community from the “Inkatha onslaught”, as they see it.

Kevin’s hands are far from his camera but he’s distracted, calculating—itching to take photographs of this priceless scene, of the array of spectacular guns, some swiped no doubt from the lush bedrooms of Sandton homeowners. But he won’t. He knows the code.

During the action, no one cares about his click-clicking in the dust amid the bullets. They don’t even see him. But now all eyes are on him. He won’t try his luck.

He is far too streetwise to jeopardise his chances of getting in with the comrades, getting even closer to the action. Besides, though their childish faces belie it, they are as armed and dangerous as their foes.

They regard him with a mixture of suspicion and distance. He could be useful to them but he is not one of them, he doesn’t really care about them - and he could be dangerous too. They know his ilk.

He won’t take sides, he won’t protect any side. He will raise his camera when he gets a gap, when he sees a good photograph staring him in the face. He doesn’t give a damn whom he fingers and, ultimately, that responsibility won’t rest with him. He’s here to take pictures.

Perhaps they feel a grudging respect for his single-mindedness, for his macho readiness to dive to the ground and roll in the dirt alongside them.

I, a white city girl in a white skirt asking perpetual questions, am too incongruous. My brazen, naive questions seal my identity as the outsider: I feel untouchable and immune to the danger around me.

The break over, the comrades move off quickly and Kevin tags them, lost to me again. The gunfire starts up again, but less vigorously.

The spaces between the firing become more frequent. Its mid-afternoon and the men are tired. Nothing gained, nothing much lost. A day of spent bullets and spent energy.

Police Casspirs, out of sight until now, come rumbling down pitted township streets. They form a fine in the intersection between the two sides’ fortresses. Suddenly there is movement between the hostel and the surrounding houses occupied by the hostel-dwellers.

The Casspirs seem to be forming a protective barrier, allowing this movement to take place. Women and children can be seen approaching the hostel, bearing mattresses, blankets, baskets of clothes from the occupied houses.

With the Casspirs now separating them from the hostel, the irate residents grow brave, flocking towards the police vehicles, gesturing angrily at the looting happening before their eyes.

They ask why—even though a gun battle has been raging all day—the police have only just arrived. The crowd gets bigger, the voices louder.

The Casspirs roll on, people disperse, and a silence settles. The late afternoon calm of a setting sun on a dusty road. Then the sound of gunfire rips through the quiet. Bang, bang and a man drops dead, his brains scattered on the road.

The hostel-dwellers have opened fire on the remaining throng of exposed people who, within seconds, have dissolved back into the shackland.

Kevin click-clicks around the body like a crazed mosquito. Army troops appear from nowhere and quickly move tire dead man into an airless metal trailer and move on. The man—who was he? - is nothing but cargo home away in a scaled container.

Comrades rush an injured boy, still wearing his hat, his legs steaming with blood, to safety. Kevin runs alongside them, click-clicking. Dusk falls at last on the wretched day, bringing uneasy calm.

My nervous laughter at something I can’t remember elicits an angry response from a throng of people. I ask what is being said and someone translates: “You are laughing while our people are dying here.”

The looks we unfriendly, suspicious. The illusion of acceptance evaporates, forcing us to acknowledge what we really are: unwanted symbols of privilege and oppression.

Some hospital workers pass, carrying an old man who has been left lying for hours in a street in the “Inkatha” section, his guts spilling from his stomach. He is dropped on to a crude stretcher with a bump—his quick grimace of pain so full of life, and he so close to death.

Kevin catches that grimace, that last gasp. He won’t live more than a few hours, we are told. He has lost too much blood. More click, clicking and then we leave, our faces greenish in the dying light. We are excited, shocked, cold. Robotic witnesses.

We relax into a manic euphoria on the drive back to town. We have just witnessed death and we’ve never felt more alive. We’re cracking macabre jokes: the new joint Weekly Mail and Guardian Weekly, which was being launched that week (April 3 to 9 1992), would “have more guts than they bargained for”.

The next day, the photograph goes up in the office, with its “guts” caption emblazoned across it. Kevin shows me a photograph of myself standing next to a man whose head was blown off minutes after the picture was taken.

We identify him by his T-shirt. I remember now… he was the man talking heatedly to the police.

Suddenly the gory photograph on the wall looks like a sick joke, and Kevin tears it down. I’m feeling a little shaken. I spoke to this man with no head. But Kevin is already loading up for the next assignment. 

Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for photography last year. He died a few weeks later, by his own hand; many believe it was the stress of “war photography” that killed him. This article was also published in ‘You Have Been Warned - 10 Years of the Weekly Mail’.

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