Their images filled the silence

The temptation is to write a nursery rhyme around them, like “this little piggy ... ” It is, perhaps, the simplicity of the numbers: four photographers; two won a Pulitzer; two died and two wrote a book.

There is something grimly playful about the twos, in that the couples are all- inclusive, but do not repeat.
Greg and Joao wrote the book. Kevin and Greg won the Prize. Ken and Kevin bang-bang, they’re dead.

Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek. The boys of The Bang-Bang Club, 17,99 published by William Heinemann on paper made from wood grown in sustainable forests, the manufacturing process conforming to the environmental regulation of the country of origin. Excuse the irritation.

Apologies for a clutch of first-person pronouns (for a few moments last week I really thought I could give them up). But, hell, I wish I could have written this book, on whatever paper, I wish it could have been mine. But of course it couldn’t have been mine even though I had, to a degree, been there, done that and known them.

I didn’t know them very well. Just in the way one knows photographers; a nod, or a wink, a “Howzit Kev,” “See ya, Greg”—the studiously casual which locks in somehow with the terrain of unexpected casualty. I was a scribe, a correspondent, a hack, a person who would explain all with the tones of detachment required of “our man on the spot”.

At times one got a touch too close to the fabled spot and with a lurch of the stomach would look wildly around before seeing one of them 10m ahead, as reassuring a sight as a gull carrying a fish is to a ship-wreck survivor. They were reassurance as to how much more the envelope could be bent without the stamps falling off. They were the tough guys. They had to pin the tail on the donkey.

A game? A dance with death? A proving ground? In the end it is what you want it to be. Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town Desmond M Tutu seems to think—judging from his foreword—it is about liberation and the Third Force.

To others, the theme would perhaps be more universal than that, making of it a classic of wartime reporting. And then it is more personal, intensely so speaking from the personal to the personal and as such a prime exhibit for the argument that the only writing worth writing is introspective, the rest no more than finger exercises.

The book, the authors agree in the preface, could only have been written by a collaborative effort, but it demands a single voice. The voice is that of Marinovich, a young white South African of Croatian descent who has lost his God and his mother when he sets out on August 17 1990 on a 25-minute drive to Soweto for what was to be “the start of a new life for me”. The juncture is artificial, but then they always are in life. It is a point that Marinovich seems to understand by the selection of images, such as the following.

“Towards the very end the drugs she had been prescribed were not enough to keep her completely pain free and Mom knew she was too far gone for a cure. Every day, when the pain grew too great, she would ask me to run a hot, hot bath for her. Since she was too weak to bathe herself I would help her undress and lower her into the steaming water. She would gasp from the heat, but it would help the other, mortal pain. I found this experience very hard to handle: my mother was helpless and in immense pain, yet I was embarrassed by her nakedness and it was difficult to accept that this fiercely independent woman could not even dress herself. I cannot recall what her face looked like at the time, but I clearly remember her plump belly in the water.”

A photograph is famously worth a thousand words. That took only 144, proving perhaps that words reach places that silver bromide cannot go. The silver bromide is there—or whatever substitute William Heinemann chooses to use on his recyclable paper—including the Pulitzer pictures; Carter’s of the vulture landing behind the crawling, starving, naked baby with no name in the Sudan and Marinovich’s of Lindsaye Tshabalala’s last petrol-soaked dance in a colourful costume of flame, a rhapsody in orange and red at F5,6.

Cameramen talk of the “decisive moment” when the elements of a picture come together and are snatched, frozen by the great photographers. But decisive to what, one is tempted to ask at times? Decisive to the baby’s life, or the cameraman’s? Superficially Carter’s picture was a symbol of world poverty. But its relevance to the life, or death of the baby is a complete mystery, since Carter omitted to discover her fate. She may have lived happy ever after, for all we know.

But we do know that “the budgie pic”—as it was to become known among professional colleagues—was decisive for Carter. It was a giant banana skin planted on his lifeline. From the moment he took his telephone call of congratulations from the New York Times—too doped with Mandrax and marijuana to understand what they were talking about—he began the last catastrophic slide to self-destruction with certainty, with the predictability almost of an actor captive to a script.

In terms of human tragedy Carter’s story is far more deserving of a prize than the simplistic juxtaposition of a vulture and a baby, if not in the silver bromide category. For a start it moves beyond symbolism into the realm of story-telling with the presentation of a sublime paradox; that what may have been one of the great images of our time, in its appeal to our humanity, was snatched with such apparent inhumanity by a photographer who seemingly did not bother to see what happened to the baby, much less tried to help it.

But paradoxes do not exist, being merely an assertion, or a confession to lack of understanding. And understanding of Carter is to be found there, in the accumulation of images that makes up the bang-bang club. The bang-bang club never existed, declare Marinovich and Silva at the outset of the book. But it does and has long existed. It is not a professional organisation, or a drinking circle, but an association.

Membership is open to those who survive the day to be left asking themselves not why Carter failed to pick up the baby, but why it was there. Not why Silva kept on taking pictures of his best friend’s death, but how a round from a “peace-keeper’s” gun was fired at point blank range into Oosterbroek’s chest.

“I was one of the circle of killers, shooting with wide-angle lens ... ,” Marinovich writes of a mob murder at Soweto’s Nancefield Hostel which put him a previously broke freelancer clutching “obsolete cameras” on the road to international reputation. But the cameras are not just obsolete, they are irrelevant, as one discovers in the words he finds to conjure up the images of that long-ago murder: “The Zulus and I took after him, a pack hunting its terrified prey ... the slithering, whispery sound ... of steel entering flesh, the solid thud of the heavy fighting sticks crushing the bone of his skull. Sounds I had never heard before, but they made sickening sense, as if this was exactly the noise a roughly sharpened, rusty iron rod should make when pushed deep into a human torso.”

There were no answers to be found there, in the circle of killers, even if one were able to stop the action and inquire of the participants. Marinovich did not join the club in Nancefield Hostel, but when he lowered his mother into the bath. A camera, a page, a paint-brush, a musical score, the instrument one chooses does not matter; anything which comes to hand will do.

Whether the images are from war or peace, from hostel or home makes no difference. Membership is not to provide answers, or even to pose the questions. It is to fill the silence.

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