Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

No end to Silva streak

‘He’s just so fast, man!” was the judgment of internationally acclaimed photographer James Nachtwey, on João Silva’s photo-journalism.

  • Joao Silva: Perspective of a medical professional
  • Greg Marinovich, Silva’s longtime friend, colleague and member of the group of South African photographers known as the “Bang Bang Club”, echoes the point: “He’s faster than anyone else in seeing the shot, moving to the shot and getting the shot; he’s so alert, always half-crouched and constantly moving. He’s really the most hardworking person in the field.

    Robert Capa said: ‘if your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough’. João is always close enough.”

    We present some of Joao Silva’s most famous vintage works, with quotes from close friends and colleagues, who share their thoughts on Silva’s amazing talent and where his unique skills lie. Greg Marinovich, Alf Khumalo, Vin Alabiso and Gavin Rooke contribute.

    Silva (44) lost part of one leg at the knee and the other at mid-shin when he stood on a land mine in Afghanistan while on assignment for the New York Times. He was embedded with the fourth infantry division of the United States army.

    A South African who cut his teeth in the township war zones during the 1980s and 1990s, Silva has become a regular in some of the most violent conflict areas, including Rwanda, the Middle East and the Balkans. Among the many accolades he has received is the World Press Photo Award.

    Colleagues reported that he continued to shoot images immediately after suffering his terrible injuries.

    He is recovering in the intensive care unit of a hospital in Germany and was set to fly with his wife, Viv, to the Walter Reed Medical Centre in Washington, DC, for further treatment.

    Gavin Rooke, owner of the Rooke Gallery and curator of Silva and Marinovich’s landmark 1993-1996 works, said Silva delivered on the three basic questions he used to test quality: Does the image document a moment in time that will never be repeated again? Does it make a strong conceptual statement and is it unique? And, does it work at the level of craft?

    “When you consider that João achieves all this in highly pressured and stressful environments, you realise just how special his work is. Yet he’s not thick-skinned, he continues to be empathetic. That’s what makes this accident so gut-wrenching; he’s such a nice guy.”

    Marinovich said Silva is “a doer, not a talker. He just cares about the pictures and telling those stories.”

    Silva’s style contradicts the notion that war photographers are cowboys and adrenalin junkies.

    Interviewed by fellow New York Times photographer Michael Kamber in Baghdad last year, he said: “People get a kick out of bungee jumping, jumping out of airplanes. How stupid is that? At least I have a point. There’s no adrenalin in stepping over corpses trying to show the reality of mass murder.

    “The bottom line is: I feel a certain obligation as a journalist to witness these things and record whatever I can. I don’t believe that the message necessarily changes anybody’s mind, but I do believe it’s important.”

    Alf Khumalo, a colleague of Silva’s at The Star during the late 1980s and early 1990s, described him as one of the bravest photographers he had worked with, saying: “He always goes for the real picture, even when there’s drama.”

    Pointing to Silva’s famous shot of angry Inkatha Freedom Party members attacking trains, Khumalo said: “His passion for photography means he is able to push fear from his mind as he works to get the shot — even in a situation as frightening as that.”

    Silva’s own assessment of his work is typically antiheroic: “I don’t know what I’ve done that’s brave except going into a dangerous situation and taking pictures. People do far more heroic deeds than I’ll ever do. I’ve witnessed some of them. I certainly don’t want to get hurt. I certainly don’t want to get killed. But you have no control over destiny inside a Humvee when a roadside bomb goes off. I’ve seen so many people get hurt. I don’t exclude the fact that it might be my turn one day.”

    The view is that bad luck rather than bad judgment was Silva’s undoing. “He was following mine sweepers, in places where dogs had not found any live land mines. It’s a mystery how one escaped ­detection,” Marinovich ­said.

    After speaking to Silva, Marinovich believes he is unlikely to be spiritually crushed by his injuries.

    “He’s got the right spirit. He’s always understood and intellectually prepared himself for such an event.

    “Yes, his life is going to be completely different and difficult at times, but he’s alive and he’s there for his kids and his family and all of us.”

    João Silva’s vintage prints are for sale through the Rooke Gallery. All proceeds will go to Silva’s fund.

    Subscribe for R500/year

    Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

    Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them and get a 57% discount in your first year.

    Lauren Clifford-Holmes
    Lauren Clifford-Holmes is the multimedia editor and is in love with life behind the lens. Working in both video and stills, she seeks to tell the stories which matter most — from work relating to the environment, the rhino wars and social issues, to arts and entertainment. She's energetic, passionate and hardworking. She also happens to be a big fan of dress up parties and is mad about boxing training and horses.

    Related stories


    If you’re reading this, you clearly have great taste

    If you haven’t already, you can subscribe to the Mail & Guardian for less than the cost of a cup of coffee a week, and get more great reads.

    Already a subscriber? Sign in here


    Subscribers only

    The South African Bone Marrow Registry celebrates 30 years of...

    ‘It’s not drilling into bones!’: Misconceptions keep donors away, says SABMR, but a match outside of a patient’s family is a needle in a haystack

    R500-million Covid-19 Gauteng hospital contract was irregularly awarded — SIU

    The bank accounts of Pro Service Consulting and Thenga Holdings have been frozen

    More top stories

    With its industrial base decimated, SA’s economy needs real change...

    Speaking at a book launch on Tuesday, the finance minister said a focus on manufacturing is critical to stem the country’s deepening unemployment crisis

    Defence team cagey about Zuma’s health after state advised he...

    The former president was absent from court, but his counsel argued that health matters be left aside, so as to hear his case for the removal of Billy Downer

    The South African Bone Marrow Registry celebrates 30 years of...

    ‘It’s not drilling into bones!’: Misconceptions keep donors away, says SABMR, but a match outside of a patient’s family is a needle in a haystack

    New clean fuel standards could be the end of refineries...

    In the absence of mechanisms to recoup investment into cleaner fuels, refineries may be faced with tough decisions

    press releases

    Loading latest Press Releases…