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