'Look, I have an unfortunate past," the destitute photographer tells me shortly after sitting down. We are in a coffee shop on Bree Street, a short walk from St Monica's Home, a Bo-Kaap shelter for oldies where he lives. "I call it the Last Gasp," he will later joke. But before we get to this relaxed point, before anything, he wants to clarify something.
"I've bumped off a few people," says Juhan Kuus (60). "I shot and killed people, and whatnot. And I don't have a good name."
I ask the lanky man with a weather-beaten face to elaborate. There were three incidents, he replies, in 1976, 1987 and again in 1992.
Born in Cape Town, to a father of Estonian origin and a mother of local Afrikaner stock, Kuus started his career at Die Burger in 1970, working as a darkroom assistant, messenger and junior photographer. By the time the Soweto rebellion's energy reached his hometown, in late June 1976, he was already a decorated news photographer working for the Sunday paper Rapport.
"I shot and wounded three people who were trying to stone me," says Kuus of the earliest shooting incident. Was it a proportional response? "It was a totally new phenomenon. None of us knew what the hell was going on."
In 1987, the same year Kuus published his only book of photographs, South Africa in Black and White, he was drawn into an altercation on a communal property where he and his former wife rented a cottage, along Beyers Naudé Drive, Johannesburg. A confrontation between the property's gardener and a group of men who had earlier assaulted him turned violent.
"I killed one and seriously wounded another two," says Kuus in his fluent, almost patrician speaking voice.
He was unsuccessfully charged with murder and attempted murder. Tertius Myburgh, his editor at the Sunday Times, wanted to fire him. Not long afterwards, Kuus began a 14-year engagement as the Southern Africa correspondent for Sipa Press, an independent French agency. He went on to produce an astonishing body of work, much of it marked by his proximity to violent action.
In 1991, Kuus photographed a weeping white policeman on the streets of Ventersdorp protecting a young black boy with a missing shoe during the panic unleashed by the Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) in the town.
Two years later, after the massacre at St. James Church in Kenilworth, Kuus accompanied a rifle-carrying policeman tasked with protecting white schoolchildren on their bus ride home. His black-and-white photo is bleached of cheap sentiment.
The remarkable empathy conveyed in both of these pictures, as well as his more recent essay on life inside the Bosasa Horizon youth detention centre on Old Faure Road, is abruptly contradicted in the coffee shop. Three young boys from Bo-Kaap enter the shop to hawk their homemade cupcakes. Kuus shoos them away.
"I don't like children," he states and anxiously returns to the details of his sullied biography. After the 1987 incident, says Kuus, he was widely shunned.
"You don't often have journalists working together, yet often photographers work together and look out for each other," says Ray Joseph, a veteran news journalist and media consultant. Joseph was one of many people who referred me to Kuus when I set out to meet photographers who specialised in loud and explicit photography.
Alongside Fanie Jason, Joseph rates Kuus as one of the best news photographers this country has produced. "He is a total lunatic who was always his own worst enemy," says Joseph. "But he had the ability to get up close and personal, be it bang-bang or recording people on the margins."
Before it became a proper noun associated with the work of Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and João Silva, "bang-bang" was newsdesk-speak for hardcore conflict pictures. Kuus excelled at bang-bang. In 1994, as bullets rained down from Shell House and stick-wielding Inkatha Freedom Party supporters hugged the grounds outside the Johannesburg Public Library, Kuus made pictures.
Two years earlier, he recorded the less visible iterations of the conflict that, on March 28 1994, came to the ANC's headquarters in town. Unlike the Bang-Bang Club, who ventured into the East Rand collectively, in effect forming an improvised defence unit, Kuus went in alone. In Thokoza one day he was set upon by a group of Zulu hostel dwellers. Police intervened.
"I was arrested, locked up and then released," he says. "I went home, had a few beers. It was my ex-wife's birthday. Instead of taking her to dinner, I decided, 'To hell with this, I'm going back to the township.' Because it was night and a bit dodgy, I took a gun."
Arthur Maimane, Drum's crime reporter, also packed heat. In A Good-Looking Corpse, his 1991 redux of Drum's golden age, Mike Nicol speculates that he took the gun just in case Maimane met up with the gangsters he wrote about.
According to Guy Tillim, who started out as a photojournalist covering township conflict in the late 1980s, a white photographer wearing a gun in a township signified something completely different: that person was reckoned to be a part of the state security apparatus. To hang out with Kuus was to risk this association.
On entering Thokoza in his Avis-hire Mercedes-Benz, Kuus was pulled over at a makeshift roadblock manned by township residents. Things escalated. Kuus drew his gun again. Shots cracked in the night.
"Look, I have estranged myself from everybody," says Kuus without bitterness. He mentions photographer Paul Weinberg's letter published in the Sunday Star in 1990.
"It was in response to an article Kuus had written about himself, called Extremis," says Weinberg, who at the time of the letter was vice-president of the South African Union of Journalists. "Kuus in the article brazenly claimed he carried a gun for protection and was only trying to do his job, bringing news to the world. He was in contravention of the ethics of journalists … and was way out of sync with the position all of us took when we worked on the front line and in difficult situations."
Kuus, who was expelled by the Foreign Correspondents Association, admits that he's a "bit of an untouchable. I don't mind being on the outside looking in, I'm used to it, but I just wish they wouldn't ignore the work."
He starts to fidget with something in his bag. "I am reading a book by Joseph Campbell on mythology," he says at the same time. "I wrote something down to bring to you." He removes a small scrap of paper, unfolds it and begins to read a passage from the American scholar of mythology's 1988 book, The Power of Myth.
"The only way to describe a human being truly is by his imperfections," he reads in a voice befitting a eulogy. "The perfect human being is uninteresting. It is the imperfections of life that are lovable."
Loud and explicit
There is a photo from 1956 by Peter Magubane that led me to Kuus, not immediately, but consequentially. Magubane, then a staffer at Drum magazine, that great champion of loud and explicit photography, took three pictures of Boy Mangena, the celebrated township thug, knifeman and bully who died violently outside a cinema in Alexandra.
"The first two images, reminiscent of New York photographer Weegee's harsh images of crime scenes, show the body lying awkwardly," writes photo historian Darren Newbury in his 2009 book Defiant Images. "They offer a graphic portrayal of murder and the indignity of death."
By comparison, the photo shown in Drum possessed a "more distanced aesthetic", as Newbury states. Mangena's right arm was placed over his chest, a hat used to obscure his bloodied face. The body has been "composed" for the camera, writes Newbury.
In a country characterised by its mordant sense of humour and brash displays of social manners, why this modesty in our published photography? Given the joyous absurdity and often abrasive character of daily life here, why this propriety and chasteness? These questions are a bridge to another, a nagging one that has occupied me for years: Who is our Weegee?
Born Ascher Fellig in present-day Ukraine, and better known as Weegee, this 1930s New York photojournalist has been called "the papa of paparazzi". It is a poor title. Weegee made eye-catching pictures of lovers and losers, fox-furred socialites and conmen, burning buildings and children jostling to see their first murder.
When I began looking for his equal locally, I was often referred to Billy Monk. Born in 1937, Monk lived a hard and sexually rampant life before dying violently in 1982. In the late 1960s, he worked as a bouncer and photographer, producing candid portraits of the drunken rabble who frequented the Catacombs, a club on Bree Street in Cape Town.
Kuus met Monk when he was an impressionable teenager, in 1968. Monk kept a studio in an old Victorian house on Park Road, opposite a takeaway restaurant owned by Kuus's mother. One day Kuus entered Monk's studio and asked him to teach him about photography. "Fuck off, you don't know the difference between sex and a hamburger," Monk said, and chased him away.
But Monk's slender archive of pictures, discovered in a studio in 1979, is too marginal to be compared with Weegee.
What about Magubane? There are certainly overlaps. Both men were humanists, each possessing a natural curiosity necessary for that most empirical of arts: news photography. Similarly, they not only worked the streets for stories, but, crucially, were also both of the streets, versed in its broken grammar, aware of its strange poetry. And they were entrepreneurs, Weegee intercepting police radio to get to crime scenes first, Magubane concealing his cameras in milk cartons or loaves of bread in a bid to thwart the cops.
But Magubane moved on from news, in recent years using his camera to record indigenous customs. He is his own man: if not an innovator, certainly an original.
I asked David Goldblatt (83) about Weegee, or rather read to him the convoluted note I sent to a number of photographers and journalists over the past month to clarify my intentions. The note used Goldblatt as a kind of foil.
In the introduction to his 1998 book of photographs South Africa: The Structure of Things Then, in my view his magnum opus, Goldblatt wrote: "I felt no need to record those situations and moments of extremity that were the stuff of the media. It was to the quiet and commonplace where nothing 'happened' and yet all was contained and immanent that I was most drawn."
But, I wondered, what of photographers who are and were drawn to the loud and spectacular, where something happened, where everything was and is uncontained and explicit? What I am looking for, I explained, are photographers drawn to murder scenes, car crashes, brothels, bars, those men and women who photographed celebs, boozers, losers, murderers, pimps, conmen, fallen sports heroes and powerful men who prefer their sushi served on naked bodies. Goldblatt listened quietly.
"I expressed a very personal attitude to photography and my work," he responded. "I wouldn't presume to lay that trip on anyone else. There are certainly some who are explicit, who aim for the blatant exposure of events, particularly of bad events, violence, gore, killing and death. Of those, Kuus stands out, unquestionably."
While working on his 1987 book of photographs, Kuus asked Goldblatt to look at his work in progress.
"The book, from cover to cover, offered absolutely no relief from violence," recalls Goldblatt. "To me, the interesting thing, if you like, but also the damning thing, was it made no difference what the source of the violence was. His book was an extraordinary evocation, I suppose, of an engagement with death and violence, no matter its source. He was unquestioningly the arch-exponent of explicit photography."
Twice awarded a World Press Photo Award, in 1977 and 1991, albeit both third prizes, Kuus's unambiguous photography gained him attention and respect. Ian Berry, the Drum photojournalist who witnessed the Sharpeville Massacre, asked him in the late 1980s to submit a portfolio to Magnum Photos, the legendary co-operative photo agency.
According to Kuus an American photo-journalist who was a member of Magnum from 1986 to 2001 intervened early on in the difficult three-step selection process. He says the associate in the field of the Bang-Bang Club twice snuffed his chances of gaining membership. "Jesus, it hurt. It took me years to recover, especially after the second time."
In a follow-up exchange, Kuus made clear that he bears the man no ill will, nor Goldblatt or Weinberg. "The fault is entirely mine," he wrote. "My mistakes and then mistakes again. Those folk are just very decent and they do not know how to handle one who is a little too rough around the edges."
Hanne Thiart (57), formerly of Die Burger and Cape Argus, is a stocky man with great bushels of hair coming out of his ears. He is prone to lively caricature and highly animated outbursts. He also doesn't mince his words. On Oosterbroek, whom he met at the 1989 Ilford Photo Press Awards: "He was a filthy fuck."
"When you say Goldblatt, I say 'uhhh'," he offers. "Those pretentious fucking portraits with his lighting and his rich-man's Hasselblads. And Leadership magazine. It is all so elite. I'm not into that."
"He is a gentleman," counters Kuus. "To be a newspaper photographer you have to be a bit of a rubbish and a rogue. That's me. I'm at peace with that. I have recognised the darkness, acknowledged it, and am moving towards the light."
Thiart, who is more a prankster than a rogue, has his own ideas about news photographers deserving a second look. Mostly, they are former Cape Argus shooters: Jim McLagan, Doug Pithey and Dana le Roux ("a difficult Afrikaner who chain-smoked and wore a suit every day"). He also mentions Benny Gool, the former Cape Times photographer whose essay on crime boss Cyril Beeka's funeral in 2011 is distilled South African Gothic.
He reserves some of his most passionate praise – delivered in a high-pitched voice – for Fanie Jason. His appreciation is based on first-hand knowledge of the difficult situation Jason retrieved pictures from.
Fanie Jason. (David Harrison)
In 1995, Earl Spencer, Princess Diana's brother, moved to Cape Town; two years later news broke of his adulterous habits. "Fuck, we were hanging out of trees," remembers Thiart. "There was no way we could get him. Fanie put on overalls and pretended to be a labourer. It was classic. What a pleasure."
Jason (60), the eldest child of a Tswana man and a coloured woman, remembers: "I saw black workers going in. The next day, I arrived in an overall and slipped in, my camera hidden in the Tupperware. I had a 50mm lens, not a long lens. I saw Spencer walking with his child."
"Hi baas," he waved – and photographed Spencer. "The short sting with Spencer made my whole career," says Jason, who in a 1997 New York Times profile was described as "South Africa's only paparazzo". Solid sleuthing typically prefaced his many photographic incursions, which in the past netted him high-profile stories on Oprah Winfrey and supermodel Eva Herzigova.
"Don't underestimate your domestic worker," says Jason, who used an informal network of alert maids, gardeners and hotel staff to glean information about his subjects and their habits. An innocent conversation with an elderly woman he knew in Gugulethu inadvertently led him to the bed and breakfast that was a meeting place for Spencer during his infidelities.
"I gave the old lady R10 000 for that information," says Jason, whose career as a paparazzo was made by his relentless pursuit of Spencer. Such was Jason's infamy during the 1990s that even sangomas and statesmen knew of his celebrity-chasing habits. "When I met [Nelson] Mandela once, the first thing he asked was how my case against Spencer was going," chuckles Jason.
He is seated on a lounger in his home in Gugulethu. "It was amazing that this old man knew. When I met him again, he told Graça Machel that I was very naughty."
"You must stop chasing my friends' shadows," he recalls Madiba jokingly admonishing him.
Now stockier than the fashionable young man who at 22 modelled for local fashion catalogues, Jason's greying eyebrows are like waning moons around his brown eyes.
His father's blindness, says Jason, played a formative role in shaping his appreciation of sight and the responsibilities of looking. He recalls an event from the late 1950s, a fight involving a drunken couple outside the family home. Jason was despatched by his father to see what was happening. "What did she do?" his father asked when he returned. "Did people stop?"
"He wanted details," recalls Jason. "I had to capture with my eyes the images and relate them back to him. I still do the same thing that I did for my father, but with photographs."
Joseph says: "I rate Fanie as one of the best shooters I've ever worked with."
The two not only worked on the sensationalist tabloid stories involving high-profile British expats resident in Cape Town, but also on Jason's activist-motivated essay on Aids during the presidency of Thabo Mbeki. "Not only does he have a great eye, but he also has a great news sense and is intrepid and can shoot anything from serious documentary and hard news to hardcore paparazzi."
Jason's portfolio includes photos from the same troubled events attended by Tillim in the late 1980s. He also travelled to Bophuthatswana on his own steam in 1994, witnessing – alongside Oosterbroek, Carter and James Nachtwey – the grisly scene when police constable Ontlametse Menyatsoe shot and killed three wounded AWB members.
In 1993, Jason put together an exhibition of his photos that he toured to local schools and universities. A schoolboy in a wheelchair asked him a pressing question: "Yo, uncle! Do you carry a gun with you when you go to these places?" The answer: No.
Before the paparazzi work came along in 1995, Jason was a struggling freelancer. He remembers having two rolls of film and a snub 50mm lens while standing outside Victor Verster Prison waiting for Mandela to be released.
"My pictures are a spot Mandela competition. Let's be frank about it. Do you think you can be unemployed and be a photographer? You can't."
His tabloid work, he says proudly, enabled him to buy a house and put his son, Lee-Roy, an emerging photographic talent with a privileged insider's view of Jo'burg's emerging black middle class, through school.
Equally important, it enabled him to do self-funded projects such as his essays on Cape Town's forgotten jazzmen and the horse-and-cart culture that survives on the Cape Flats. Drawing on the model of Ernest Cole, this country's first black freelancer, he has made self-sufficiency his key objective.
"As a young man growing up, I was enthusiastic," says Jason. "I looked at myself as a photographer. I had great aspirations and was ambitious." Starting out in the early 1970s as a street photographer using a borrowed camera, by the end of the decade Jason was a sought-after pin-up photographer for Drum and Pace. "I was the Hugh Hefner of the townships," he boasts.
Emboldened, he approached Cape Town's newspapers for work. "We don't employ blacks," he was told. "That's when I realised I am not a photographer, I am a black photographer. There is a difference."
So he resolved to go it alone, and set out to shoot anything and everything. "I am a shifting spanner, and a shifting spanner is not a size 13," he says in summary of his capabilities.
Jason's story is very different from that of Kuus, whose career and work were enabled by a powerful white media with a big budget. And yet, to quote Kuus, both men "languish in the shadows".
If there is anything to be extracted from this fact, it is that the past – a place illuminated by many capable photographers, some now venerated names globally – remains fundamentally dark.
Every so often, we should remind ourselves to rattle around in that darkness. And accept whatever responds.