What it means for outsiders to cover war and tragedy in Africa
A reporter visits South Africa along with a copy of 'The Bang-Bang Club,' a book by war photographers that was recently turned into a movie, and contemplates the difference between covering conflict and living through it.
Johannesburg, South Africa
As a first-time visitor to South Africa, a colleague lent me a copy of “The Bang-Bang Club” – a compelling account of the conflict that rocked South Africa in the early 90s, as the country struggled internally and eventually overthrew apartheid.Skip to next paragraph
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I was familiar with the acclaimed photography of Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, the authors whose book was turned into a movie last year. I had also heard about the "Bang-Bang Club" – a group of white male war photographers who first became known for their heart wrenching and brave coverage of the bloody street battles and "township war" in their native South Africa but whose collective body of work now spans the globe.
Although two of the four original members of this elite but informal "club" tragically died in 1994 – one by a bullet fired in the "township war," another by his own hand – these photographers are responsible for some of the most striking images from many crucial events of the past two decade: war in post-Communist eastern Europe; famine in Somalia; wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Sudan ... the list goes on.
In between stints at my temporary day job in South Africa this past week and a half, I tore through this book. I was disappointed, however, to learn that many of the South Africans around me had not heard of it or seen the images that defined – for the outside world at least – the deadly twilight of apartheid in their own country.
One crisp autumn morning in Johannesburg, as I chatted with a black South African waitress at a coffee shop in an up-market neighborhood, where all of the customers seated around me were white, I found myself suddenly paging through it to show her the photos interspersed with text (in retrospect, this was an odd thing to do, given that the historic and, at times, horrific events portrayed were ones that this woman and her family likely experienced firsthand). Perhaps this woman was just humoring me, but she did seem interested in the story of the journalists, so I told her a film had recently come out about the book; "Oh, that is good," she said. "I don't read well," she explained, and went back to serving her customers.