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.

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.

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.

RELATED Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

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.

Another morning I was compelled to ask my taxi driver if he had heard of the book or the photographers. He had not, though he said that he had heard on the radio about a South African photographer who was being held in Libya, and knew of the dangers associated with such reporting.

I turned to a page to show him the late Kevin Carter's haunting, Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a vulture eyeing a starving child in Southern Sudan in 1993. To many outsiders, this is the iconic and defining image of a war that claimed at least 2 million lives, many of them through starvation and disease. He had not seen the photo but had heard of the civil war in Africa's largest country.

“The Bang-Bang Club” struggles with the questions that haunt many journalists working in places where conflict is commonplace: "the Sin of Looking" (and not helping); the guilt and sometimes the seeming impotence to positively affect events swirling around oneself; and what to do with the terrible mental images seared into one's mind.

Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

A reporter has a relatively privileged position, which enables us not only to rush up to a government minister and demand answers to inquiries, but also to go into a volatile situation with the aim of documenting it whether the participants like it or not. And Mr. Marinovich and Mr. Silva write about the ensuing dangers this position can incur: Silva lost both legs last year in Afghanistan while on assignment.

For the people who live these experiences in their own countries, though, I wonder what they think of us strange beasts: we who tote voice recorders and notebooks, who go everywhere with our expensive cameras and equipment slung akimbo, and who often dress scruffily and inappropriately for such events as the inauguration of a president or a parliament hearing.

After all, what should they think, that we are somehow improving the lives of people by peering at them from a distance and portraying them as we see fit? I've had to accept that whether I like it or not, the connection between reporting on events and influencing their outcome is by no means direct; after all, a key aspect of journalism to attempt to report the "truth" without fear or favor.

Marinovich and Silva put it well near the end of their book: "We wanted to regain the joy we used to get from photography, as well as a full enjoyment from the ordinary things in life – something that had been impaired over the last years. It was time to put things in perspective: we had not personally suffered like some of the people we photographed, but neither were we responsible for their suffering – we had just witnessed it."

Sign up for our daily World Editor's Picks newsletter. Our best stories, in your inbox.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.