African Studies Quarterly

The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva. (Foreword by Archbishop Desmond Tutu). New York: Basic Books, 2000. 253 pp.

Print/Download PDF

South Africa was, for all intents and purposes, a war zone in the period from 1990 to 1994. So called “black-on-black” violence was in reality both a direct manifestation of apartheid and a phenomenon fomented by the South African state and its draconian security forces. It tore up the black townships and homelands that had served as the most blatant physical manifestation of the apartheid system. As the prospects for change within South Africa became inevitable, the white government and securocrats hoped to divide the masses that supported Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress (ANC) coalition from the minority who followed Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). 

As with any war, on the scene, but literally behind the camera, were intrepid war reporters who were both part of, and yet separate from, the stories they covered. One group in particular gained fame for their swashbuckling, fearless, and profoundly influential photography from the frontlines of apartheid’s last stand. After a South African lifestyle magazine dubbed this small crew the “Bang Bang Club,” a name that referred to their experiences on the front lines where the “bang bang” (i.e. fighting) occurred, that nickname stuck. Although the membership of this club sometimes changed, there were four consistent members: Greg Marinovich, Joao Silva, Kevin Carter, and Ken Oosterbroek. They knew the lay of the land and where events were going to take place even before they happened. They took the best pictures. They showed the most drive and displayed the most bravado. Two of them lost their lives in events directly or indirectly related to their work in southern Africa’s most visible hot spot. In effect, the Bang Bang Club was the most exclusive clique in photojournalism in South Africa during a time when South Africa was the place to be.

The Bang Bang Club is a memoir cum history of these years of struggle. Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, the two surviving consistent members of the club, have produced a valuable, insightful, and highly readable work that at different times inspires admiration, repulsion, sadness, awe and disgust. Although a work of both men, the book takes the voice and perspective of Marinovich, who won the Pulitzer Prize for one of his pictures from the “Hostel Wars” in Thokoza, a township 16 kilometers southeast of Johannesburg that was the scene of some of the worst violence in the period of transition. This is an effective approach, as it allows Marinovich to introduce the story with one relatively fluid narrative line and memoirist’s voice while at the same time providing him with a somewhat more omniscient approach than works of this sort can ordinarily have.

Marinovich and Silva do not shrink from some of the more disquieting elements of their profession either. Indeed, the most effective sections of the book deal with the self-doubt that the men have when taking pictures while all around them atrocities are being committed These feelings are especially acute when the men are thrust into situations where they can actually aid victims, protect unarmed people, or save the lives of their putative subjects. And oftentimes the men do take these steps – almost always after getting their shots. But sometimes they do not. One example of this that provides the centerpiece for the book comes after the deeply troubled but remarkably talented Kevin Carter takes a picture of a little girl in the Sudan (although the book’s center is the South African struggle, like all freelancers and especially war photographers, the Bang Bang Club sometimes found themselves in other parts of Africa and even in Bosnia and elsewhere). The girl is starving, curled up in the fetal position. In the picture, seemingly stalking the starving girl, is a vulture. The picture is stunning in its composition, and garnered Carter the Pulitzer Prize, the first for photography in the history of the New York Times. But almost immediately the question arose: what happened to the little girl? Did she live? And perhaps most important, what did Carter do to help her? This answer would haunt Kevin Carter for the remainder of his life. The little girl was no more than one hundred meters from a newly established relief station, yet Carter did not carry her to assure that she would get food. He would later promise people that she survived – that he had scared off the vulture, and that the aid station was close and she would have been fine. But why did he not just carry here there?

Not surprisingly, Marinovich and Silva do not answer beyond a shadow of doubt the question of the photographer’s role in the events that they depict. On numerous occasions this issue emerges, and each time the photographers respond differently, with duty to the job usually, but not always, coming first. This was part of their unwritten code. They were providing a service, often at great personal risk, and usually in such a way that inevitably made them enemies within the apartheid state and sometimes among the factions their photographs depicted. They were photographers first and foremost. Further, given what the group saw, it was almost impossible not to become calloused to atrocities around them to some degree, or at least to subvert everything to the job.

In the end, Kevin Carter ended up committing suicide, though not necessarily because of the uproar over his composition, which on the whole still garnered him great acclaim despite the implications that the picture raised. Instead, Carter was a tortured soul with a drug addiction and personal life he could not overcome.  Marinovich and Silva depict Carter’s descent sensitively but unflinchingly.

Carter was not the first of the Bang Bang Club to die, however. That (dubious?) distinction fell to Ken Oosterbroek, the oldest member of the group, and the one who, early on, had the most success of the group. Competitive, handsome, tall, and imposing, Oosterbroek was the mentor of the other three, most of all to Kevin Carter. On 18 April, 1994, a particularly intense fighting had broken out in Thokoza, and the newly formed but ill-conceived National Peacekeeping Force (NPF) was on the scene to try to restore order. Instead, the presence and actions of the NPF exacerbated things. In the midst of heavy crossfire, Oosterbroek and Marinovich both took gunshots. Oosterbroek died as a result of his injuries. Marinovich did not fully recover for more than a year and was unable to cover the South African election just days after the shootings.

These shootings, and Oosterbroek’s death, are in many ways the heart and soul of this arresting book. In one of the most poignant details, we see how Joao Silva snaps pictures of his slain friend while others are carrying him off to find help. Silva, like the others, loved and admired his friend and he knew that Oosterbroek would have expected nothing less. Ambivalence settles over this event: Had Silva done the right thing? And again, what is the photographer’s role in such a situation?

This is a moving book about an important time in South African history one that scholars are still just beginning to understand. Marinovich and Silva are not scholars and they do not attempt to present a scholarly work in the Bang Bang Club (which is in the process of being made into a motion picture). Yet this book is one that any student of Africa and especially South Africa, journalism, and photography will want to read. It is also a book that has received, and should continue to receive, wide popular readership. It is written in a straightforward, lucid, sometimes vivid prose. It evokes a range of emotions. Not surprisingly, it contains three sections of pictures that show both the work of the Bang Bang Club, as well as the club members in action. The two Pulitzer Prize photographs, Carter’s in the Sudan and Marinovich’s from the Hostel wars are shown, as are many others that won awards or acclaim. One wishes that there had been more of these pictures, but this is a desire born of admiration and interest, rather than a quibble or complaint. 

This is a wonderful book. Hopefully, if Hollywood doesn’t twist it up, it will make great a movie, although it is hard to see how Hollywood effects can add to the crisp prose and monumental photographs that the real-life Bang Bang Club provide in their memoir.

Derek Charles Catsam
Department of History
Minnesota State University, Mankato