Essay Club Part 1

Above: In the first of a two-part series on the Bang Bang Club, Joao Silva discusses his photography in South Africa in the 1990s. Tomorrow we will bring you the photography of another member of the informal club — Greg Marinovich.

Correction appended | Though legendary in photojournalism circles, the Bang Bang Club never formally existed. It was really more of a bond among four young photographers — Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek and Joao Silva — united by their ideals, their photography and the historical events unfolding in South Africa in the 1990s.

Their bond was formed in the field, where injustice and death lurked. It was a camaraderie that came from the constant experience of mortal danger — Mr. Oosterbroek was killed during a gun battle in April 1994. They also shared a mutual understanding of how important it was to document the tumultuous events unfolding in front of them as apartheid gave way and South Africans struggled to form a new government. It was a battle most brutally waged in townships populated mainly by poor blacks.

“Amazing how often these guys were shooting pictures of people committing murder, burning people alive,” said Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times. The Times’s bureau chief in Johannesburg from 1992 until 1995, he often worked with Mr. Marinovich.

Mr. Marinovich was fairly new to photojournalism in 1991 when he first photographed the killing of a man. “I had been too scared to say anything to try to stop it,” he said, “and so that really disturbed me about myself and who I thought I was at the moment.”

A month later Mr. Marinovich came across a very similar situation. But this time he did try to intervene, with no success. The series of photographs showed supporters of South Africa’s African National Congress burning alive a man they believed to be a Zulu spy. Mr. Marinovich was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for those pictures the following year.

The group routinely covered situations where it “was not a healthy place to be a witness,” as Mr. Keller put it.

That is the core of what the Bang Bang Club is remembered for: bearing witness. Mr. Carter’s picture of a starving Sudanese girl with a vulture nearby, first published in The Times, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994.

When an article about some of the photographers was published under the title “The Bang Bang Paparazzi,” the group was offended. “The kind of journalism, the photography we do — it’s real lives; you know, people living, people dying,” Mr. Silva said. In a later article, the writer renamed the group the Bang Bang Club. Then, after Mr. Oosterbroek’s death and Mr. Carter’s suicide in July 1994, Mr. Silva and Mr. Marinovich wrote a book, “The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War” (2000).

The book contains scenes familiar to South Africans like Steven Silver, a director who is making it into a movie. He remembers the fearless photographers. “Bullets would start to fly and everyone would scramble and you would see these guys jump into the middle of it and wade right into the center of it,” Mr. Silver recalled.

Earlier this year, Mr. Silver, Mr. Silva (being played by Neels Van Jaarsveld) and Mr. Marinovich (being played by Ryan Phillippe) were once again on common ground with others who survived the conflict. During filming, people rushed out of their homes with magazines showing Mr. Marinovich’s photograph of the burning man. In some scenes, residents of the townships played themselves, as extras.

Everyone involved helped make the film as authentic as possible, which was Mr. Silver’s key concern. Mr. Marinovich and Mr. Silva were brought on as consultants to ensure that the details were accurate. “It was a lot more difficult than they had anticipated,” he said.

“It wasn’t that long ago; the history is still very much alive — in the people of the townships as much as in Greg and Joao.”

Mr. Marinovich and Mr. Silva are writing an epilogue to their book to be released with the movie.


An earlier version of this post conflated two events in Mr. Marinovich’s career, creating the impression that he had won a Pulitzer Prize for photographs of a killing he had been too scared to try to stop. The killing in which he felt powerless to intervene had in fact occurred a month earlier. Mr. Marinovich did try, without success, to thwart the killing for which he later won a Pulitzer.

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