War photographers are either sleazy and glamorous, or noble and glamorous. At least this is what you will think if you believe the various literary or big screen adaptions of photojournalists over the years.
The first famous camp-follower’s tale was Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, set in the fictitious Ishmaelia (read Ethiopia/Abyssinia) in the 1930’s. The latest film adaption of a book on photojournalists is The Bang Bang Club, very loosely based on Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich’s book of the same name about South Africa’s bloody transition to democracy.
One might think that there would be a flowering of photojournalism in the continent that inspired those two books, albeit without the quarter-ton of luggage required by the correspondents of old. There is, after all, no shortage of conflict, famine and war on the continent to provide numerous scoops.
Yet when conflict photographers gather in hotspots to rekindle camaraderies in dimly-lit hotels to the accompaniment of throbbing generators, few Africans are among them. The glaring exception is South Africans. With all the conflicts in Africa, one would expect more than the few war photographers who have emerged.
Why? If the causes are not compelling enough to warrant the risk and commitment, then surely the lure of hard currency, excitement, booze on expense accounts and sex-and-drugs-and-rock-’n-roll are reason enough; if one is to believe the rather crass filmic fantasies of the lives of photojournalists.
Rwandan journalist Shyaka Kanuma writes about Africa’s journalistic environment: “In many parts of Africa, those who set out to become journalists with the independent press [had] better be prepared to work with media organisations whose operations are hobbled in various ways… these news organisations operate in an environment in which active hostility from government and others is the norm.”
Kanuma regards much African press to be state- or business-friendly, propaganda arms for their masters, or, if maintaining independence, then likely to face extreme danger: “Many of the continent’s regimes are highly undemocratic; a good number of them are led by people who shot their way to power after ruinous rebel wars. Others “inherited” power and, occasionally, a leader might legitimately win an election. What almost all of these leaders have in common is that once they are in power they entrench themselves at the expense of everything else. They rig elections, and they divert the constitution or rewrite it to contain provisions for a lifetime presidency. They deal with political opponents or dissidents by locking them up indefinitely in degrading conditions. They also legislate draconian press laws to muzzle the inquisitive, critical elements of the press.”
The hurdles for photojournalists or war photographers working in Africa are even greater – the person with the camera is so easily to identify, either to target or to prevent them working.
Despite this, there are some scenarios across the continent where war photography has played a role in determining how society and history view a conflict, perhaps even how that conflict has played out. More recently, there is a case to be made for the definition of conflict photography to be extended to include documenting a war of ideas playing itself out across the continent.
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In the Horn of Africa, rather near to where Scoop was set yet a lifetime later, another war took place. From the 1960’s, Eritrean guerrillas fought a protracted war of independence, to be free of Ethiopian misrule; first from the divine and brutal reign of Emperor Haile Selassie, and then from the Red Terror of Mengistu Haile Mariam’s Derg regime. On paper, it seems unlikely that the Eritreans could ever defeat the militarily – and numerically – superior Ethiopians, who were initially supported by the USA and then the Soviet Union.
Uniquely, the Eritreans decided to document their liberation – they wanted to be in a position to write their own history, and not have their epic struggle distorted by the outside world’s capricious attention span. More prosaically, they needed to ensure a steady stream of appropriate imagery to keep alive funding from the Eritrean diaspora.
Some of the fighters, both male and female combatants, were assigned as photographers. Their brief was to be both soldier and reporter, and to use their discretion when to shoot with the camera, or the gun.
Photo: Eritrean reporter tapes an interview with his Kalashnikov on his shoulder. (Siver Halide martyrs)
Russom Fesahaye recounts how it began. “At first we were all guerrillas in the field. All I wanted to do was to fight. But later it was realised that we had to document the battles. I had worked in a photo lab in Asmara before I joined up. The Eritrean People’s Liberation Force gave me a Zenith (a Soviet Union-made camera). Gun in one hand, camera in the other. With a gun you can hide, not with a camera. You have to be right on the front line with the small ammunition.”
It was also clear that one of the main reasons, perhaps the main reason, for documenting the liberation struggle was to fulfil the needs of propaganda and agitation – Agitprop. The war of ideas, the need to unite disparate Eritreans behind the EPLF. The Eritrean warrior-photographers were portraying their own conflict – does one really expect them to have adhered to the ‘objective’ standards of journalism taught at Western schools?
While this does not exactly fit the image of the neutral war photographer, nor adhere to the accepted practice of journalism, the fact is that the efforts of these warrior photographers left an archive that is unparalleled in African history. Three decades of war reportage from 1963 to 1991 has left a legacy of half a million black-and-white negatives.
Trawling the thousands of contact sheets, there are a large number of ordinary images interspersed with some of the most startling examples of war reportage. One image especially stood out – on a desert plain is a boy dressed in rags and staring into infinity, his face marked by the trauma of war. He is sitting on an unexploded 1,000 kilogram bomb dropped from the skies during the month-long aerial and seaborne bombing assault on the city of Massawa by the Soviet-backed Ethiopian air force after the rebels had taken the vital Red Sea port.
The photographer, Solomon Abraha, a humble man who is now a television cameraman with the state broadcaster, captured the most telling image of industrialised warfare in a non-industrial society; he sees his role as one within a collective. In fact, the pictures were never published with a byline; their work was all anonymous. Abraha’s overwhelming sentiment was that he worked within a collective, and his efforts were attuned to the success of that collective endeavour – The Struggle.
Photo: Cameraman armed with pistol on hip films scene.
One of the best among the photo-warriors was Seyoum Tsehaye. He developed into a mentor to many of the photographers, including Solomon Abraha.
Seyoum understood his duty as a soldier was to follow orders: to record the struggle and show war crimes against his people. Many photographers have been faced with the dilemma of wanting to put the camera down to assist or escape the horror of an extreme situation. But Seyoum’s discipline did not allow him any choices, so he continued to film. Inside, he says, he died a little every time he had to capture his civilian compatriots bleeding.
He recalls the month-long bombardment of Massawa in 1990: “I saw so many people killed. The child may be here and the mother there, sometimes both dead and sometimes the child is wounded and his mother is killed. It was cluster bombs that killed so many people at a time; burnt so many houses at a time, so it was like an inferno.
“I cannot see these pictures again, because they just take me to that situation. As people were rushing to pull bodies out of the rubble, fearing the next attack, I ran towards these two kids standing there; the blood was flowing from their faces and their hands. And this girl, maybe she was five years old, she asked her elder brother, ‘Are these people going to bury us?’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘they are going to take us to the hospital.’
“So in one bombardment you could take pictures of people collecting all these wounded and dead bodies. And in the next bombardment, you see the person from your previous pictures – he is killed.
“So taking this picture and hearing what they are saying, it really killed me. I was just crying and I was out of control.”
The Eritreans, and Seyoum, somehow withstood it all, gathering weaponry from their enemy in battle. The disintegration of the Soviet Union also heralded the end of the superpowers using Eritrea and Ethiopia as their proxies, and the Eritreans finally won their freedom, after thirty years of struggle.
Eritreans were proud of their sacrifices, and in the decade after 1990, they continued to do pro bono work on everything from resurrecting the Italian colonial railway and locomotives, to planting Neem trees along arid country roads.
Photo: Commander being interviewed in Massawa. 1990, by Habtom Berhe.
But once the euphoria had waned, some veterans felt that they had the right to more than just national sovereignty – they wanted personal and political freedom too. After a decade of freedom, followed by a pointless two-and-a-half-year border war against Ethiopia in 2000, collective thought and obedience were no longer ubiquitous.
Even among the elite of the ruling party, the fabric of revolutionary unity was fraying in the face of increasingly dictatorial rule. Many, like then-Minister for Trade and Industry and co-founder of the ruling party, Haile Woldense, questioned the failure of the government to make the transition to a true democracy. “We have to suffer from what we have done before. In following one line of thought, one school of thought, there are costs that one has to pay. That ideology was a very motivating thing and the people were very committed. That is why, in the liberation struggle period, the photographers – the propagandists – had an important role in the society.
“But it is not without a cost and it is particularly after independence that you start realising the cost. To not be very open, to not be very critical. There had not been a development of tolerance to different opinions.
“The Eritrean people need much more room for democracy. It is not something that has to be granted. Almost every family has paid its dear sons and daughters to the struggle for 30 years. And in the last two and half years war with Ethiopia, families who had lost all their sons and daughters except one, have now contributed this only remaining child. Who has the right to air opinion more than this family? It’s not a privilege, it’s not something that a government or a political organisation or any individual should grant to them.”
Woldense’s desire for freedom of expression saw him arrested and jailed without trial. It is believed he was killed – executed – about a year after he was detained.
The veteran photographer Seyoum Tsehaye was barred from the frontline when he wanted to document this new war against the old enemy. He began to question its rationale; why did more sons’ and daughters’ blood have to nourish the already-sated soil? His attitude saw him being shadowed by the secret police in 2001. Within weeks, he was also jailed with trial, tortured repeatedly and kept in remote desert prisons. Occasionally, exiled Eritrean journalists get word of him from sympathetic prison guards; they say he has grown his beard as a protest and is still defiant, despite being in solitary for over 12 years.
It is tragic that an honourable and egalitarian liberation organisation with great principles has descended into one of Africa’s worst dictatorships.
Whatever the politics behind the decision to send photographers into the field during their initial struggle, the fighter-photographers have left a crucial historic document behind. The lack of any sort of documentation of Eritrea’s latter war and internal struggle ensures that heroic acts, atrocities or war crimes are all unrecorded, pictorially. The Eritrean state had learnt of the power of its own war photography and wanted to ensure that no record of its unjustifiable border conflict tarnishes the historic legacy they think they have crafted for themselves.
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It is quite rare that an African conflict is comprehensively covered by professionals with no stake in the outcome. Most modern civil wars are, in fact, widely documented by partisans who have a desire to show what is happening to their compatriots, or their comrades. Or they are sporadically documented by outsiders, and left to oral historians and politicians to spin tales of valour and cruelty over the scarred battlegrounds.
One local photographer who decided to confront the violence around him and document images of scalding brutality is Kenyan photojournalist Boniface Mwangi. He did not have to travel to exotic locales to cover wars; rather, conflict came to him.
A couple of years before the orgy of post-electoral violence in 2007, Mwangi had an initiation into the violence underlying Kenyan society, especially in the sprawling slums of Kenya’s capital.
“I knew some people in Mathare, so when the Mungiki shot two police officers in the slums, a friend of mine called me and told the slum had been cordoned off. The residents of Mathare will forever remember June 2007 as the month that armed police backed by the dreaded General Service Unit turned the slum into a killing field to avenge the killing of their two colleagues. When the guns fell silent, 14 people were dead, most of them shot at close range or from the back either having surrendered or been cornered. I had many images of Mungiki members who were arrested by police, only for their bodies to be later found at the morgue with gunshot wounds. The coverage was risky because l wasn’t allowed to take images of police executing the suspects and at one point they pointed a gun at me for trying to do that. The police brutality was sanctioned by the government and so even after publication of the images no one was reprimanded.”
The Mungiki are a strictly Kikuyu ethnic criminal gang who are said to induct members through gruesome secret rites. Many of these rites and the Mungiki culture are said to stem from the Mau Mau, when the Kikuyu guerrillas were fighting British colonial rule in the ’50s. The Kikuyu, also Kenya’s most numerous group, went on to dominate post-independence politics. Many believe that the Mungiki were used by the old-guard Kikuyu politicians to stay in power as they fleeced the country’s coffers.