“The first casualty of war is truth,” the Greek dramatist Aeschylus observed 2,500 years ago. Variations on his perspicacity have flowed down the centuries like wounds on the human soul. But who remains to tell that truth, no matter how brutalised and traumatic? The conflict photographers, who ensure that through their lenses the truth survives.
As we stood tonight in Johannesburg holding vigil for photographer Anton Hammerl, who disappeared 29 days ago in Libya, I thought back to when I first came across people like him. And why people like him must be kept safe in the work they do.
“Eish, these people!” I remember thinking the first time I went out 20 years ago with that generation of war photographers. Apartheid still gripped hard in 1991 when as a young journalist, I was dispatched on assignment to Nongoma in KwaZulu-Natal to see a hospital that was a mess.
I drove with Guy Adams, or rather, he piloted us into a world of which I knew nothing, because he thought I drove too slowly. This was true, my average speed was at the limit of 60km/h, but he careened at about 160km/h on some of the worst roads I’d been on, ever.
The hospital, when we arrived there, was a mess of discarded waste and used needles thrown into dangerous heaps. The patients were like zombies, the doctors despaired as death stalked, often unnecessarily. Guy was friendly to a newbie like me, helping me to determine angles and to push the doctors to show us more, to tell us more.
Later, going back to Johannesburg, driving even faster, he asked, “Man, can you see the lines coming up at you as you drive… it’s awesome, dude? You’ve gotta go faster…..”. By now, the cool wannabe journalist in me had given way to the simpering kid. I wanted to cry for my mummy as I tsked – clicking my tongue at “these people” – the odd and risky bunch of who did lines of whatever so the lines could come up at them on bloody dirt-roads in the middle of nowhere.
That trip hardened me up. When I complained, shaking my head, to my colleagues back at the Mail about “these people” – they laughed and said “that’s nothing”. When I tried to stage a protest about the dangers of driving while drug-addled, they laughed even harder – the darkroom was an exotic place where all manner of things were snorted and smoked.
Shooting digital today may be better, but it’s not half as much fun as the darkroom.
In the years to come, I would learn that trip was, indeed, nothing – public hospital disasters then were as commonplace and everyday as they are now. Thereafter, I worked regularly with those people in Alex and the killing fields that was then the East Rand. Kevin Carter, our chief photographer, pushed us young journalists hard. I don’t know for sure, but perhaps Anton and Penny (Sukraj, his wife) fell in love in such a time as she learnt from a senior photographer. I knew them, back then, as an ultra-cool couple who made sparks with their black boots and Jozi style and hands that reached for each other, constantly.
When we young journalists got nervous, those people, like Anton and Kevin and TJ Lemon, pushed us to places that made us journalists. As Inkatha’s impis turned Alex into a war-zone, Kevin would egg me on to go to the frontline and into the hostels where the indunas’ held murderous sway. “I’m not going in,” I’d say to him, my mother’s warnings loud in my ears. But we did and the story was better for telling the other side; the story was better for telling it from the front.
I rode with them in Thembisa and Katlehong and in central Johannesburg: Guy, Kevin, Themba Hadebe, Muntu Vilakazi, past burnt-out shops and houses into death zones, interviewing the “third force”, which was destabilising the transition and the young soldiers who burnt with the fire of liberation. Those people taught me to jump on trains where massacres had taken place and to not balk at the blood and the pain, but to understand that the only role of a journalist is to tell the story. The pain comes later.
Ultimately, I realised I was not of them, those people. Often, I felt they were being stripped of their humanity, that bodies were cadavers to be photographed, published before you took a hit and moved on to the next scene. The Bang-Bang Club, (originally “the bang-bang paparazzi” as Chris Marais dubbed them in an article he wrote for Scope), the term to describe our conflict photographers, still raises doubt not only as the title of a book and a movie now, but for what I used to think was a cavalier attitude to life – be it your own or those of the people you shoot (photographically speaking, that is) or those you leave behind. Kill. Shoot. Kill. Shoot. Bang. Bang. It all falls down.
So, I preferred to work with the Mail&Guardian’s Ruth Motau – we would do gentler essays on life in the townships and on “development” – a beat at which “those people” snorted.
Later, as I attended or watched their funerals – Abdul Shariff and Ken Oosterbroek killed in action, Kevin who took his own life, Steve Hilton-Barber of a heart attack – it was clear that the pain came later. They literally lived hard and died young, their corpses were beautiful even though some were bloodied. They were not ciphers who could escape the bedlam they covered nor shelter themselves from the wounds of war, no matter what palliative they chose.
So, when I saw photographs of Anton Hammerl in Libya before he disappeared it was no surprise. Our bang-bang club are best of breed. Before Kevin died, he won a Pulitzer for the image of the malnourished child stalked by a vulture at a feeding station. Joao Silva had his legs blown off below his knees in Afghanistan where he was one of The New York Times’ finest photographers. Nothing I’ve read about him during his painful recovery suggests he would have done anything differently if offered another go.
Momentarily, I did again tut-tut away at “those people” when I saw that Anton was in a tumultuous Libya. Who the hell goes into a war-zone without the armoury of a big media company behind you? Who doesn’t wear a flak jacket (he wasn’t wearing one in the as-usual, über-cool pre-capture images of him from one of the Libyan rebel strongholds); who leaves a six-week-old baby in London?
These people do, because they have a higher calling. They give meaning to places named Misrata and Bhengazi and Tahrir Square, all now seared into our consciences in this year of the Magreb and the Middle East revolutions. These people brought these places into global consciousness, into our front rooms, on to our front pages, our Twitterverse.
I hold no particular brief for the bearded man who spoke softly of murder as he perched a gun on his shoulder. – the al Qaeda leader and media slut who recorded himself and sent it by brown envelope to Al Jazeera and other radio and television stations. But this week as the war moved to Abbotabad, Pakistan, where Osama bin Laden met his maker, I felt acutely the absence of photographers who were not there when the blood was spilt to document this historic moment.
We have been fooled by Photoshopped images of Bin Laden misshapen in apparent death. It was nonsense, of course, a ruse for which millions fell – this is what happens when truth is obscured, when vengeance displaces justice. We don’t even know if he is dead or where he is buried because the American special forces have opted for the stage-managed end and aquatic burial.
If the photographers had been there, we would know so much more. Truth would not be another casualty.
So, this is an ode to those people who leave their families at home (and an ode to the families who love them), to those people who work the front lines, preceded only by their long-lenses and the truth they inevitably capture. To those people, whom we who work at the more tame edges of journalism are so very proud to call tribesmen and women. We must keep the pressure on to ensure Anton and his fellow freelance travellers are safe. DM
Ferial Haffajee is editor of City Press.