Oscar Pistorius is back in the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court today. As the media circus returns to town, I remember my role and the complexities of covering a story that continues to make headlines across the globe. While the merry-go-round continues, I hope you’re asking the bigger questions.
I’m sprinting behind a grey Land Rover, watching the Pistorius family hopelessly hunted by a pack of media on motorbikes. Pistorius had just received bail, but for me, the bail hearing ended outside the court. In my short life as a journalist I had only run away, never chased. I’ve seen angry mobs but never been part of one. The Pistorius case was different. For days I’d gambled with the other photographers on which exit police would use to take the Olympian back to the cells. For days there was no picture. On the last day he was free to leave. There’d be no police escort, no rubber mats on the windows to hide his face.
He was never going to leave through the front door. Henke Pistorius left first, alone. The camera crews stood by their motorbikes, waiting. Carl Pistorius was next. I thought I saw a member of the PR team drive past. It looked like an elaborate plan, as though the family’s efforts to evade the hounding press would match the media’s efforts to eat. But the athlete, once South Africa’s darling, drove straight out of the exit we expected him to, sitting in the back seat of the Land Rover alongside his sister, Aimee.
Oscar had shot his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, a week earlier. I was in Cape Town nursing a hangover before having to shoot President Jacob Zuma’s state of the nation address. When my colleague Rebecca Davis woke me, the world had heard how Pistorius tragically had shot his girlfriend in a freak Valentine’s Day accident, believing Steenkamp was an intruder.
Zuma’s state of the nation address failed to provide any new imaginings for the country’s future. The first version of events at Pistorius’s house, however, looked to be little more than a figment of the athlete’s imagination. Despite the bumbling of detective Hilton Botha, there seemed little evidence to prove Pistorius innocent of murder.
In days after Zuma’s speech, Oscar Pistorius – the Blade Runner, the Fastest Man on No Legs – proved he could do what few others in South Africa can: kill a woman and get some attention. I remember a conversation with my dad in Melbourne. He said something like: “I’m not sure about this Blade Runner athlete. Letting him compete in the Olympics will raise a lot of complications.” Oscar was famous around the world. His story is the stuff of dreams. He overcame immense diversity to be counted among the best in the world.
So when his bail hearing started, the world’s media was there to see. That sounds like a cliché – they were at Mangaung for the ANC conference, maybe they were even at the state of the nation address, right? Hardly. Every day hundreds of media workers from across the world gathered at the Pretoria Magistrate’s Court to offer the latest in the drama which has more to do with the human obsession, with the fallen hero/star-kills-lover narrative, than Oscar or Reeva.
Getting accredited every day was a small war. Almost every TV station I’ve ever heard of would set up a tent on the streets surrounding the court while those of us who needed to go inside had to wait in a line outside the front door. Get there late and the line could stretch a hundred metres. That’s far too many bodies to fit into Courtroom C so it paid to cheat. The Justice Department had never seen anything like it; so every day we were treated to a new inefficiency. There was the time when over 100 journalists massed like a mosh pit outside the courtroom, with an official standing on a table calling out different categories, print, online, radio, TV, local, foreign, admitting colleagues at random.
Imagine being at the front of a Rage Against the Machine gig with the crowd pressing and your lungs so tight you can’t get enough oxygen to your head to stand. When backed into a corner, journalists, many who were flown across the world just to report on or photograph Pistorius, turn, like werewolves in a full moon, into a rapacious pack fighting for quasi-survival – getting the best picture/headline and, most importantly, not missing the story. Some journos lied and slipped through the door; others feigned illness or fooled security.
A natural order developed among photographers. We were allowed in the courtroom only when the magistrate was not sitting. That meant, at best, we got seven seconds to shoot Pistorius from when he walked out of the holding cells until the cursed call came – “All rise!” In a day, we might get two, maybe three, chances. That’s 21 seconds, at best, to get a photo for one South Africa’s biggest stories since democracy dawned.
I remember when Pistorius didn’t want to face us. Photographers waited for an hour for him to walk out but the athlete and murder accused didn’t want to bow in front of the lens. He stood in the hallway, refusing to budge. He walked out only after the magistrate arrived. We could see him but couldn’t shoot, by court order. I went with a colleague for a smoke. We returned 10 minutes later and saw a pack of photographers surrounding Pistorius on TV. We rushed but didn’t make it in time. We left that day without a frame.
These events feel like the media’s Olympics. Missing that shot means you’ve let down your boss and been beaten by the other photographers. Pistorius, competitive to the core, must understand that.
It’s different for his family. I shot them so often that I can describe each of their gaits. One memory, however, sticks. Pistorius’s supporters sat for lunch in the court’s cafeteria. (It serves a decent toasted sandwich if you’re unfortunate enough to visit.) Minutes earlier, I lined up with the other hacks in a frenzied rush to get their picture. In the café, however, I sat on the next table confused as to how to negotiate the space; too personal to be imprudent, but too close to forget the picture opportunity.
I wondered what is it that turns a killing into worldwide headlines? Does Pistorius embody the violence so prevalent in South African society, as media has taken liberty in establishing? How does the congruence of celebrity and crime overshadow the heartbreaking narratives that scar our country every day and to what end do we spend our time on the drama? President Zuma’s administration has been marred by so many scandals it’s hard to deny there’s a lack of accountability in government but, instead of unpacking his plan for the year ahead, I was stuck in a Pretoria courtroom, glancing at a family over a toasted sandwich. What importance does this story have beyond entertainment?
Running alongside Pistorius’s Land Rover, I wasn’t thinking of these questions or remembering the deceased, Reeva Steenkamp. I was thinking about how to shoot through the glass without a reflection.
By the time you’ve read this the Pistorius circus will have returned to Pretoria. I’ll be in the pack alongside the other photographers, doing my job. I hope, however, you’ll be asking the bigger questions. DM
Nicolson left his hometown of Melbourne to move to Johannesburg, beset by fears Australia was going to the dogs. With a camera and a Mac in his bag, he ventures out to cover power and politics, the lives of those included and those excluded. He can be found at the tavern, searching for a good story or drowning a bad one.
Some firing squads are all issued with blank cartridges with the exception of one person. This helps alleviate personal responsibility for the execution squad.