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When it turns sour

The tall lean man spoke around the breakfast he was chewing on, his blue eyes flicked at me, “Human barbeque, it smelt like human barbeque for a year down here,” said the bankrupt doctor in that distinct New York City argot of machine-gun staccato words with unpredictable cadence. I glanced accusingly at Leonie, who had asked him the question, and looked down at my omelette. We were eating at a breakfast joint near Wall Street on a rainy spring morning and I was regretting not ordering a vegetarian oriented meal.

The ‘human barbeque’ the man referred to was of course the thousands of Americans killed in the Al Qaeda attacks on the Twin Towers that changed the course of the 21st Century, back on September 11, 2001.

Leonie and I were staying at the almost impossibly chic W Hotel, which overlooks Ground Zero. The hotel gym has a fine view of the site, but watching men labour away grows exhausting as one pounds away and instead I tried to find a decent news channel on the treadmill (yes, indeed, dear homies back in the mother continent, the machine has its own TV. And a fan. And a heart rate monitor. Sadly, we had to do the running ourselves). There turned out to be no decent news channel, just Fox.

And news was the reason that Leonie and I were enjoying the highlife in the big apple.

Listening to the news had led me to leave my home and venture into the burgeoning war zone that was Soweto, to photograph the death of a man. That in turn led me to more deaths, and friendships, that would change my life in a profound way.

That week a feature film adaptation of The Bang-Bang Club premiered at the Tribeca film festival. The book was about many things in the twilight of Apartheid, and the end of the Cold War, but it was also about friendship. One of those friendships was between João Silva and myself. Twenty years after we first met on the bloodstained streets of Alexander township, it was the events at Ground Zero that led to João eventually being on patrol with a US army unit in southern Afghanistan in October of 2010.  Here, he would step on a landmine.

Walking the streets of the city, dull from jetlag, another friend called and broke the news of the death of acclaimed photojournalist Chris Hondros in Libya. Later that day, we heard that ‘Restrepo’ director and photographer Tim Hetherington had also been killed and two others wounded.

The compassion we extend to the civilian victims of war wouldn’t be possible were it not for the work of the journalists there on the ground among them. Yet, when a journalist gets killed it is not uncommon to hear someone describe the death as warranted, even deserving.

When João stepped on that landmine and lost both his legs below the knees late last year, one person in a news blog site thread about João contributed this: ‘Silva is a stupid c&*t, I hope he dies soon anyways.’

When our colleague Abdul Sharif was killed in crossfire in a South African township in 1994, one of the militants later told João and me that it was good that one of our friends had been killed, so that we too would know how it feels to lose a comrade. A few weeks later, another friend would die, and I would be severely wounded in a ‘friendly fire’ incident shortly before the first non-racial elections.

I believed I was fatally injured, and a great sense of relief, a release of existentialist tension overwhelmed me – I was paying my dues to the gods of war and tragedy. I welcomed death in a way I had not imagined, and felt that my extended free ride through other people’s misery had been paid for. But actually, that was all dramatic license on my part. I would live. As I was being operated on in a gory triage centre at the local hospital, Ken Oosterbroek’s wife Monica spoke to his body lying alongside me on a gurney, telling Ken it was okay to wake up now.

I flinch from making too much of the deaths of journalists in conflicts, even that of friends. The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday that in the same counterattack that killed Hetherington and Hondros, seven rebels had been killed as well as a doctor about to leave for work at the overwhelmed local hospital. His wife, a nurse, lost both her legs. They were unnamed.

Journalists, and especially photographers, tend to rush towards the sounds of gunfire while any sensible, unarmed person tries to flee conflict. That is something we have to take responsibility for, and somehow accept that these terrible things that we bear witness to might one day be visited upon us, or our closest colleagues.

 

(Images by Leonie and Greg Marinovich, and one by someone at our table. I suspect Mr Diamond.)

 

 

 

  • http://www.corruption-watch-namibia.com John Grobler

    Greg – powerful pics as always. I remember Joao on his yellow Suzuki, early 1990s, racing about chasing about after the action. And Kevin, swearing as he dropped his film in the gang-bang outside Joburg high court during Winnie’s trial. And Ken, bless his soul, causing kak with the inexperienced Nujoma security detail in WB in 1993. We’re lucky not more of have died in chasing after that adrenaline rush.
    But without the pics, the stories would have been lifeless, anonymous and just so many bland letters on a white page.
    Don’t stop putting colour into it.

    John
    Windhoek

  • Danielle

    It was Chris and Tim’s deaths that led me to pick up your book after your interview with Terry Gross that same week. I have just finished it, and want to thank you and Joao for putting your experiences down on paper. It was a difficult, but necessary read, and I cannot imagine the anguish you had to relive as you wrote your accounts. I was just a teenager in Southeast Asia at the time of South Africa’s elections, but now that I’ve read your book, I feel as if I’ve learnt an important lesson, not only about history but also about human nature, race, power, politics and friendship. Thank you.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=504975319 David Goldman

    Thanks for doing what you do, I recently saw the film and was moved for many reasons, I to am a photographer and have covered some challenging issues although never getting myself in any real physical danger I am well aware of the emotional costs.

  • Jeremy

    Hi Greg. Just watched the Bang Bang Club. Very realistic. I was a TV news picture editor working with Sky News journalist Jeremy Thompson in Jhb in April 1994 (myself out of London for the elections where I normally worked for ITN/Beeb and NBC). Our team where there when Ken was killed and I was one of the first to see the footage. What a terrible time and the photography and TV pics brought the true situation home where without this coverage people would be oblivious to the truth. My friend Steve Hilton-Barber eventually married Monica Oosterbroek. Question: do you know why in the movie Ken’s wife has a different name and she is only referred to as a girlfriend? What a time the elections where. I don’t think I have worked and partied so hard again in my life. I was at many of the key events such as Mandela’s last speech in Durban and in Ulundi when Inkhata agreed to join in the elections. I spent most of the 1980’s and 90’s in trouble spots around the world. Many of the front line cameramen were South Africans like myself in and out of Beirut, Iraq, Afganistan, Bosnia etc etc. I worked with some crazy people. What a life, but not for me any more….Bang Bang Club. What a movie. Sent chills down my spine. Jeremy Havard in Sydney Australia

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