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.)