I recently saw the Bang Bang Club , an absolutely fantastic movie based on the life of four photographers during South Africa’s Civil War in the early 1990s. I’d read the book before I wrote Rainbow Diary but for editorial reasons the relevant sections were cut. So here they are restored.
Note – if you want to see the film, there are SPOILERS below.
SOUTH AFRICAN LIVES: A Pulitzer prize winner
On 12 April 1994 the coveted Pulitzer prize went to a photo by a South African, Kevin Carter. It was a haunting picture of the famine in Sudan that turned stomachs over the globe. The New York Times news desk bought the picture rights; schools of journalism wrote essays about the ethics and morality of objectivity in recording human misery; the Manic Street Preachers wrote a song titled Kevin Carter. The picture is of a small, skeletal Sudanese child face down on the straw ground, bent over its distended belly from hunger and exhaustion, while a brown vulture is watching a few yards away, its instinct attracted by the expectation of eminent death. It is a horrific scene – the law of the jungle, with us humans at the bottom rung – and it epitomises the best and worst of current affairs photography. The question on the viewer’s lips is: what happened next? For it is clear that there were two vultures in that photo, since Kevin Carter’s first thought was to crouch, point and snap rather than lean forward, reach and help.
The award wasn’t for Carter’s usual assignments. He had achieved notoriety in South African media circles for being part of the ‘rat pack’ quartet of paparazzi who provided us with the images of a country in convulsion, war correspondents in their own country during the township conflict between the ANC and Inkatha: Greg Marinovich, João Silva, Ken Oosterbroek and Kevin Carter, collectively called the Bang-Bang Club. By the end of the conflict Oosterbroek would be killed by a bullet at Khumalo street in the township of Thokoza outside Jo’burg; Marinovich would be severely wounded in the same incident and Kevin Carter –
Oh, yes, him.
Kevin Carter was good looking, tall, thin, and rakish. In several of his self-portraits, he conveys the air of a 1990s bejeaned and besandalled Peter Fonda circa Easy Rider. Middle-class white with a conscience, he went AWOL when he was beaten up as a Kaffirboetie by his army comrades, as he tried to protect a black waiter from abuse. After a chequered career as a DJ in Durban, followed by an early, unsuccessful suicide attempt when the long claws of the army reached him again, he inched his way post-demob to the staff of The Star newspaper in 1984; by 1990 he was chief photographer for the Weekly Mail. His main claim to fame was a picture of the first known public execution by ‘necklacing‘ – setting fire on a petrol-soaked tyre forced through the neck of the victim (also called ‘Nando’s’ in township slang after a roast chicken franchise). That first casualty of necklacing was a woman, Maki Skosana who was accused by a mob of being a policeman’s moll. While she was writhing and screaming Kevin Carter documented the barbaric atrocity that would eventually become twisted by the demagogues into a weapon of liberation.
Kevin Carter captured iconic pictures, won awards and risked his life like the rest of the Bang-Bang Club. In March 1994 he was in Bophuthatswana – or Bop as it was thankfully abbreviated in English – during the time of an abortive coup by Eugene Terre-Blanche’s neo-Nazi AWB movement that tried to establish an Afrikaner homeland separate from South Africa. Carter captured the image of Alwyn Wolfaardt, dressed in khaki combat gear, on his knees, by the open door of his car, where two of his mates were already dead, eyes focused on the gun of a black Bop policeman ready to fire. Kevin Carter ran out of film and didn’t snap the next picture – Greg Marinovich did that – where Alwyn Wolfaardt lies dead, executed in cold blood in front of the world’s media. That pair of pictures, before and after the death of an Afrikaner neo-Nazi, epitomised the bloodstained downfall of apartheid better than any history tome: it reeks of the white supremacists’ fear of punishment confronted by failure and defeat.
On 27 May 1994, Kevin Carter taped its car exhaust into a garden hose, slipped it through a window, started the engine and lay back waiting to die, while he smoked a mixture of Mandrax and hash in a broken-off bottle neck. He left a set of drug-hazed, rambling suicide notes for his friends and family which explain nothing and yet explain everything. His death, unlike Ken Oosterbroek’s was not heroic – Oosterbroek has been canonised in the political milieu of South Africa by none other than Nelson Mandela. No, Carter’s death was tragic and sad, the passing away of a flawed individual burdened by the stream of accusations his Pulitzer-winning picture brought him, but also a man who observed a lot and saw too much, of someone who ended up haunted by the live images in front of his camera shutter. Although he wasn’t killed in action, he was still caught in the crossfire of South Africa’s civil war.
In Kevin Carter’s funeral, extracts from letters by Japanese schoolchildren from the Dai Roku Nippon Primary School in Arakawa Ward, Tokyo were read out aloud: they described how his Pulitzer picture of the Hungry Child and the Vulture affected them. “I have been a selfish person until now,” said one.
As the Zulus say: It takes a human to render you a human, doesn’t it?
PS A video tribute to Kevin Carter, focusing on the Bop incident, and including interviews with the original Bang-Bang members appeared after I wrote this section back in 2004.