Bang Bang Club Chapter 1

The Wall

If only I could reach
The homestead of Death’s mother
Oh, my daughter
I would make a long grass torch …
I would destroy everything utterly utterly …
Traditional Acholi funeral song
Thokoza township, South Africa, April 18, 1994.

“Not a picture,” I muttered as I looked through my camera viewfinder at the soldier firing methodically into the hostel. I turned back towards the line of terrified, unwilling and poorly-trained soldiers taking cover alongside the wall next to me. Their eyes darted back and forth under the rims of their steel helmets. I wanted to capture that fear. The next minute, a blow struck me – massive, hammer-like – in the chest. I missed a sub-moment, a beat from my life, and then I found myself on the ground, entangled in the legs of the other photographers working beside me. Pain irradiated my left breast and spread through my torso. It went far beyond the point I imagined pain ended. “Fuck! I’m hit, I’m hit! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!”.

A wounded Greg Marinovich is assisted by photojournalist James Nachtwey, while Joao Silva takes pictures of Gary Bernard and an officer from the National Peacekeeping Force as they carry the fatally wounded Ken Oosterbroek in the background, 18 April 1994, Thokoza township. Photo by Juda Ngwenya/Reuters.
As automatic fire continued to erupt from along the wall, Joao and Jim desperately dragged me by my camera vest closer to the wall, seeking shelter next to the soldiers and out of their line of fire. Then an anguished voice broke through the cacophony, “Ken O is hit!” I struggled to turn my head through the tangled cameras and straps around my neck. A few yards to the right, I could see a pair of long skinny legs that were unmistakably Ken’s protruding from the weeds flourishing against the concrete wall. They were motionless and at an improbable angle to each other. Jim ran over to where Gary was clutching Ken, trying to find a sign of life. The sporadic crack and rattle of high-velocity automatic gunfire reverberated through the air around the huddle of journalists and soldiers trying to flatten themselves against the wall.

Blood seeped from the gaping hole in my T-shirt. I clamped my hand over the hole to stop the bleeding. I imagined the exit wound of the bullet as a deadly, gaping hole in my back. Look for an exit wound, I said to Joao. He ignored me. “Youll be okay,” he said. I reasoned that it must be bad if he didn’t want to look, and as though all this was all happening in some feeble movie, I asked him to give a message to my girlfriend. “Tell Heidi I’m sorry … that I love her,” I said. “Tell her yourself,” he snapped back.

Suddenly a sensation of utter calm washed over me. This was it. I had paid my dues. I had atoned for the dozens of close calls that always left someone else injured or dead, while I emerged from the scenes of mayhem unscathed, pictures in hand, having committed the crime of being the lucky voyeur.

Jim returned, crouching under the gunfire and murmured softly in my ear, “Ken’s gone, but you’ll be okay.” Joao heard and stood up to rush over to Ken, but others were already helping him. He lifted his camera. “Ken will want to see these later,” he told himself. He was annoyed that Ken’s hair was in his face, ruining the picture. Joao took pictures of us both – two of his closest friends – me sprawled on the cracked concrete clutching my chest; Ken being clumsily manhandled into the back of an armoured vehicle by Gary and a soldier, his head lolling freely like that of a rag doll and his cameras dangling uselessly from his neck. Then it was my turn to be loaded into the armoured car, Jim had my shoulders and Joao my legs, but I am large, and Heidi’s pampering had added more kilos. “You’re too fat, man!” Joao joked. “I can walk,” I protested, trying to laugh, but strangely indignant. I wanted to remind them of the weight of the cameras.

An officer with the National Peacekeeping Force assists Gary Bernard with a fatally wounded Ken Oosterbroek, 18 April 1994. Photo by Joao Silva.
After four long years of observing the violence, the bullets had finally caught up with us. The bang-bang had been good to us, until now.

Earlier that morning we had been working the back streets and alleys of Thokoza township’s devastated no-man’s-land that we – Ken Oosterbroek, Kevin Carter, Joao and I – had become so familiar with over the years of chasing confrontations between police, soldiers, modern-day Zulu warriors and Kalashnikov-toting youngsters as apartheid came to its bloody end.

Kevin was not with us when the shooting happened. He had left Thokoza to talk to a local journalist about the Pulitzer Prize he had won for his shocking picture of a starving child being stalked by a vulture in the Sudan. He had been in two minds about leaving. Joao had advised him to stay, that despite there being a lull, things were sure to cook again. But Kevin was enjoying his new-found status as a celebrity and went anyway.

Over a steak lunch in Johannesburg, Kevin recounted his many narrow escapes. After dessert, he told the journalist that there had been a lot of bang-bang that morning in Thokoza, and that he had to return. While driving back to the township, some sixteen kilometres from Johannesburg, he heard on a news report on the radio that Ken and I had been shot, and that Ken was dead. He raced towards the local hospital we had been taken to. Kevin hardly ever wore body armour, none of us did, and Joao flatly refused to. But at the entrance to the township, before reaching the hospital, Kevin dragged his bullet-proof vest over his head. All at once, he felt fear.

The boys were no longer untouchable, and, before the bloodstains faded from the concrete beside the wall, another of us would be dead.