With the recent deaths of war photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya, the Tribeca Film Festival movie The Bang Bang Club, about a group of conflict photographers in apartheid-era South Africa, couldn’t be timelier. Pulitzer Prize-winning lensman Greg Marinovich, the main subject of the film, and one of the film’s stars, Taylor Kitsch, spoke to Marlow Stern about sacrificing for your craft.
It is an indelible portrait of African despair: an emaciated little girl collapses to her knees from hunger. Her forehead and palms press against the ground in an apparent final act of prostration. In the background, a vulture awaits its carrion. In May 1994, 14 months after capturing the image of a famine stricken child crawling toward a U.N. food camp in Sudan, photographer Kevin Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Three months later, Carter drove to the Braamfontein Spruit river in Johannesburg, an area he used to play as a child, taped one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe, ran the other end into the passenger-side window, and took his own life.
The image became a symbol of African suffering, but it also emerged as one of the most controversial in the history of photojournalism, addressing issues of complicity. By Carter’s own admission, he waited 20 minutes, focusing and refocusing his lens on the scene, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. When it didn’t, Carter snapped the photograph and chased the bird away, but did not help the girl. The St. Petersburg Times went so far as to say, “the photographer adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Afterward, Carter retreated to the shade of a tree, lit a cigarette, spoke to God, and cried. "He was depressed afterward," fellow photographer João Silva told Time. "He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter."
While Carter’s image is the most famous, currently taught in journalism school ethics classes across the country, it’s just one of many impactful photos taken by The Bang Bang Club, the name given to a group of four fearless photographers—Carter, Silva, Greg Marinovich, and Ken Oosterbroek—who captured the brutality of South African apartheid between 1990 and 1994. In 2000, Marinovich and Silva published the book, The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War, that documented their apartheid experiences, and the tome has been adapted into a feature film by South African documentary filmmaker Steven Silver, starring Ryan Phillippe as Marinovich, Taylor Kitsch as Carter, and Neels Van Jaarsveld as Silva.
Kitsch, the star of Friday Night Lights and X-Men Origins: Wolverine—and who is ironically a former model—dropped weight and took up smoking for what he concedes was his toughest role to date. He also gained a newfound respect for conflict photographers—especially resonant in light of the recent deaths of photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros in Libya. “If you talk to these guys for over five minutes, you can tell they’re affected by it. They’re not getting good nights of sleep. They take it home,” said Kitsch.
How did you get into conflict photography?
I was doing some writing, recording tales around living under apartheid. I eventually bought a Large Format 4x5 and then you had to really learn how to take pictures. There’s no light meter. So I got really into it. I was doing more and more photography with my writing, and then the conflicts started. Mandela was released, and I didn’t want to have anything to do with it. I tried for a week and I was there on my stoop renovating an old piece of my late mother’s furniture, but then I thought, “You’ve got to go.” So I went to Soweto, and within an hour and a half, I was photographing a guy being killed right in front of me. That was my introduction to conflict photography. And then in 24 hours, I had a career as a photojournalist.
Most people wouldn’t pursue the profession further after witnessing that on their first job. Are you impervious to fear?
I was utterly terrified. But different people do different things. I work through it and manage to keep operating through the fear. What was really disappointing to me was I didn’t try to stop it. I was the only press there, and it was inside a migrant worker’s hostel, and I thought in my little mind’s view that I would be brave enough to try and intercede. It would’ve been suicidal. So, you need that ability to keep working under stressful, fearful situations, and work efficiently.
What’s your take on Kevin’s controversial photograph?
What he did or didn’t do as a human being is one thing. If Kevin wasn’t there and didn’t take that picture, that scene was there. It wasn’t set up, or wasn’t manipulated. People were hungry and dying in the Sudan, and that’s what he went there to capture, and he did in an unbelievably powerful, iconic image. If you look at that as a journalist, a photographer, and as a duty to the society of southern Sudan, it was brilliant. On the other hand, where he felt he let himself down was that he hadn’t picked up the child, or comforted the child, or made sure that it got to its mother. They were right in the village and the feeding center was a hundred meters away, but he felt he let himself down by not assisting that child. And obviously the picture is so evocative that the first question is, “What happened to the child?” And he couldn’t answer it in any way that satisfied him.
It brings up an interesting question of whether photojournalists are complicit by witnessing an act like that and not intervening.
You’ve always got a choice. You can either intervene, or not. You can decide when you want to commit journalism, or when you want to commit something else. They’re not mutually exclusive.
So you need to assume a Machiavellian approach, in a way, because your photographs will justify the means, and help society more than intervening.
Each day, you make a different decision and it depends on the risk, the factors. For example, in Bophuthatswana and that picture of the three right-wingers being murdered, would I have helped them? No, I wouldn’t have. Was I pleased they got killed? Yes, I was. I was a kilometer down the road [earlier] taking photos of that group shooting civilians for no reason other than they had darker skin. On the other hand, I have risked my life to save other people. Hiding in the back seat of my car, in the middle of that mayhem, was an ANC activist. I just covered him with my jacket, put him in the back seat of the car and said, “Don’t move.” If those right-wingers had found him or me, we’d both be dead. So, it’s really the choices you make.
Conflict photography has been in the news recently with the passing of two greats in the field: Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. Did you know either of them?
Not in person, but Chris and I had electronically met and exchanged emails. It’s dreadful. There’s a lot of journalists being killed. You look at things like the losing of Joao Silva’s legs [by a land mine] in Afghanistan. The four missing journalists in Libya. Journalists enter into these situations willingly. Whether they really know what they’re entering into, I don’t know. If you look for example at the last pictures Chris filed, those were up-close, dangerous war photographs in a very fluid situation. There’s no experience that can prepare you for the war that’s happening in Libya. It’s all over the place. I’ve been wounded four times in conflicts and I said enough is enough. Joao knew the odds were mounting the more time he spent in these war zones. But someone has to be a witness and document what happens.
It seems that photojournalists are the ones on the front lines, diving headfirst into these conflict zones. Do you think they’re more passionate about these conflicts?
Photojournalists have to get closer. It’s the nature of the game. I don’t think they care more or less than any other media practitioners; it’s just the nature of getting pictures. And in wars, you have to get close to where it’s really dangerous.
How do you deal, psychologically, with all the gruesome images you’ve witnessed?
[Long Pause] I think after is complicated. There’s still things I haven’t dealt with. I live with it. I haven’t dealt with it. And I don’t try and deal with it. When Joao and I wrote the book The Bang-Bang Club, we thought it was a cathartic process and we’d laid to rest a lot of demons. But 10 years later when they’re shooting the movie and we have to tell people what it’s really like, you realize that you haven’t dealt with it and it’s as fresh as it was 18 years ago. I think you learn to live with things and it’s always a part of you.
The title The Bang Bang Club could almost be a double entendre, considering how much sex you guys have in the film.
During the time, there was a lot of sex. I don’t really do drugs. I’ve smoked some marijuana, and I used to drink quite a bit, but my stress release was sex. I like women.
With fewer news outlets now, as well as the democratization of photography with better technology and the Internet, what are your thoughts on being a photojournalist today?
A three-month assignment in a war zone doesn’t really exist anymore. Maybe it does for some, but I’m not interested. And it’s a business where you have to keep massaging clients, and I’m not 20 anymore. I don’t want to do that. But the industry has changed drastically. Better or worse? I don’t know. Obviously digitization has made images more accessible. And when digital photography became available at origin, then you had pictures flying out at every moment from every scene all over the world, which is fabulous in terms of access, but now we need to start synthesizing and overcoming the guile of easy photography to make great work above the tsunami of images.
In terms of Kevin’s photograph, what would you have done in his shoes?
I would have taken the picture, without a shadow of a doubt, and I would have waited, and I would have used my photographic craft to make the best of it. Would I have helped the kid? I like to think I would have. Would I have actually done it? Who am I to judge? Who knows what I would have done?
What are you working on now?
I’ve got five or six different books I’m writing—both fiction and nonfiction. I make documentary films, and I do photography. I still haul out film cameras and take pictures I want to capture. I’m a storyteller. I don’t mind what medium I use. I started doing what I did to experience other people’s lives, and it’s still my motivation. People’s stories excite me.
Marlow Stern works for The Daily Beast and has a master's from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. He has served in the editorial department of Blender magazine, as an editor at Amplifier magazine, and, since 2007, editor of Manhattan Movie Magazine.