What are the moral decisions involved in the act of taking a photograph that captures extreme human anguish and moments of demeaning death (or even moments preceding it)?
Largely, between 1990— 94, a tight-knit group of South African photographers sought to capture the last days of the savagery of apartheid by documenting the violence in black townships and hostels. It was a dangerous and adventurous task that ended up portraying a much larger drama of human yearning and possibility. The young photographers involved in this quest were known as the Bang Bang Club, which comprised mainly of Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, Joao Silva and Kevin Carter, although there were other photojournalists such as Gary Bernard and David Brauchli who were associated with the so-called club.
Because of their success in depicting not only the horrors of apartheid but also black-on-black violence, they became cult heroes, if not recognizable public figures. The danger and excitement of the kind of work they did eventually spilled into their private lives, where another saga involving the actual distance between tragedy and transcendence was revealed. Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva wrote about their experiences in a book, The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War (2000) which was subsequently made into a film of the same title by Steven Silver in 2010. The Bang Bang Club were adrenaline junkies who were often burned by their compulsion for adventure. The excitement of the times they captured in their pictures often paralleled the sheer adventurousness of their own lives, walking the fine line between the tragic and the transcendent. And so their lives became entangled in their work, blurring the difference between work and play.
Virtually everyone intimately associated with the Bang Bang Club was profoundly affected by their work. Marinovich was shot at least three times and has since abandoned combat photography. Ken Oosterbroek was killed during the course of duty. Joao Silva had his legs blown off while working and Kevin Carter committed suicide due partly to the exacting demands of conflict photography.
The view that what you love most of all eventually kills you has some resonance here. The moral complicities involved in the act of taking a photograph that captures extreme human anguish and moments of demeaning death go with a lot of responsibility. Uncomplicated photographers may not agonize over the ethics of capturing death (or even moments preceding it) as utter pain, finality and degradation because they only want to portray it just as it is. Once an ethically distressing scene is captured in a photograph, the regarding eye is forced to adopt a moral or amoral stance. There are involved in this particular operation, the eye of the photographer and its concatenation of interests. There is also the eye of the beholder with a different set of values. At this juncture, at what point does voyeurism become merely self-indulgent and at what moment does it truly attempt to humanize the content(s) of the photograph? The line is obviously difficult to establish and this dilemma is one that must have confounded many photographers who work at depicting ethically fraught human situations. For instance, in Steven Silver’s film, the character that plays Marinovich (Ryan Philippe) is accused of moral and political irresponsibility when his photograph wins a Pulitzer Prize. The character who makes the accusation claims the immediate political implication of the photo is that blacks are incapable of lawful governance and in essence, apartheid is justified. The contentious photo becomes an (im)partial magnet for a diverse range of ethical stances. At one moment, it is proclaiming the unbearable nature of the violence of apartheid and by the same token it could be employed as an eloquent justification of it. The photo hangs suspended as different moralities chase after it. The photo coolly strives after neutrality in a decidedly non-neutral context. Art, politics and idealism are the incompatibles that a seemingly detached photo must begin an inconclusive conversation with. It is an orphan that every desperate parent claims to own. Inevitably, it disowns every claim, most of all, the claim of the photographer who takes the picture. The purity of its detachment lingers beyond the human sphere and this is why it must always remain an ownerless product. For human sensibilities, this is incredibly painful, for how can the blood in the photograph appear so cold and impersonal? In the final analysis, the detachment of the photograph spurns human warmth.
Arguably, Kevin Carter’s life best illustrates the distance or perhaps the closeness between tragedy and transcendence. In Marinovich and Silva’s book, he is shown to be perhaps the weakest of the lot in emotional terms. His vulnerabilities and extravagant moods add a deeper human dimension to his persona. He was also addicted to a potent cocktail of Mandrax and marijuana which further complicated an already muddled scenario. He was an extreme personality just as most suicides tend to be. Early in his life, he had gone AWOL from the army when he was supposed to be undergoing national service. He relocated to Durban where he had hoped to start life as a disc-jockey but failed when he couldn’t open a bank account using a false name. Despondent, he amassed a horde of sleeping pills and rat poison with the intent of ending his life. After a meal of burger and milkshake, he downed the pills hoping to die having failed to find a solution to his existential impasse. He survived, however, and had to live through the ignominy of facing his disappointed parents and ultimately the world after a failed suicide bid. Carter’s botched attempt immediately foretold the ultimate outcome of his life and demonstrated he was inextricably drawn to the nebulous side of things, perhaps not unlike Jim Morrison of the Doors.
Carter later established himself as a photojournalist, became a father of lacklustre skills with dreams of satisfying his disappointed Catholic father. Indeed, an underlying Oedipal conflict had been present in his life ever since he failed to qualify as a pharmacist or build a successful domestic existence with the mother of his daughter. There was also the enormous problem of living and working through the exhausting, final days of apartheid. Eugene Terre’Blanche’s Afrikaner Resistance Movement (AWB) was causing havoc in places like Bophuthatswana and threatening to create mayhem of national proportions. The Boipatong massacre occurred and psychopaths such as Victor Kheswa held sway.
The images captured by the lens of his camera and those of his friends became more sickening by the day. Carter’s frailty was also becoming more evident as his nerves were stretched beyond their limits. In addition, his career had reached a dead-end by way of providing suitable opportunities and he took up being a part-time disc-jockey. Money problems became increasingly urgent as his drug addiction exerted a tighter grip. To make matters worse, his girlfriend, tired of his topsy-turvy manner of life threw him out and he became virtually homeless. But a fortunate trip previously to the Sudan would change the course of his life. There, by a refugee camp, he took a picture of a toddler being stalked by a vulture. The photograph seemed to capture all that was wrong, awe-inspiring and also possible within our common humanity; the pitiless grandeur of nature, the ever-present predatory elements within the cosmos, the solemn religious atmosphere of desert and arid landscapes and the human capacity for empathy beyond the confines of geography and culture. The event of the photograph itself had serious consequences. Carter couldn’t come up with a credible explanation as to what eventually happened to the unfortunate toddler. He disclosed he had chased off the bird and the child somehow made it to a nearby feeding centre. He said he had sat by a tree and wept thinking of his own daughter. But on the whole, in his digressive responses, the contradictory imperatives of professional ethics and humanitarian urgency clashed showing up Carter as a somewhat pathetic human being. Virtually all the photographers associated with the Bang Bang Club had to confront this dilemma often more than once. In Steven Silver’s movie, the character who plays Marinovich falls out with his girlfriend when rather than sympathizing with a bereaved family, he takes photographs of a dead member. In real life, Joao Silva takes photographs of the slain Oosterbroek thereby upsetting his wife. In this context, the photograph becomes more than a mere fetish, it becomes in addition a destroyer of threads of commonality, a voyeuristic prism that remains distant and impersonal even as it clinically lacerates. And the craftsmen of the camera become synonymous with its voyeuristic eye and its impersonal lacerations. All cries to the contrary by the photographer sound hollow in the solemn presence of the cold dead body.
Nonetheless, Carter’s singular photograph spoke to the disparate matters of boundless human potential on the one hand, and unqualified abjection on the other, and was able to arrest the imagination of viewers all around the world when it was featured in the New York Times. It won a Pulitzer Prize which Carter collected in New York City with much adoration. He was able to broaden the scope of his professional contacts, acquire contracts with Sygma and Agence France Presse. It seemed he was on the roll and nothing could derail his speedy ascent except of course, himself. But at that precise moment, he blew it. Sygma, his photo agency, was disappointed by his performance during his first assignment. He had been sent to Cape Town to cover one of Nelson Mandela’s first public engagements after the collapse of apartheid but the agency complained that the photos were delivered late and were of poor quality. Next, he was sent to Mozambique to photograph the official visit of French president, Francois Mitterand. Again, Carter arrived late for the assignment. And then he forgot the roll of film containing the photos on the plane. He only discovered this when he stopped by at a friend’s place in Yeoville to score some drugs. When he returned to the airport to search for the missing roll he couldn’t find it. For him, it meant the end. He knew he would be considered unreliable for future assignments and his reputation would be in tatters. He was broke, drug-addicted and homeless. He wasn’t in a position to be a good father and hence had nothing to live for. And so he drove to a park near where he grew up and killed himself inhaling toxic carbon monoxide fumes. Carter’s all or nothing approach to life culminates in unequivocal self-destruct.
Rather than his friends and colleagues seeing his death as the supreme index of his uncompromising nature, it is viewed as a huge let-down and so more effort is devoted to preserving the memory of Ken Oosterbroek as the Bang Bang Club member who died trying to take the most arresting photograph. But Oosterbroek’s trajectory is rather straight-forward. He pursued transcendence with an unambiguous single-mindedness without a hint of possible tragedy. So did Greg Marinovich and perhaps to a lesser degree Joao Silva. But Kevin Carter’s appeal lies in treading the fine line between sublimity and chaos, between redemption and death and between martyrdom and total annihilation. This is the kind of existential tussle that pierces the spirits of uncompromising personalities such as Carter. His extremism is further underscored when he failed to recognise the possibilities provided by winning the Pulitzer Prize after he was repeatedly informed by Nancy Buirski of the New York Times. He saw vanishing opportunities when he ought to have seen opened doors. Considered within this context, Carter didn’t chicken out, he was merely walking the precarious line treaded by traipse artists. A line meant only for dare-devils and highly complicated figures.
The Welsh rock band, The Manic Street Preachers, perhaps recognising Carter’s struggle to reconcile the opposing tendencies of tragedy and transcendence dedicated a song to him. Gary Bernard, a protégé of Oosterbroek, depressed by the death of his mentor, killed himself in 1998. His fate, instead of associating him with Oosterbroek, finally unites him with the uncompromising outsider, Carter. More than anything else, Carter sensed correctly that in order to attain transcendence, stark, unremitting tragedy must be endured.
Sanya Osha, an author and scholar, resides in Pretoria, South Africa. His latest books include a novel set in Durban, An Underground Colony of Summer Bees, a collection of poetry, A Troubadour’s Thread and a book of critical theory, African Postcolonial Modernity: Informal Subjectivities and the Democratic Consensus.