The Bang Bang Club. Photography in the Death Zones.

The Bang Bang Club- By Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva (sanjay austa      sanjayausta@gmail.)

The Bang Bang Club- By Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva.


Your reading of a book is  bound to be coloured by where you read it. I read The Bang Bang Club in my orchards from whose idyllic    quietude even the daily grind of city life (the  traffic, the noise, heat, crowds and the monumental preoccupations) seem like a kind of violence .

It was spring then and the air was redolent with  promise of fresh life. The  apple buds were at the cusp of bloom.  There were sprouting leaves and grass. The birds  were chirpier than ever and the bees buzzed everywhere.

But war?  And the war-photography? They were clear misfits. But this was the book I brought along and in the salubrious environs it only gave fillip to immense misanthropy ; that brutality is the common thread that ties humanity across all races , climes and ages.

Ethnic bloodletting has been par for the course whenever a country negotiates its freedom. From the bloodshed in India in 1947 and in Bangladesh in 1971 we don’t have to look very far for history’s gory examples. All identities till then equally suppressed begin to reassert themselves in the vacuum left by a totalitarian regime.

A Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Greg Marinovich. An ANC supporter hacks a burning man.


In South Africa there was a bitter bloodletting in the years following Nelson Mandela’s release  from prison and the subsequent transition of South Africa into  a functioning democracy. The apartheid regime determined to show the blacks as incompetent and unruly, propped up the Inkatha supporting Zulus warriors against Mandela’s African National Congress (ANC).  And in the bloody civil war that ensued between 1990 and 1994,  thousands of people on both sides were killed in grusome mob violence.

But it was not for the political history of South Africa that I picked up this book though I must say anyone looking for a lucid political account of those bloody years  would find The Bang Bang Club immensely informative.

I bought the book to get a handle on war photography- the holy grail of most photojournalists. Co-authored by  Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva – the surviving members  of the so-called Bang Bang Club, the book gives an intimate account of  conflict photographers and their  dilemmas, their psyche, and their ethics.

Kevin Carter's famous Pulitzer photograph of a starving child and vulture.


The perennial question of whether the photographer should intervene or should he be an objective observer is perhaps answered by each photographer for himself based on his or her sensibilities. There is no one rule and its just as well that the four war photographers in this book deal with the question their own different ways.

For me the book dispells  a grand legend revolving around Kevin Carter’s suicide.  The story in the popular imagination is that Carter was  so overwrought by the human suffering he documented  –most notably  the starving child and vulture scene  in Sudan-that he could not take it anymore.

But it turns out that Carter had a long history of psychological issues. He had attempted suicide once before, much before he even became a photojournalist. His psychological issues were compounded by his drug abuse and in his suicide note he writes about his personal suffering in which financial worries seem an overriding factor.

This book was published way back in 2000  but its surprising that even this bestseller  could not set the record straight. There seems to be only one explanation. Photographers drum rolled the romanticized version  of Carter’s suicide to demonstrate  by extension their own sensitivity.

A Zulu hacked in public. By Joao Silva


But this is not to say that ravages of war or human misery don’t affect photojournalists. Even Greg , in whose voice the book is written, flirted with thoughts of suicide.

Greg was the saner of the quartet – that formed the Bang Bang Club. (Joan Silva was given to bouts of uncontrollable anger. Ken Oosterbroek was a reformed racist. Kevin Carter just could not get enough of drugs). The book is astonishingly honest and a brave attempt at not only answering but also asking fresh questions about the ethics of journalism at large and photojournalism in particular.

A singular feature that stands out in this book  is of journalists and their unhealthy streak of excitement whenever they  hear of a great tragedy. You just have to see the beaming faces of the television reporters as they wax eloquent tiptoeing around puddles of blood and shattered glass.

Inkatha supporters kill a man suspected of being a Xhosa. By Greg Marinovich

Sample this description from the book where  Carter narrates how he tool his  Pulitzer wining photograph.

‘ I was shooting this kid on her knees, and then changed my angle, and suddenly there was this vulture right behind her!’ Kevin was excited now, and talking fast. ‘And I just kept shooting- shot lots of film!’ His arms were all over the place, as they usually were when he was recounting something exciting.

It has been said that photojournalists go to warfronts as the danger makes  them feel alive.  This certainly seemed to be the case with the four photographers of the Bang Bang Club. They thrived on violence and it became an addiction. And there were consequences. Ken Oosterbroek paid with his life when he was shot dead in 1994. Kevin committed suicide (and in Greg’s account resented Ken his bullet). Greg has been shot three times  covering conflict across the world but won’t stop going to war. Joao Silva lost both his legs to a land mine in Afganistan but wants to go the front lines again.

The book demonstrates that in the world of photojournalism your skillsets don’t matter as much as your nerve  and enterprise; both often bordering on the reckless. No wonder why conflict photography attracts many  young photojournalists who see it as a sure shot deliverance from anonymity.

Greg Marinovich being led away by ventral war photographer James Nachtwey. By Juda Ngwenya


Greg Marinovich with Joao Silva who lost both his legs to a land mine in Afganistan. By David Furst

5 Responses to “The Bang Bang Club. Photography in the Death Zones.”

  1. Varadarajan Seshamani says:

    There is direct physical cruelty and then the indirect ‘control’ cruelty. The latter causes the former.
    The one is visually stark and the other is like the actions of a puppeteer – behind the scenes, killing by remote control.
    Physical cruelty often starts with necessity and blind belief or emotional extreme – thereafter graduating to acting in drunkenness of power over another at a local level combined with greed.
    Control cruelty is founded on greed, ego, grand thinking and sometimes, behind it is plain convenience and laziness!

    How would one depict that?

  2. Kajal Basu says:

    Legendary guys, and tragic. Each one an exegesis on what we journos call Grief General: war-reporting related PTSD. One can become addicted to reporting on human suffering – and become a victim yourself. Like the Bang Bang Club.

  3. Soumya Bandyapadhyay says:

    story of kevin carter was sad. the above picture though shows a starving baby and a vulture waiting in background, but actually the story was different. the mother was with the baby and gone briefly away from the baby to collect food packets being distributed by a relief helicopter. there were a big vat of waste nearby and lot of vultures were there for it. suddenly carter finds this frame where the malnutritioned baby was waiting for his mother to arrive and the vulture sat in the background and he took the shot and presented a malformed reality of the actual situation.

    he won pulitzer for it but also received vast criticism for wrong photojournalism. in his final days, carter accepted his fault as he has haunted by the memories of those days when he took this shot. finally, he committed suicide as he couldn’t bear the pain.

    end of a very unfortunate story of yellow journalism.

  4. Shruti says:

    Wow… a great piece… and the book promises to be a fascinating read. Makes me want to go pick it up, like few reviews on non-fiction do! 🙂

  5. ashu says:

    that is one hell of a picture which kevin clicked which has nothing to do with his morality…and as far as truth is concerned it is always relative… truth is different when you are clicking on the field like that, people sitting in their offices cant psychoanalyze those pictures… and we gonna meet a lot of pseudohumanists and pseudojournosympathizers on field…the key is dont give a shit…happy photography..:)

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