Travel literature, in my humble opinion, is quite a large category. At the end of the day most travel books are about someone – the writer, usually – arriving somewhere and doing something. And, if this approach is to be considered, then “The Bang Bang Club, by Greg Marinovich and João Silva is not off topic for this blog. And even if was I’d just say “sod it” and talk about it anyway for it is a brilliant book.
I picked up The Bang Bang Club before a trip to Hong Kong as a sort of hedge in case the the in-flight entertainment called it a day halfway through. I ended up reading the whole book in two sessions, outbound and inbound, the IFE relegated as a mere provider of background music. Particularly dark, rich, bluesy music to be precise; this is not a book to be read with Katrina and the Waves humming in the background.
Modern South African history is pretty much unknown to me, much like many maps just had blank spaces and “Hic sunt leones” writing over large swathes of the African Continent. I knew that there was apartheid then, one day in 1990, Mandela was freed from Robben Island, came to power in 1994 and then Springbok won the Rugby World Cup the same year. That’s more or less about it.
What I ignored, and what this book writes about so brilliantly, is the story of those turbulent years. Those were the years when South Africa was transiting from apartheid to democracy, the years when 80 years of policies aimed at segregating the black majority into fractions of the country were reverted. The crumbling of decades of divide et impera yielded, in the black townships, a “low intensity war”, an interesting concept that meant that leafy suburbs where the well-off lived continued their tranquil life, while the townships went ablaze with inter-ethnic violence that was all but lowly intense.
This book is the story of four white boys – Greg Marinovich, João Silva, Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek – who, every morning, woke up in those leafy suburbs and drove down to the townships to witness the carnage.
They came from different backgrounds and had different views about their fellow South African citizens with a different pigmentation, but they all wished to document the forgotten war that was unfolding so close to their home. They started pretty much on their own, creating an informal fellowship that came to be called “The Bang Bang Club”. They started with little more than a photography courses and previous experiences at marriages and social events, but two of them became Pulizter laureates and they all collected many prizes. None of them survived these experiences unscathed, with Oosterbroek and Carter paying the ultimate price, their life.
The book is not only a brilliantly written and harrowing report of the many hours spent covering the conflict in South Africa and elsewhere, describing the scenes around the pictures that made worldwide headlines; it is also a deep, honest and remarkably candid confession of the tremendous psychological impact of the war on the Bang Bang Club members and on the civilians. This is, perhaps, the best bit of this book: Marinovich and Silva open their hearts, asking questions – how do you react when in front of a mob lynching a man? how do you approach and photograph a woman cradling the dead body of a toddler? – that they themselves do not how to answer. And it’s also a honest journey within the psyche of the most fragile of the Club members, Kevin Carter, who ended taking his own life.
Marinovich and Silva do not try to offer explanation, do not justify their or their friends’ actions; they report the facts, the emotions, as they remember them, as journalists should do and so often forget to do. Theirs is a most compelling read: an insight on a moment of South African history that many do not know and a dramatic account of the photographers’ tragic lives, permeated by the knowledge that rarely – if ever – a photo, no matter how intense, can shake the public opinion out of its apathy and into action.
Greg Marinovich, João Silva, “The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War”, Arrow Press