The final years of South Africa’s apartheid period were punctuated by bloody conflicts between rival political factions that threatened to undo any progress toward repealing half a century of racial segregation. Some of the most profound documentation of the fighting came from the work of four photojournalists—Greg Marinovich, Joåo Silva, Kevin Carter, and Ken Oosterbroek—who earned the nickname “The Bang-Bang Club” for their daily forays into the most wartorn areas of their country. But the history of this group is tinged with sadness. Oosterbroek was killed and Marinovich was wounded in a gunfight between the African National Congress and peacekeeping soldiers in 1994; Carter committed suicide later that year. Silva, now a photographer for The New York Times, lost both legs after he stepped on a landmine in Afghanistan last October. (He is being treated at Walter Reed Medical Center.) Marinovich and Silva’s 2000 memoir The Bang-Bang Club has been adapted into a film starring Ryan Phillippe as Marinovich. (Read Tricia Olszewski’s review here.) The film, which opens today at West End Cinema, premiered last week at the Tribeca Film Festival one day after the photographers Tim Hetherington, a director of last year’s indelible Afghanistan documentary Restrepo, and Chris Hondros, were killed while covering the Libyan civil war. I spoke with Marinovich and his wife Leonie yesterday at Blue Duck Tavern.
Benjamin R. Freed: In terms of your actual experience, what was going through your head during the years this film covers?
Greg Marinovich: When I look back I suspect very little, actually. But it was an extended dream-nightmare, in a way, that seemed at once very distant and also very visceral and very real. Perhaps some people come to conflict ready for it. I didn’t. And I certainly wasn’t prepared for the violence that was going to be unleashed on my own country. It was extremely disturbing and I was depressed for five years, suicidal at times. But on the other hand, for the first time in my life I also found myself utterly connected to something that I was doing. I was already 27 at the time it started. There had been a couple years before I was doing stuff that was good but…I was totally immersed. It’s quite something to feel.
BRF: And then the violence was unleashed on you.
BRF: But you’ve since stopped taking combat photography. Is there ever an itch to go back?
GM: There is. At the moment I’ve been asked to direct a documentary for Al Jazeera in El Salvador about the gangs and these horrendous killings. I’m thinking, “How does that fit in to my decision to stop covering conflicts?” We are in a discussion at the moment and I am thinking about it. I don’t feel keen to do it because you expose yourself to something and then it’s like (imitates a child’s voice), “Oh, Daddy isn’t coming home this weekend.” It’s a problem.
Leonie Marinovich: Now that you mention it.
BRF: When you do feel that itch, is part of it an adrenaline rush?
GM: It is. There’s the adrenaline. There’s the sense of what you can see for yourself. I’m a firm believer in seeing for myself. I don’t like my stuff being filtered. Especially now with this Arab Spring—it’s amazing, exhilarating. There’s only a couple countries that are being covered and some of the most interesting aren’t being covered at all. There’s definitely an urge to see it for yourself.
BRF: I’m glad you brought the Arab Spring up. Some of the most talked about, most distributed photos that we’ve seen this year weren’t necessarily taken by professional photographers but by people who were in Tahrir Square or on the streets of Libya using their cell phones. How much has photojournalism evolved?
GM: In technical ways, hugely. But it’s still storytelling. Was I a professional when I started? No. Do you have to be a professional to be a journalist? No. You’re not a doctor or a lawyer. It’s a craft; you learn it on the job, right? I think it’s something that’s quite positive. Not necessarily for aging hacks trying to make a living like me, but I think it’s positive in the global sense.
BRF: It’s like everybody gets to participate in the storytelling process. That can’t be a bad thing.
GM: Has to be a good thing. Because as many people out there who are putting propaganda on YouTube, there’s 30 others telling the truth. And it’ll all come out sooner or later. But if you don’t have the raw material, you can’t decide.
BRF: While we’re talking about the Arab Spring, this film is coming out right after the deaths of Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros. You experienced something like this personally during the Bang-Bang days. What’s the reaction when a photographer was killed in the line of fire?
GM: It’s a shock. Because of the situations you work in very close bonds are formed. So when one of your friends—I didn’t know them personally—but their friends are devastated and hurt. I know for a fact that several photographers and a couple photographers have completely rethought their willingness to go into conflict zones. We have to face the fact that if you’re going do it properly as a photographer you’re going to be as vulnerable or more vulnerable than the participants or civilians. That’s the only way you’re going to get the right stuff, quite honestly.
BRF: We should also talk about Joåo Silva. Have you had a chance to visit him?
GM: Oh, yeah. We spent the last three days with him, which was great. He’s been quite ill again and today he’s having tests to find out if the latest operation was a success. It’s just this ongoing—it’s been six months since this happened and he’s got another minimum of six months before he can get out of that hospital. It’s quite devastating. He’s got a great spirit and he takes it in the best possible way. He talks about if he’s able to go back and do it. Would he do it? I don’t know. Would I like him to? No.
BRF: You said there was a time when you were depressed after covering the war in South Africa.
GM: And other things. It wasn’t just South Africa. It was the famine in Somalia. Yugoslavia. All charming.
BRF: How do you eventually compensate and keep going?
GM: Same way people who suffer great personal loss do. You never get over it but you learn to live with it. It’s part of who you are but you don’t dwell on it. If you dwelled on it you’d be paralyzed by it.
BRF: I saw the depiction of Kevin Carter in the film. What was he like in real life?
GM: He was great. He was warm and generous and fun and crazy. And also aggravating and annoying and an addict. Life with Kevin was never dull. At the heart of it he was a wonderful person.
BRF: But seeing all that carnage, did it hit him harder?
GM: He was really sensitive. But he was manic. It was never diagnosed, but without a shadow of a doubt he was either bipolar or manic. He would either be exhilarated by the exciting side of it or completely down by the tragedy of it. He was an emotional yo-yo and it’s too difficult to survive that.
BRF: You were talking about possibly doing this project for Al Jazeera in El Salvador. What are the things you weigh in determining if you’re going to take this project?
GM: Is it too dangerous? That’s it.
LM: That’s not all of it.
GM: It is. At this moment, that’s all it is.
LM: It’s the consequences of something happening. We’ve got two small children, 6 and 4. If it was just us it would be fine, honestly.
GM: Because it’s not Libya.
LM: Exactly. But it’s unpredictable because you’re dealing with gangs. But it’s the kind of thing you would cover in South Africa with the gangs. And you wouldn’t do it in South Africa either, because it is completely unpredictable. It’s about Luke and Madeleine, who need a father. A healthy, walking, running father.
GM: Throwing children in the air kind of stuff. We haven’t made a decision yet, but I know which way I’m leaning.
BRF: In addition to your home country were there other conflicts that really stayed with you?
GM: The Yugoslav wars, definitely. I spent a long time there and I speak the language. So sadly I could understand a lot of what was being said, which was never pleasant. Chechnya. Somalia was dreadful.
BRF: The things you photograph today, do you get the same professional enjoyment from say, peacetime photography?
GM: It’s not as exciting, but it’s certainly as fulfilling, if not more. Conflicts are difficult. Whereas they do lead to great, exciting pictures, they’re few and far between. With other stuff it’s more dependent on what you do. With conflicts it’s the gods of war, you can’t predict what they’re going to do and if you’re going to be there at the right time. But documentary films, working together, writing.
LM: I think it’s more fulfilling than conflict photography.
BRF: Because it’s easier to share?
LM: It’s sharing but you also get more involved. It’s not a one-shot wonder. You get involved with people and that’s nice. You can change things.
GM: That’s true. You can go home at night and not feel dreadful.
BRF: What’s important to capture?
LM: I want to know as well.
GM: If it’s a series of photos obviously building a narrative and it’s not always clear, because visual literacy is not defined the way other literacy is. What is an understandable essay or narrative is quite debatable. On the other hand in single images whether as a collection or as individuals, there are certain images that rise above cultural norms that are universally understandable and explicit or universally enigmatic. And you’ll see that those pictures stand out. I think that’s where you know you’ve succeeded when the content, context, and the emotions of people interplays with the subjectivity of the storytelling and the viewer gets something that is inalienably an experience. That’s a success.