The Bang Bang Club

10 Jan

I knew one of them. Well…hardly. Not the one that died. There were four of them in that club. I only knew the Portuguese one. I think now he’s with the Times. Or has been for a while. Not sure anymore. And I only knew him from a distant affiliation with the Yugoslavian war. I might have even bummed a smoke from him in Belgrade. Not sure. We all sort of looked the same out there. Dusty and brown, or wet and cold depending on the season. But always under fire. Very little grace. Papa Hemingway would’ve been disgusted. But the other one, the one that won the Pulitzer for that unbelievable photo. You know the photo. A naked, brown, emaciated girl lying in the dirt, barely alive, trying to get to a food center a mile down the road during the famine of Sudan in 1993. And a vulture just behind her. Littered on the ground. Stalking her. Waiting for her to die. That one. You know that photo. I never knew him, but he said shortly afterward that they were told never to interfere with what they were shooting. They were told that they would catch diseases from these famine-stricken victims. And so he didn’t get involved. He just snapped the photo, chased away the vulture, and he left. People eviscerated him after the image appeared.

“The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.”

Shortly after they gave him the Pulitzer in 1994, he drove to the Braamfonteinspruit river in South Africa, near the Field and Study Centre, an area he used to play at as a child, and took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33.

“I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…”


7 Responses to “The Bang Bang Club”

  1. Cliff Burns 10/01/2008 at 2:13 PM #

    What an incredibly moving account, Alex. I think I recall the photo in question and, clearly, that image proved to be even too much for the photographer (or, perhaps, it was a lifelong accumulation of such images). It’s a good lesson because I think most of us think people who take such pictures must have hearts of titanium and the souls of predators. Great post…

  2. (S)wine 10/01/2008 at 2:25 PM #

    Thanks Cliff. And thanks for stopping by and taking the time to read some of this stuff. I’ve bookmarked your site and will go through your writings as soon as I have time to stop and breathe.

  3. Cliff Burns 10/01/2008 at 2:34 PM #

    I like the way you think, Alex, and look forward to reading more of your work. Keep puttin’ one word ahead of the next…

  4. (S)wine 10/01/2008 at 10:47 PM #

    Actually, a good photographer friend recommended a while ago “War Photographer” about the work of James Nachtwey. In the documentary he struggles with the moral dilemma of standing by as a witness to the atrocities he’s shooting…and in the end, in one instance, he gets involved and saves a man’s life. I never really wondered about the impact that these events have on people documenting them. I always suspected they did.

  5. Cliff Burns 12/01/2008 at 1:59 AM #

    I think we have an image of photojournalists as these cold-blooded bastards who can shoot images of a mass grave and walk away and enjoy a rare steak dinner afterward. I’m a big fan of Stephanie Nolen’s writing about Africa–she went into the meanest hovels and covered the continent from the grassroots up. I hear her new book is quite inspiring…

  6. writerchick 16/01/2008 at 9:19 PM #

    I don’t know that I could do something like that. I wouldn’t be able to remain objective in face of a dying child, much less have the presence of mind to take a photo.

    It is sad too, that often people who receive such accolades are in dire need of humanity and no one seems to notice until they die.

    Sad story.

  7. (S)wine 16/01/2008 at 9:35 PM #

    I guess, in the end, he really didn’t. None of them really do. Things like that grind you down…sometimes fast, sometimes slowly. Thanks for coming by.

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