A wall lined with Pulitzer Prize winning photographs in the Newseum in Washington D.C. is my first glimpse of Marinovich’s and Carter’s photos. One picture in particular evokes horrific emotions; I cannot take my eyes off it.
Photo by Greg Marinovich
A man; engulfed in flames, bent over and burning alive. I think the man is begging for mercy, his body is covered in flames. This is not enough suffering for the man with the knife; he must inflict more pain. A black man embeds a knife or a cleaver into the dying man’s skull; it is difficult to determine what he is using, as the flames obscure the blade. A boy, maybe 13 years old, runs in front of the camera, squeezes into the right side of the frame. I ask myself; ‘What sort of a person stands there and photographs a murder?’
I want to learn more about the dying man and the photojournalist and explore my duality of emotions. I am disgusted, intrigued and want to know more about all of these people in the photo. This picture by Greg Marinovich leaves me with tears streaking down my cheeks.
Suddenly aware and slightly embarrassed, I let the tears come, not wanting to draw attention. From the corner of my eye, I see the woman beside me is wiping her eyes; we turn to each other. “It is so sad.” That is the best I can muster for now.
Four things bother me about this picture. The coldness of the photojournalist, the inhumanity of the man with the knife, the age of the child in the right foreground and the pain the dying man is experiencing.
I need to know more, and I read a book called The Bang Bang Club by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva. They are two surviving photojournalists of a group of four. These photojournalists photographed the erupting violence during the transition out of apartheid in South Africa.
Photo by Kevin Carter
Ken Oosterbroek is shot during a violent outbreak at a hostel in the suburbs of Johannesburg. Carter commits suicide shortly after winning his own Pulitzer Prize for spot photography, gassing himself to death in a car. He is divorced, penniless, and unable to switch off the horrific visions he has captured on camera.
The first issue is the coldness of the photojournalist. Marinovich, the photojournalist who took the picture of the man burning alive, says when he photographed murder for the first time in a hostel, the shock hit him later. He flies to New York to accept his award for this photo; his description of the event is rigid and automatic. Although he describes it as a self defense mechanism, his ability to act normal seems cold and unfeeling. It is apparent that the Bang Bang Club has left him desensitized.
As I look at this photo I imagine Marinovich steadying himself, focusing the lens and taking the picture. Later he will accept a Pulitzer for his endeavor. The world is a brutal place in that moment, theirs and mine.
I wonder what he could have done anyway in that moment when he took the picture. If he drops the camera and defends the man, Marinovich will die too. The world would then never see this photograph. The world needs to see this picture; man’s inhumanity against man, polarization of people.
Do I like looking at this picture? No, I cannot take my eyes off it. I know that I need to see it. I am protected from scenes like this daily. All it took in South Africa was a corrupt government.
The second issue is the inhumanity of the man with the knife. Apartheid is ending; black South Africans should be united in joy. They are free to work and live wherever they want. Both men in the picture are black. Why is a black man killing another black man?
According to Marinovich and Silva, the white government had secretly been training certain tribes in military warfare and providing them with weapons. Why would the exiting government do this? To show the world that the tribes of South Africa were wild hostile natives, unable to agree with each other; let alone unite to rule their own country. This is the whites’ way of showing the world they are needed to restore order to South Africa.
The third issue that causes me to tear up is the child. He is not the only one to be part of this violent act. In fact, children pour the gasoline over Lindsaye Tshahabala, a Zulu man, light the match and set him on fire. There is a smile on the child’s face as he flees the scene in the right foreground of the picture. He is no more than twelve or thirteen years old. Tomorrow’s adults are perpetuating the violence.
The fourth issue, Lindsaye Tshahabala died a brutally horrific and painful death.
What up sets me the most and why do I remain transfixed by the photo and others like it? Is it the fact that photojournalists make a living out of chasing and capturing death on film? Is it seeing a person’s final moments on this planet displayed in public? Alternatively, is it my own naiveté that this world is a peaceful place? I am upset because of all of these things. The reason I continue to look; because I live on the same planet as the photojournalist, the murderer, the child and Lindsaye Tabashala.
Complacency, I believe, is ignorance shrouded in comfort.