This Tuesday, I gave a talk at the opening of the exhibition “On the Frontline: Youth in Struggle, South Africa in the 1980s,” curated by Tanya Barben, in the UCT Library, and these are some of the comments I made:
This exhibition could just as well have been titled “Not the Bang Bang Club.” I have worked with most of the photographers who featured in the book, The Bang Bang Club, and they were all fine photographers, gifted artists, wonderful human beings. But they were not comrades, they were not out on the streets as activists, documenting the Struggle because they believed it was a just cause.
I don’t think any of the photographers represented at the exhibition would, for a moment, resent me describing them as Struggle Photographers. I, for one, feel immense pride when I get described – usually in conservative circles – as a “Struggle Journalist”. That’s what I was and to an extent still am.
If you look carefully at the photographs on display at the exhibition, they all have one common thread. They are taken from behind the lines as it were, they are taken from the perspective of the people.
The police, the military, the vigilantes, the Third Force impis and impimpis are the Other, the distant and sometimes very close threat.
They tell the story of the Struggle from a position beyond the barricades, behind enemy lines in the eyes of the police of the day. They tell the Peoples’ story, the story of the oppressed and the brutalised, the marginalised, but also, they tell the story of courage, of resistance, of the Peoples’ Struggle.
It’s why, whenever the police in the 1980s and early 1990s were going to do something really bad, they first tried to remove us, the journalists and the photographers and the TV crews. We were the witnesses to their atrocities, the documenters who gave the lie to their claims that they were “forced to open fire”, or “fired tear gas after stones were thrown by the crowd”.
Another common denominator is that almost all these photographs were taken not with a 400mm or 600mm Novoflex or Nikon tele lens, they were taken with 20mm, 24mm, 28mm wide angle lenses. The photographer’s perspective is even closer than the perspective of the human eye, often at the point of maximum danger.
At the time these photographs were taken, there were over 100 security laws and successive States of Emergency that governed what we could and could not photograph and report on.
Look at these pictures carefully, look at the level of genius, of compassion, of split second composition, selection of shutter speed, selection of aperture, and remember that they were shot, in the main, on clunky old Nikon and Canon cameras.
We were shooting on film, one camera loaded with a roll of 36 transparencies, slides, the other with 36 black and white frames. Most of us were dirt poor, so we didn’t use motor drives because they chewed film too fast. Each frame counted. On major shoots, I used to budget three to four rolls of 36 a day, that’s 144 photographs.
Today, I pop a 32 gigabyte Sandisk into my Nikon D90. Shooting on Jpeg Fine, which is what most news photographers shoot on, I can shoot nearly 13 000 photographs. That’s 360 rolls of film. Even if I’m shooting Raw, the highest resolution possible, I can still shoot 6 500 frames, 180 rolls of film.
And then I can download it onto my laptop, compress it in Photoshop, and transmit it via a cellphone, dongle or a satellite phone and send it anywhere in the world while the bullets are flying over my head. I can transmit from the summit of Everest.
And in a way, that makes me very sad. There is no time to reflect on the issues, the human dimension, the history of a story. The first draft of history that journalism used to be is becoming increasingly unreliable.
This evening we are witness not only to history, but to a body of work by some of the finest documentary photographers – no, Struggle Photographers – South Africa and I think I can safely say, the world, has produced.
Here in Cape Town, these were the people who documented at enormous risks to themselves the Pollsmoor March, the Battle for Belgravia and Thornton Roads, the Trojan Horse shootings, the murder of the Gugulethu Seven, the assault on Crossroads and KTC by the police and the Witdoek Vigilantes, the trade union struggles and the birth of the United Democratic Front, the murders by police of Ashley Kriel, Michael Miranda, Jabulani Miya, Christopher Piet and scores of others, and the funerals, always the funerals, every Saturday and every Sunday a funeral.
Those were the days when the mense said “die mamas en die papas, die boeties en die sussies, the oupas en die oumas, die honde en die katte – almal is in die Struggle”.
And, we could have added, the photographers.
I am proud to have worked with so many of them.