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An exhibition of iconic photographs from the struggle era in South Africa has opened this week at the University of Cape Town’s Library Hub. Cape Town journalist TONY WEAVER made the opening adddress at the “On the Frontline” exhibition.
I feel myself to be enormously privileged to have worked with many of the photographers whose images are on display here this evening in this exhibition curated by Tanya Barben. Some of them, like Billy Paddock and Steve Hilton-Barber are sadly no longer alive. Others, like Dave Hartmann, went into exile and remained there after liberation.
And some, like my old friend and comrade, Paul Weinberg, and my old partner in many journalistic crimes, Guy Tillim, are still carrying on with the outstanding work they began in the darkest years of apartheid.
Last night, my wife and I went to see Jon Blair's documentary on war reporters, Dying to tell a Story, at the Encounters film festival. I found it a profoundly depressing film because most of the journalists interviewed were the exact antithesis to the photographers whose work is on display here at UCT.
They were the gung ho, glamour correspondents who we used to call Bigfoots, or parachute journalists, in the Struggle days, because they would parachute into the big stories, stomp all over it with their big feet, and fly out again.
Allan Pizzey, the NBC correspondent who covered South Africa on and off for several years, kind of summed it up in the film when he said how much fun they used to have, and how in the course of just three weeks in South Africa he and his crew managed to write off six BMWs.
And that, I'm afraid, has often been the approach to conflict journalism: Fly in, hire some locals who know the terrain and can keep you safe, and fly out again and collect that Pulitzer Prize.
But there were three people in that film who touched me profoundly. The first was Robert Fisk of the London Independent, who has lived in Beirut for decades, and has a profound knowledge of the Middle East. He spoke about the need to tell the world what the western powers did not want the world to know, the need to tell the story of the ordinary people of the region.
The second was Jon Steele, a cameraperson for ITN with whom I worked on several occasions and who wrote the book War Junkie, after suffering a nervous breakdown. Jon spoke about how the print journalists and the TV correspondents could watch the action from afar, but the camerapersons and photographers always had to be as close to the action as possible.
He spoke about watching a young girl die in black and white as he filmed her after she had been shot by a sniper in Sarajevo, and how, when he was cleaning his lens later, and saw his own reflection, he realized that the last thing she saw was her own image in the lens, as she died.
And the third profound moment was when Gloria Emerson, the New York Times fashion writer who went to Vietnam because she wanted to tell the story of the war through the eyes of the Vietnamese people, said that “I feel as though the stories I write are like ice cubes that melt in the sun, but a photograph lasts forever.”
This exhibition could just as well have been titled “Not the Bang Bang Club.” I have worked with all the photographers who featured in the book, 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 here this evening 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.
Look carefully at the photographs on display here this evening: 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 brutalized, the marginalized, 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 teargas 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.
I regularly lecture journalism students, and one of the things I do to explain how the very nature of journalism has fundamentally changed is simply to track the technological changes that have taken place.
In the 1980s, when most of these photographs were taken, there were no cellphones, if we were lucky we had radio pagers, those beepers that you see doctors wearing in old movies. If you wanted to call anyone, you found a payphone, or used a two way radio.
There were no computers in the modern sense of the word. There was no email, no internet. When I joined the Rand Daily Mail in 1981, we worked on electric typewriters. We had runners delivering our copy to the sub-editors and inputters. Our newspaper was laid out with hot metal.
I first met Paul Weinberg when I was based in Namiba between 1983 and 1985, and we did a trip together to the Nyae Nyae Pans to separately do work with the Ju/Wa San near Tsumkwe (he borrowed my tent and never returned it!)
Covering the bush war then, we used to send all our copy on a telex machine, a huge, clunky thing that you typed on as if you were playing Wagner on a concert grand piano. It punched out a perforated paper ticker tape, which you then fed into the machine to transmit it to the home office.
Our photographs were transmitted by a landline machine - if you wanted to send colour, you had to transmit three separate transparences in cyan, magenta and yellow. All our phone lines and telex lines were bugged by the security police.
There were over 100 security laws that governed what we could and could not photograph and report on.
And then came the successive States of emergency. All our news was censored. I remember on the Cape Times covering a demonstration in 1986 that was broken up by the riot police. The next morning we ran a photograph of Jammie Steps, completely deserted, with just an empty teargas canister lying in the corner of the photograph.
My story read as follows: “Men in yellow vehicles which may not be identified in terms of the emergency regulations yesterday distributed a chemical substance which may not be named on the UCT campus. A number of students were taken to hospital after being bitten by animals which may not be identified, and several suffered head injuries after being struck by objects which may not be identified.”
It was a surreal time in a surreal country.
I bought my first laptop computer in 1988 in New York, it was a state of the art Toshiba T1000. It had no hard drive. You had to load your Dos programme, then your word processing programme via floppy discs.
And that is the almost final point I want to make about this exhibition here this evening: 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.
I remember Gideon Mendel's first camera was a Miranda - does anyone here remember a Miranda?
Anyway, this is a roll of film. I'm now going to load this Nikon FM with a roll of film and fire some of it off. OK, that was 36 exposures. Most of us were dirt poor in those days, 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 twelve thousand, eight hundred photographs. That's 356 rolls of film. Even if I'm shooting Raw, the highest resolution possible, I can still shoot six thousand 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's less time to reflect, to think over the day's events, and to process the information.
It has also had enormous implications for newsgathering. Instant news.
I worked in television for several years, first as a sound person and producer for WTN and the BBC, and then as southern Africa correspondent for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporations National TV News.
We used to sally forth to cover riots burdened by over 20kg of television gear, and then battle to get our pictures transmitted. If we went on a foreign, or out of town assignment, we needed a VW Kombi to carry all our equipment. We paid thousands of dollars each year in excess baggage charges on airlines. Setting up edit suites in the field took two to three hours.
Today, TV crews use digital cameras that are small and getting smaller. Most crews only have a cameraperson and no sound person. Often the camera person is also the correspondent. And, in the big agencies, like Reuters and AP TN, digital television images are frozen as still pictures and transmitted to be used in newspapers.
Fold up “flyaway” satellite dishes weigh just a few kilogrammes, digital edit suites fit into a small suitcase and can be powered by solar panels. Images can be fed direct and live to New York, Atlanta or London from the middle of a battle-field in the heart of the Congo or Sierra Leone. Again, that means 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.
As an aside here, I think that the first time I started realizing that I had to adapt or die as a news gathering dinosaur, was in June 1999, when Paul Weinberg and I went on a journey of several weeks duration through Namibia and Botswana in search of the San. We were researching and photographing a chapter for a fine book that Paul photographed called Once We Were Hunters.
We arrived in Tsumkwe, the heartland of the Ju/Wa San, and went in search of a cold beer. We were travelling in Paul's beat up Toyota Hilux, and we each had small bag of cameras and lenses and about 60 rolls of film between us.
There were two Land Rovers parked outside the lodge. We walked in and there were Chris Johns, then chief photographer for National Geographic, and now the editor, and Peter Godwin, his writer, an old friend of mine from his days as a correspondent for the Times of London.
We got chatting. They were doing a similar story to us. They had a budget of R1.5 million, and a year to finish it. We had three weeks and a budget of R30 000 including our professional fees. The two Land Rover were theirs - one for their team, and one to carry Chris Johns's photographic equipment.
Frankly, Paul's photographs, shot on just two bodies, with no flash, no elaborate setups, and no hype, were far better. Chris Johns's definitive shot, of a tracker on a Land Cruiser in the Kgalagadi, was shot using seven different flash guns and took four hours to set up, I was later told by the zoologist who took them around.
Which is a long way round getting back to my starting point - 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 Road, 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 death 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” - “the mothers and the fathers, the brothers and the sisters, the grandfathers and the grandmothers, the dogs and the cats - everyone is in the struggle.”
And, we could have added, the photographers.
I am proud to have worked with so many of them.
* Weaver is an assistant editor at the Cape Times. He was president of UCT’s Student Representative Council in 1979/80