Photographers see things other people don’t, and we forget that they were possibly haunted by those events, says Makhudu Sefara.
Johannesburg - Photography, as we know, can be spellbinding and horrifying. It can bring you endless love and joy, or haunt you. Cause you unmitigated pain.
As I say this, I can imagine what images are playing out in your heads.
We have all seen images of tyre necklacing victims. We’ve seen machetes used on people’s heads. The life of a photographer is stressful and dangerous.
As photojournalists, you may also be stressed by what thinkers say about the work you do.
In her well-known and influential 1977 volume On Photography Susan Sontag used the words “grandiose”, “treacherous”, “imperial”, “voyeuristic”, “predatory” and “addictive” to characterise photography and its effects.
Sontag declared that the camera “may presume, intrude, trespass, distort and exploit”.
In Xavier Morales’s review of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, Vol. 1, entitled Beauty and violence, he calls the film “a groundbreaking aestheticisation of violence”.
Morales argues that “…Tarantino manages to present violence as a form of expressive art… (in which the) violence is so physically graceful, visually dazzling and meticulously executed that our instinctual, emotional responses undermine any rational objections we may have”.
“Tarantino is able to transform an object of moral outrage into one of aesthetic beauty… (in which) like all art forms, the violence serves a communicative purpose apart from its aesthetic value.”
As you go about your work or life taking iconic images, as did Ken Oosterbroek, appreciate the fact that your lens could be used for reasons mentioned above.
Or that it could – as we say in LeadSA – be a force for good. I believe the South African media, photojournalists in particular, have been a force for good.
About 12 years ago, I worked for The Star as a political writer. When our pictures editor, Robin Comley, talked of a picture she would not use, the quiet radical in me stormed her office, thinking censorship.
After a brief argument, she decided to show me the picture. It was a baby whose privates were torn apart with parts of her insides now protruding. It was an image that has stayed with me ever since. It was harrowing. But it was a picture that was taken by a human being – a photojournalist – we expect not to be affected by these horrors.
Two years later, ahead of the 10-year celebrations of our democracy, I went back to Thokoza’s Khumalo Street – the site of many killings in 1993/94.
I found then that there were people who still fired shots in the air, then took cover behind barricades, believing the war between the ANC and IFP, Zulus and Xhosas, was not over. Their minds were that affected.
It was in the streets of this township that, in the tumult of 1994, Oosterbroek and a legion of photographers spent time recording our transition to democratic rule.
Capturing and telling the South African story was a mammoth task laden with risks – many died for this, our freedom.
These were risks Oosterbroek and many others embraced. They understood their role in the history unfolding in front of their eyes.
They did their damndest. They became the people and the legends they are. They bequeathed us a rich legacy of storytelling – through the lens.
The question is: do we as South African journalists, especially photojournalists, understand our role in telling this history, this South African story.
When we look at the contribution made by Oosterbroek and his betters, do we consider ourselves worthy heirs of their proud contribution? What do we think future generations will say about us and the role we play now? Have we become the 9am to 5pm generation?
Steve Lawrence, our pictures editor, has the mammoth task of ensuring that when young and impressionable lensmen arrive to do work at our office, they understand the burden of history and their place in it.
The task at hand is not easy.
Journalism schools and photo workshops do go a long way but can never fully prepare you for the horrors you might have to document. There is a certain level of stoicism that is expected of photojournalists.
When Robin showed me the picture of the young rape victim, there is a photojournalist who, through his lens, witnessed and still has to live with what she or he saw. Not much is done to acknowledge that.
The media industry – and the country – often does not pause to ponder the damage done to our beloved lensmen.
This is why we are launching the Ken Oosterbroek Fellowship. To help young, talented photojournalists who are willing to work hard get on their feet. Our democracy, as it matures, demands no less.
The winner of the fellowship is to be announced in October. They will win a Nikon-sponsored camera kit valued at R115 000.
The Ken Oosterbroek Fellow will also get a year’s internship at The Star, under Steve’s tutelage.
Ken’s legacy has endured for as long as we’ve had democracy in our country. His life was like a light that illuminated our path to democracy. He may not have lived to witness democratic rule, but his work remains the embodiment of artistry and sheer determination to succeed.
Now, through this fellowship and exhibition at the Wits Origins Centre, we honour him for the inspiration he has been for a generation. We also thank the people who have worked with him, learnt from him, taught and guided him – Robin Comley and Peter Sullivan, editor of The Star at the time of Oosterbroek’s killing.
On this day we remember Oosterbroek’s mentor, Alf Kumalo, too. Bra Alf is a legend in his own right. The Star, and indeed many young men and women who are today distinguished and very successful photojournalists, are greatly indebted to Bra Alf’s guidance, skill and patience.
We are also acutely aware that the work on display here represents a fraction of the body of work produced by Oosterbroek, Bra Alf, Joao Silva, Ruvan Boshoff, Debbie Yazbek, Themba Hadebe and many others. When Oosterbroek took his last breath, his friend Greg Marinovich was also shot, but survived.
Khumalo Street may be peaceful now, but photojournalists face many different challenges – including being attacked by police officers.
We look up to Steve Lawrence and his colleagues in the industry to answer the question – not through words but deeds: how we ensure the generation of today lives up to Oosterbroek’s legacy?
The South African media has been far more responsible in its use of the lens. In addition, we have laws here that inhibit a possible drift to irresponsibility.
So, be undeterred by those who seek secrecy in order to avoid accountability.
Be undeterred by those who want to use their power to avoid taking responsibility – especially where our taxes are concerned.
Continue to shine that spotlight, that searchlight for truth, on corruption and other malfeasance through the lens.
* This is an edited version of a speech The Star’s editor Makhudu Sefara gave at the launch of the Ken Oosterbroek Fellowship and the opening of an exhibition on the works of Oosterbroek and his colleagues at the Wits Origins Centre.