Photographer Joao Silva’s exhibition at MuseumAfrika is nothing if not intense, says Kevin Ritchie.
Johannesburg - Sixty images. Pictures hanging on white walls off a beige faux pine floor. There’s a door to the exhibition. When you see the pictures, you’ll understand why.
This is no normal picture exhibition, but then this is no ordinary photographer. This is an exhibition by Joao Silva, the man who put the bang into the Bang Bang Club, who cut his teeth on The Star under Ken Oosterbroek and then went off to cover wars in every imaginable hellhole from Angola to Bosnia, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan for the next 20 years until three years ago. It took both his legs and almost his life.
The last three pictures, displayed as a triptych, are the legendary final frames he shot as US infantrymen dragged him and his shredded legs out of danger.
He phoned his wife Viv to tell her what had happened, then bummed a cigarette off one of the soldiers as he waited for the helicopter casevac. His own smokes and lighter had been blown clean out of his webbing, along with his body armour, by the force of the detonating landmine.
Silva’s exhibition is at MuseumAfrika in Newtown, Joburg.
It began life last year as a mid-career retrospective in Perpignan, France, where he had been invited to share top billing with Vietnam war photographer extraordinaire Don McCullen at the 25th iteration of the annual festival.
The exhibition was the fruit of a six-month personal odyssey through negatives, hard drives, old CD-ROMs for photographs that would explain just why he developed an obsession with photographing war and its destruction of human lives.
In the end, he settled on three countries: South Africa, Afghanistan and Iraq. “It was these three countries that stood out. These are the countries that shaped me emotionally and, ultimately, physically.”
Some of his pictures are too graphic to even describe, much less reprint.
They are neither pornographic nor gratuitous, but simultaneously portray an unvarnished reality of the consequences of hatred along with the fearlessness needed to take them, and the courage to keep on going back.
“They’re not the best pictures I’ve ever shot by any means, but they’re the ones that meant the most to me.
“The picture of Mandela was the first time I had ever seen him. It was a press conference in a garden shortly after his release. It’s a s*** image, but remember we’d never seen him. I arrived for the job and thought: ‘F***, which one is he?’ If you look carefully at the picture, you’ll see him.”
There’s no equivocating about the later frame of Mandela on the other wall, this time in his dotage, being supported, in a Bafana jersey, by President Jacob Zuma, his arm around his neck. It’s one of the few frames on show that doesn’t have any violence in it.
Going through his archives was supposed to be a catharsis. Instead, it depressed him.
The South African section was the hardest. “You relive the smells, the drama, the mistakes you might have made, the people whose lives you might have affected. I was in such a deep funk.”
Silva’s journey began in the late 1980s on The Star under the mentorship of the legendary Oosterbroek.
Silva would photograph him dying and bury fellow Bang Bang member Kevin Carter, who committed suicide after Oosterbroek was killed in the streets of Thokoza just before the April 1994 elections. Another Star photographer Gary Bernard would also kill himself.
As for Silva, winning the Ilford journalist of the year in 1992 put him on the map. He covered the elections for the Associated Press and then began covering wars in earnest, moving to the New York Times on an almost full-time basis from 1996.
But once the South African edit had been done, the rest fell into place.
There has been no epiphany though.
He knows how close he came to dying. How army explosive experts found that the anti-personnel landmine he stepped on had been linked to 13kg of homemade explosives that never detonated.
“If it had, there wouldn’t have been enough of me left to fill a matchbox.”
Yet that tiny landmine has cost him more than three years of hell.
He lives in a world of pain, faces more operations beyond the 70 times he has already gone under the knife, but apart from a slight wobble when he walks, you wouldn’t know he was either in agony, or, in the common sense of the term, disabled.
You wouldn’t think he was a legend either. He certainly doesn’t.
“I found no secrets, no truth,” Silva says. “I’m as frail and as fallible as everyone else. I’m a sinner not a saint, but there’s a pure honesty in what I do as a photographer, irrespective of my failings as a human being.”
Silva says his time as a war photographer is over, that he will have to re-invent himself, because he’s not mobile any more. He can’t run as hard as an infantryman under fire.
Don’t think anyone even believes that for a moment.
He might be spending a year at home with his family, but young photographers speak of awe for the man with no legs right in the thick of things, among the burning tyres, tear gas and birdshot.
That was Zamdela – a Sasolburg township. It was called a service delivery protest. To Silva it was just another day at the office.
* Joao Silva’s Showcase is on display at MuseumAfrika until January 23 next year.