Essay: The Bang Bang Club Takes Aim at the Integrity of Conflict Photojournalists

Actors Malin Akerman, Taylor Kitsch and Ryan Phillippe at The Bang Bang Club movie premiere

By: Evelyn Harford

Embed from Getty Images

“What do you think makes a photograph great?”

South African radio jockey four-years after The Bang Bang Club began documenting the “Hidden War” in apartheid South Africa asks this question, loaded with ethical pitfalls to award-winning photojournalist Kevin Carter, in The Bang Bang Club’s opening scene.

“I don’t know really,” he says taking a pause. “You take the picture and see what you have later…maybe what makes a great picture is one that asks a question. It’s not just a picture. It’s more than that… You go out and you see bad things, evil things and you want to do something about it. So, what you do is you take the picture that shows it.”

Carter’s eventual reply during The Bang Bang Club’s conclusion bookends the film. Between these key scenes the viewer is left to navigate a complicated ethical landscape for his/herself with no cinematic guidance.

The Bang Bang Club directed by Steven Silver premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2010 received less than favorable ratings on Rotten Tomato and IMDb. The Bang Bang Club profiles four conflict photojournalists, Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva working for the leading Johannesburg newspaper, The Star between 1990-94, in the lead up to the first free elections in apartheid South Africa. The conditions leading up to the first free and fair elections were violent and horrific. The Bang Bang Club, a term coined by South African Living magazine captured arguably the most significant turning point in South Africa’s history.

The Bang Bang Club damages the reputation of human rights documentarians. The film paints The Bang Bang Club members as extensions of a neo-colonial machine and diminishes their role in defining and documenting history. While underlying plot lines of romance, drugs and suicide make for good reviews in Hollywood it does not do justice to the subjects upon which the film was based.

Just as a soldier pulls a trigger with a purpose to kill, the conflict photojournalist points their weapon, a camera lens-clicking the shutter, shooting a purposeful non-lethal retaliation against human rights abuses. There is a bi-directional relationship between those shooting rounds of ammunition, and the photojournalists shooting rolls of film. To separate the photojournalists from the conflict, and the victims they shoot by an invisible barrier of privilege does their entire life’s work an injustice. This film detaches emotional connection between the photographer and their subjects.

The film’s critical flaws stem from Silver’s divergence from the narrative expressed in the book, The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War written by real life characters Marinovich and Silva. This autobiography published in 2000, chronicles the lives of The Bang Bang Club members and should have provided Silver with a solid base for his film. The autobiography contextualizes and emphasizes the photojournalists’ story within the larger, highly politicized landscape of apartheid South Africa. It is a successful representation of life as a conflict photojournalist-unlike the highly glamorized Hollywood version put forth by Silver.

After being recommended this film in an undergraduate photojournalism class I was eager to go home and watch it. I figured that this film, based on the true story of Marinovich and Silva would do justice to both black and white South Africans and give insight into the ethical dilemmas faced everyday by working conflict photojournalists.

In a 2011 interview with CNN, Silver indicated that, “It was important to me that the story was not about apartheid, not about South Africa,” he said. “It was about four young white men … and the choices they made.”

This statement shook me to the core. If it were not for the injustices caused by institutionalized racism in apartheid South Africa-the photojournalists would not be there in the first place. The story was about the plight of South Africans, particularly black South Africans victimized by the horrifically violent, institutionally racist human rights abusers within the de Klerk government. It was these injustices documented by The Bang Bang Club, which makes this story captivating and relevant to humanity.

The larger narrative in apartheid South Africa was not about the “young white men” taking pictures of the poor segregated black South Africans.

The photojournalists in The Bang Bang Club were serious, emotionally invested men documenting human rights abuses, not simply a boys club of adrenaline junkie, wild-men as depicted in the film. Carter’s confession in the film’s conclusion provided a much-needed insight that the characters portrayed were in fact profoundly affected by the human subjects captured though their lenses. However, these instances of insight were rare. The attempts made in the film to uncover the complicated emotion involved in conflict photojournalism. The ethical dilemmas faced daily by The Bang Bang Club, were overwhelmed by the masculine bravado and disturbing emotionally disengaged voyeurism prominent throughout the film.

Marinovich, arguably the heartthrob of the film becomes romantically involved with The Star’s photo editor, Robin Comley. Marinovich’s rise up the ranks as a freelancer occurs when his truly grotesque images captured of a burning corpse gets picked up by the Associated Press-eventually winning him a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. In support of Marinovich’s success members of The Bang Bang Club pat Marinovich on the back yelling, “It’s pay day!”

This display signified that the main goal of the conflict photojournalist is to indulge the personal ego, exploit victims of human rights abuse to make money. This display could be ethically problematic for viewers, as the instance is not balanced by passion for the role, or sympathy for the victims.

Albeit photojournalists need to be paid-full stop. However, it is the ethical dilemma of exploitation that surrounds conflict photography that makes this scene so problematic. The photojournalist’s role is important to holding human rights violators and governments to account-but the portrayal in this movie does not represent this with much context or accuracy. This devalues the work of Marinovich and Co.

Someone needed to have a really bad day for the members of The Bang Bang Club to have a good day. Marinovich’s 1991 Pulitzer Prize winning photograph was highlighted leading to celebrity within the journalism community, higher respect, and the ultimate prize-continuing to have sex with Comley (apparently unachieved by others). Sweat, dirt, adrenaline and violence a great recipe to get the girl, and win a Pulitzer Prize.

Ethical quandaries about photojournalists exploiting victims of violence for profit and personal gratification is hotly debated among scholars-but it is a role in society that needs to be filled. This opinion piece does not take a stand on whether or not graphic and violent images are wrong, but does take the stand that photojournalists depicted in The Bang Bang Club are not represented in a fair and balanced way.

The film highlights Carter’s controversial 1994 Pulitzer Prize winning photo of the vulture staking the starving Sudanese child. The ethical implications of capturing such images are touched upon, but does not make for good subject matter in a Hollywood blockbuster so is quickly skimmed over when Carter is questioned in the interview by the South African radio jockey mentioned earlier. Instead the viewer is left to infer that there is precarious ethical terrain to cover as the closing scene plays out Carter’s highly publicized suicide.

The film does not elaborate or even being to delve into stories about the victims depicted in Carter’s, Marinovich’s, Oosterbroek, or Silva’s famous photographs, nor the context in which the violence was taking place. This is ironic because the goal of photojournalists is to expose and bring to public consciousness atrocities happening to people right in front of their eyes. The photojournalist is a vessel for which to bring to the world’s attending human rights abuses and the truths of conflict. The conflict photojournalist would have an empty film roll without subjects, for which there is no real reference to in The Bang Bang Club film. The photojournalists are trying to ignite a global response to the South African’s “Hidden War”.

As an award winning documentary filmmaker, I figured Silva would be accurate and perhaps avoid the common Hollywood tropes attractive to directors when depicting African conflicts for Western audiences. The lack of context in this film is troubling. “The Bang Bang Club”, a label was born out of media sensationalism and thus, downgraded the authenticity of the work the photojournalists were trying to accomplish as members of The Bang Bang Club.

The scene where Marinovich runs through an onslaught of gunfire unscathed to purchase two bottles of Coca-Cola, exemplifies the characterization of Marinovich as a nonchalant vigilantly. This event was a factually accurate and represented a very human, and humorous situation amid chaos-within the context of this film it made the white photographer seems to transcendent over black violence, again adding to the racialized portrayal of the photojournalists in The Bang Bang Club. This characterization, although human and humorous, detracts from the seriousness of conflict documentation, when juxtaposed to the previously discussed failings.

As the four, male members of The Bang Bang Club walk through the newsroom women look up from their desks, one even jumps up to steal an open-mouthed kiss from Oosterbroek. The cocky, arrogant and blatant sexual attention due to their dark, mysterious masculine escapades also detracts from the seriousness of their job in documenting the violence that occurred in apartheid South Africa.

The film is gritty and raw, yet contrived. Although based on truth this film is a work of fiction. The film glorifies the exploitation by photojournalists of black South Africans fighting for change against the racist, colonial segregation.

Photojournalists in post-Cold War conflicts are placed in situations with less clear cut lines between aggressors and victims, as well as unprecedentedly complex violence and chaos which must as a matter of human rights must be documented. Albeit, the film tries to ‘humanize’ the issue of conflict photography, but in doing so actually reduces the seriousness and sincerity many (not all) conflict photographers have.

This film does not contextualize the role of the government in their relationship with the Zulu’s. The Zulu’s were used as proxy fighters against Nelson Mandela’s ANC leading to misconceptions on the ethnic violence depicted in the film. The Coles Notes version of this relationship is flashed on screen for 15 seconds at the beginning of the film. The viewer is then left to interpret the nearly 400 years of racialized colonialism and segregation. This type of uncontextualized representation ascribes to common tropes used to represent not only South Africa, but also the African continent more generally. Images of tribalism, violence and chaos between black Africans reign as excitable images for onlookers.

The image of ‘the white photographer’ documenting the violence and suffering of black South Africans for sport and fame is after watching this film could be seen as exploitation guised as social justice.

“Get out of my fucking way,” says Ken Oosterbroek as he snaps a picture of a bloodied-corpse of a young black resident of Soweto Township. The film infers a racialized power dynamic between the white photojournalists with agency to bring change and passive victims of black on black violence.

Silver is an accomplished documentary filmmaker, and presumably gifted at representing fact. Where Silver failed is in the exaggeration and romanticization of conflict journalists’ lives. What film about Africa would be complete with out conflict, blood, young black rebels strapped with AK-47s, corruption, and of course a white saviour-in this case represented by white South African photojournalists.

My advice to any filmmaker, author, journalists, photographers, tourist, travel bloggers (basically anyone documenting human rights violations, human suffering on the African soil), read Binyavanga Wainaina’s book How to Write About Africa. Avoid common pitfalls and do justice to the characters on continent. This film joins the ranks of Blood Diamond, Black Hawk Down and Lord of War…believe me, this list could go on. The Bang Bang Club provides a lesson on, “How Not to Make a Film About Africa”.

This unconextualized stereotype-laden film, clouds the authenticity and perhaps inherent altruism that many human rights advocates and conflict documentarians have when covering active conflict. Carter faced criticism for his (in)famous 1994 Pulitzer Prize image. The image depicts an image of a miscellaneous starving Sudanese child in southern Sudan. The public criticized Carter for just snapping the photo and not helping the little girl-again the focus goes back to ethical dilemmas involving the subject of these horrific images.

Silver stereotypes conflict journalists and black South Africans to create drama and intrigue in his film The Bang Bang Club. As he stated in his interview with CNN in 2011, this film was not about the subjects captured through the lenses of The Bang Bang Club-the inherent problem in the creation of this film.

So, what makes a perfect film? According to Silver using degrading tropes and stereotypes of Africa to glamorize The Bang Bang Club as selfish, narcissistic wild-men. However effective these tactics are at bringing people to the box-office, it damages the integrity of talented conflict photojournalists putting their life on the line to bring the world images no one would otherwise see.

Final recommendation-skip the film, read the book.

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