The Bang Bang Club is a tagline baptized upon a group of politically active photographic journalists who chronicled the intense social upheavals during the early 90s, nearing the end of the Apartheid era in South Africa. The group had four key members: João Silva, Greg Marinovich, Kevin Carter, and Ken Oosterbroek. Other noteworthy photographers, such as James Nachtwey, Abdul Shariff, and Gary Bernard, often accompanied the Bang Bang Club but always remained peripheral figures. Working within the volatile atmosphere of the time the Bang Bang Club documented scenes that were normally beyond the comprehension of the often-uninformed population living in Apartheid stricken South Africa. They were most prolific from the time when Nelson Mandela was released in 1990 to the first non-racial Democratic elections in 1994.

The nomenclature surrounding the groups’ title has many roots. Originally, the name Bang Bang Club was appropriated from an article in Living magazine called the Bang Bang Paparazzi, describing the actions of few intrepid photojournalists who would impulsively enter the surrounding townships of Johannesburg, commonly regarded as a no man’s land, capturing images that announced to the world that the sugar-coated façade of Apartheid was in actual fact a reign of terror governing the country. The term Paparazzi was thought to be a misleading description of the groups’ intentions, hence the slight alteration to club, which also allows for an ironic play on the abbreviation “BBC”. The name can also be derived from the township culture itself, where residents would use the phrase "bang-bang" to describe the all to common violence within their communities, literally referring to the sound of gunfire.

Greg and Kevin are the only South African’s to have been awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for their respective photographic achievements. João and Greg are the only surviving members from the original four, and are co-authors of the autobiographical book titled The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War (with a foreword written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu). The book is based on selected experiences and fragmented memories linked to the now vintage, highly collectable photographs of the Bang Bang Club. The book establishes how close friendships developed between the four members in trying to deal with their own psychological and moral dilemmas during the civil unrest. The dedication that the Bang Bang Club expressed towards their craft led to a lot of emotional turmoil and many close encounters with death, eventually leading to the passing of two members. Ken was killed by crossfire during a gunfight between the National Peacekeeping Force and African National Congress supporters in Tokoza in 1994 (Greg was seriously injured during this event). In July of that same year Kevin committed suicide, barely three months after South Africa’s first democratic elections.

The photographs taken by the Bang Bang Club from this period form the foundation of the book, and are crucial historical artifacts that bear witness to the struggle, oppression, and conflict that became convention at the time. The images also suggest the internal conflict experienced by the members of the Bang Bang Club, each having to respond to the pendulum flow of their ethical responsibility to take the pictures rather than intervene in the situation based on moral obligations. The predicament of witnessing tragic events without attempting to prevent them because the published images would help to expose the larger terror was the bonding factor for all the members of the Bang Bang Club. Their attempts to remain unaffected by switching-off emotionally can also be seen as symptomatic of the times.

The Bang Bang Club fell outside the idyllic social norms dictated by the hegemonic Apartheid regime. They were, however, insiders trying to reveal the real events behind the scenes that kept the sovereignty of everyday Apartheid life from crumbling. The day-to-day atrocities helped conserve the extremely comfortable means that the dominant minority white population saw as their birthright. For the most part the crimes committed by the Apartheid state were beyond the limits of public knowledge, and so too the majority of whites were content with their ignorance towards what was actually going on. By capturing indicting photographic fragments the Bang Bang Club helped create global awareness about the stomach-turning successes of Apartheids social engineering.

João and Greg took most of the vintage images illustrated in the book. Nearly all the photographs taken by João and Greg captured the rising tensions that resulted in many violent clashes between Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC) and Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). As the title of the book suggests, the photographs reveal a hidden war, secretly choreographed by the Apartheid government, in which thousands of people were killed in the build-up towards the 1994 elections. The photographs are small pieces of a larger puzzle that reveal a political strategy designed to create a volatile environment, tailor made to make the ANC look like a terrorist outfit attempting to start a civil war.

The unrest was primarily situated in the three hotspots of Tokoza, Sebokeng, and Soweto, where the bloodshed caused by hostel factionalism between IFP and ANC supporters caused bloody clashes that were clearly linked to dominant political intentions. This disruptive and reticent form of propaganda took advantage of people’s strong convictions regarding traditionalism and tribalism, evidenced by the spikes in aggression when negotiations began.
The orchestration of this hidden war by the Apartheid regime was a failed attempt to disrupt inevitable political change. The Bang Bang Club photographs offer direct, factual accounts of this planned disruption, with some images perfectly framing government controlled security police alongside Inkatha hostel dwellers in Zulu attire attacking ANC held territories. The arrogance of the Inkatha hostel dwellers, who saw themselves as an elite caste of Zulu warriors, was encouraged by the government and used against other Black factions in the hopes that the White minority may regain control in the chaos. The images taken by João and Greg unveiled the sinister intentions of the Apartheid government, broadcasting this message across the globe.

The segregation of the Inkatha-Zulus in to fortress-like hostels created a microcosm of civil war in the townships, reminiscent of an Orwellian scenario where the state is ever present. This was a war of identity, a manner of subverting one identity in order to find a new identity; one that could deal with the immanent changes to come. Ethnicity was a huge issue in this development of a new cultural identity capable of fostering in a different South Africa where all citizens could be seen as equal, and difference was respected. A new sense of multi-cultural, national pride was key, but this did not fall in line with the fascist-like Nationalist Party’s political agenda. Thus the Apartheid government was a third force in the hidden war, secretively pulling all the strings. The Bang Bang Club documented these activities first hand, thereby aiding the increasing movement of anti-apartheid sentiment, and eventually leading to a peaceful transition towards independence.

The Bang Bang Club turned photojournalism into an art form, going to extraordinary lengths to capture the horrors that still reverberate throughout South Africa. Without their artistic efforts the violence and poverty brought about by the Apartheid regime may not have been as intensely protested. The international headlines created by their photographs introduced the world to the scarring events circa 1990 to 1994. The demise of Apartheid and the birth of Democracy in South Africa was a tumultuous period, and life-threatening opportunities to photograph history-in-the-making were plentiful. Resultantly, the Bang Bang Club regularly made the headlines both locally and abroad, bringing them fame and celebrity. The recent cinematic adaptation of the Bang Bang Club book, and Silva’s much publicized, near fatal landmine injury in Afghanistan, have attracted more public attention.

The physiological and psychological impact of the violence juxtaposed with their acquired celebrity is an important factor to consider in relation to the Bang Bang Club. They acknowledged a lost generation caught between the system and the struggle, witnessing immense pain and suffering. They sacrificed their lives to get the story out, shooting real, happening, life in South Africa. In this way, the Bang Bang Club comprised a special breed with different wiring to the rest of us. But that did not make them better equipped to deal with the circumstances after a day of shooting.

Although South Africa is still plagued with many socio-economic and political issues, those days of civil strife are thankfully over. The painful memories remain and there is still much to recover and much to improve. The photographs taken by the Bang Bang Club are a testament to the collective memory of a country that has miraculously avoided civil war. Democracy is still raw here. By positively directing the ignorance, voyeurism and spectacle of a nation towards the international spotlight the photographs of the Bang Bang Club are wartime relics, political artworks, and important historic documents there to remind us of the wrongs that can be achieved when political ideologies turn towards the despotic and tyrannical.

The Rooke Gallery is the sole representative of the Bang Bang Club’s vintage photographic material, which inspired The Bang Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War. All the texts in the Bang Bang Club book are pieced-together memories, based on specific photographs that are available for purchase from The Rooke Gallery. All the images used in this text were taken from the official Bang Bang Club site.
Copyright © Shane de Lange 2011.

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