In 1994 I was 17 years old, I had just finished high school and was on my way to study a Bachelor of Journalism in a small university town in South Africa. I was young, so very young and so very idealistic. I had great belief that I was going to change the world and I was a complex mess of confidence and self-doubt, teenage angst and hormones. I loved to read, had just taken up smoking full time, loved running and playing team sports and was not very good at drinking. Those first few months at university were some of the most intense of my life. The crazy instant connections I made with people, I fell into and out of love a few times a month and was searching desperately for a niche to lose myself in.
Somehow I managed to fall in with a group of older photographers who were studying Photojournalism under an inspirational man called Monty Cooper. I can’t recall how it happened but I managed to convince him of my passion for photography and the next thing I knew I had a mentor. Armed with my Dads old Pentax K1000 camera I started to see the world through a different eye. In April of 1994 South Africa held its first democratic election and the whole country was caught up in election fever. The irony wasn’t lost on me, our first election where all votes were equal and I was too young to cast my own vote. So my friends queued to mark their ballot papers and have their thumbs stamped with uv ink and instead I paced up and down the epic queues capturing the event through my camera. I shot roll after roll of old B&W film that I hand rolled in the Photojournalism dark room and slowly I learned the art of old school film processing and development. Many hours were spent in the cool dark space scented with chemicals making notes on a piece of paper as to what mix of fixer and stop I used and how long I cross processed my slide film. I was hooked. Addicted, completely in love with my camera.
That year I made all my new friends pose for me, I captured what was happening in my life on film and somewhere I have all those old negatives, yellowing and curling up in the corners. I read everything I could get my hands on about photography and specifically photojournalism, I entered the halls of my university convinced my writing was going to make me famous and yet somehow photography had stolen my passion and converted my print into images. What got me thinking about all this was a clip I stumbled across today for a movie titled “The Bang Bang Club” which documents a tumultuous time in history in South Africa through the eyes of four young photojournalists. One of those photographers was Kevin Carter. I first heard his name in conjunction with that most famous of images of the dying child in Sudan being watched over by a hungry vulture. The image was made more poignant for me when we studied it a year later in my first Photojournalism ethics classes. Carter was widely critiscised for having taken that image rather than trying to help the starving child. Our ethics group debated this many, many times, should the photojournalist be compelled to step away from his lens and try to prevent the events occurring from happening? Or is his job to capture the event and share the images with the world?
This was something that Kevin Carter and his mates in the bang bang club would have struggled with on so many levels especially considering the harrowing images they were capturing in a South Africa that was being torn apart by desperate violence and acts of pure malevolence such as the gruesome necklacings that Carter photographed in the 1980’s. Condem or celebrate, which ever you choose, there was never any doubting the skill or passion that Kevin Carter and his friends had, their complete lack of fear faced with very real danger on a daily basis and I confess that in my late teens, a passionate photographer studying journalism, that was who I wanted to be. Then later that year shortly after he collected a Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography for his image of the child in the Sudan, Kevin Carter took his own life in the very same park that I used to play in as a child, he had grown up in the same suburb that my family moved to in Johannesburg. His suicide note was desperate and so terribly sad: “I am depressed … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and
anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen,
often police, of killer executioners …” A tragic ending to an unfulfilled life and the loss of a very big talent. The shine had worn off photojournalism as a career and after all, South Africa was entering a period of jubilant stability, our first
democratically elected government was led by the nation’s hero, Nelson Mandela and people of all colours were filled with hope for the future. I went into townships to photograph happy children, not angry riots, times were changing. Soon after I discovered my passion for photographing live music and although I still loved my photojournalism major, a part of me knew I wasn’t going to be the war photographer that I had dreamed I could be.
It feels strange looking back to who I was then and this little adventure down memory lane has left me feeling very grateful for all the opportunities I had to discover my passions. I feel quietly proud that even though 17 years have passed since then, I still love photography and creating images. The thrill of making a photograph happen in my camera, of seeing something and turning it into an image that marks that point in time, it still gets me everytime. I might not be a photojournalist in the traditional sense of the word but I still capture images that mark my place in this world and document how I live my life. One day my children and my children’s children will look back on the vast collection of photographs that I have created and they will know me better as a result. That feels good.
I desperately want to see this movie. It won’t appeal to everyone, especially people who might not know much about the apartheid era in South Africa, a dark time in our history that no one can be proud of. But this movie speaks to me of a different time in my life when I was younger and had more ambition and I think its going to be therapy to sit in a dark movie theatre and go back there one more time.