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As a new feature film, Steven Silver's The Bang Bang Club, demonstrates, the men who shoot scenes of conflict are a tough breed who ultimately sacrifice as much as they take. Based on a memoir by photographers Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich, the film just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival and is available on demand for a limited time. It tells the story of one strutting cohort of shooters working in South Africa in the early 1990s, a group of guys who became unusually distinguished, thanks both to their talent and their fortune in working in a place undergoing wrenching political change. The political backdrop is the last-ditch struggle of the white apartheid government to enlist the Zulu-heavy Inkatha party against the Nelson Mandela-led African National Congress. Terrible black-on-black violence ensues.
The film dutifully explores all the ethical dilemmas of war photography, including whether photographers have a duty to intervene—even at the expense of neutrality, let alone getting the money shot. One of the young photographers for The Star of Johannesburg, Greg Marinovich (played by Ryan Philippe), wins a Pulitzer for his photo of a Zulu man being incinerated and hacked to death. But in between taking snaps of the atrocity, he pleaded with the assailants to leave the victim alone. We'll stop, came the reply, "if you stop taking pictures."
A second photographer in the group, the troubled, drug-abusing Kevin Carter, also won a Pulitzer, but his turned out to be more controversial. Where Marinovich was generally untroubled by questions about whether he'd made a sufficient attempt to intervene in the murder he photographed, Carter (played in the film by Taylor Kitsch) found himself ill equipped to answer queries about his instantly notorious photo. You've seen it: A famished Sudanese girl is alone in a field, tucked into fetal position, seemingly near death. And patiently lurking in the background is a vulture.
What happened to the girl, people demanded to know. Did you help her, or were you too busy framing your prizewinning shot like the metaphorical vulture that you are? (Weirdly for longtime attendees of Full Frame, the New York Times photo editor who calls Carter with the news of his Pulitzer is none other than Nancy Buirski, who later founded the documentary festival in Durham. Buirski plays herself in this telephone conversation.)
Although The Bang Bang Club sometimes tries too hard to milk the swaggering bad-boy clichés of the war photographer—the drugs, the sex, the cackling in the face of gunfire—it ends up being a powerful evocation of the physical and spiritual hazards of the work. Only two of the four "club" members are still alive: One died covering the end of apartheid, while Carter killed himself not long after winning his Pulitzer.
Of the two surviving members, Marinovich gave up combat photography after being shot on four occasions, while Silva lost his legs (and suffered grievous internal injuries) after stepping on a mine last fall while in Afghanistan for The New York Times. Last week, however, Silva told Terry Gross on NPR's Fresh Air that he hopes to return to combat zones on prosthetic legs.