Many probably have seen the above picture, emblematic of the daring lengths photographers have to go to record an important event. However, very few people would have noticed that the photographer at the centre was James Nachtwey, one of the greatest photojournalists alive, and that the photo was taken by David Turnley — another great photojournalist covering the same event: post-election violence in South Africa in 1994. Although neither Nachtwey or Turnley were the members of the Bang-Bang Club — the notorious group of four photographers (Kevin Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, Joao Silva) who covered South Africa in the last years of the Apartheid — they worked closely with the members of the Club.
Today, we mistakenly recall that South Africa’s transition from Apartheid was largely conflict-free. However, the backlash from white supremacists was not negligible in those tumultuous months leading up to the election: some whites called for a separate, whites-only homeland, while others formed neo-Nazi movements. Although the anti-election Freedom Alliance gradually lost its influence, violence persisted, abetted by the police (as it was later discovered). A state of emergency had to be declared and troops had be to deployed in some provinces to help residents to go to the voting booths undeterred. The elections took place under intense international pressure (on regional presidents) and scrutiny. The election was chaotic: there was no voter registration list, and the balloting had to be extended for three days to accommodate some 22 million voters who had newly won their right to vote.
Nachtwey would win his fourth Robert Capa medal for covering the violence that followed the election as some accused election fraud. He would also witness the clash between peacekeepers and the African National Congress that killed Ken Oosterbroek and injured Marinovich.
For more information about the Bang-Bang Club, see the movie of the same name, starring Ryan Phillippe, that premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this year.