J. Ross Baughman | Rhodesia

Here at IP, I am devoted to providing accurate and informative backstories about iconic photos, but sometimes, I simply get things wrong. Here is one of such stories: @aalholmes

In 1977, J. Ross Baughman was documenting the bloody guerrilla war that broke out in Rhodesia as the minority white rule slowly disintegrates there; the attacks on anti-government guerillas were especially fierce and Baughman rode with a cavalry unit, Grey’s Scouts, and captured them torturing prisoners. Baughman remembers:

They force them to line up in push-up stance. They’re holding that position for 45 minutes in the sun, many of them starting to shake violently. Eventually, the first guy fell. They took him around the back of the building, knocked him out and fired a shot into the air. They continued bring men to the back of the building. The poor guy on the end started crying and going crazy and he finally broke and started talking. As it turns out, what he was saying wasn’t true, but the scouts were willing to use it as a lead. It had all the feeling of an eventual massacre. I was afraid that I might see entire villages murdered.

In my original post (June 2010), I posited that journalists don’t usually carry guns, since that meant forfeiture of a journalist’s status  as a neutral noncombatant under international law. I also erroneously claimed that J. Ross Baughman was the first photographer to tote a gun. In his correspondence to me, Mr. Baughman points out:

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Torture in Rhodesia

This post contains some inaccurate information. Mr. Baughman has contacted me to correct it, and I have reposed a more accurate representation here

Journalists don’t usually carry guns because it means forfeiture of a journalist’s status under international law as a neutral noncombatant, and it encourages troops to consider all journalists as fair targets. In the guerrilla war in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1977, that convention was abandoned. Some forty foreign correspondents and photographers carried weapons, but the person who started the tradition was J. Ross Baughman of the AP.

The military confiscated most of his film, but he smuggled out three rolls. Baughman, who has infiltrated Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups in the United States wore a Rhodesian soldier’s uniform, carried a gun and joined a Rhodesian cavalry patrol for two weeks in order to get the pictures. This fact made him ineligible for some photographic awards. The prestigious Overseas Press Club noted there are “so many unresolved questions about [the photos’] authenticity,” and a member of the OPC and picture editor for Time magazine John Durniak stated that “the jury felt the pictures had been posed”. Nonetheless, Baughman won a Pulitzer for the above photograph — thus becoming the youngest photojournalist to ever win the Pulitzer.

In 1965, Ian Smith announced in emotionless tones that Rhodesia had declared independence from Britain rather than bow to pressure from London for concessions toward the black majority; international sanctions followed starting next year. In 1976, under pressure by the United States, Smith acknowledged a need for majority rule, with a slow and grudging acceptance. In those last years of the minority white rule, the attacks on anti-government guerillas were especially fierce. Baughman rode with a cavalry unit, Grey’s Scouts, and took photos of them torturing prisoners.

Baughman remembers: “They force them to line up in push-up stance. They’re holding that position for 45 minutes in the sun, many of them starting to shake violently. Eventually, the first guy fell. They took him around the back of the building, knocked him out and fired a shot into the air. They continued bring men to the back of the building. The poor guy on the end started crying and going crazy and he finally broke and started talking. As it turns out, what he was saying wasn’t true, but the scouts were willing to use it as a lead.”

Three years after Baughman’s pictures, free elections were held in Rhodesia. Robert Mugabe becomes the first prime minster of the new, black-majority-led country, Zimbabwe and would preside over its slide into corruption and decline.