The Bang Bang Club is the story of four young South African photographers who developed an uncanny skill and reputation for coverage of the bloody events that marked the country's transition from apartheid to majority rule. It is an exciting, gripping, 'heart in the mouth' read.
The book has two tracks; the development of the four men from varied and, in some cases, dysfunctional backgrounds, to prominence in their chosen profession. Along the way, they were drawn to each other because of their skills, their drive and ambition. Sometimes they worked together, but always their was a sense of competition, as evidenced by the frustration Jaoa Silva experienced at missing the shot that won Kevin Carter a Pullitzer prize - a vulture sitting in the Namibian bush, watching and waiting for a very young boy to die. Together they tried to come to terms with the enormity of the events that they were covering and also their role as chroniclers. Carter's drug problem and suicide came about because of an inability to deal with the emotional stresses.
On another level, the Bang Bang Club provides an explanation of how the country came to be at war with itself between 1990 and 1994, and the role of the incumbent white regime (trying to spread dissension); the ANC (negotiating with the government) and the Inkatha movement, representing the Zulu tribe and the country's transient hostel labour force. Marinovich's antipathy to the system of white rule is clearly expressed, but it does not get in the way of an objective narration or recording of events.
The book is also quite disturbing, leaving the reader to deal with a number of uncomfortable thoughts.
Many war photographers including those such as the celebrated Don McCullin, have struggled with the professional task of recording events and the consequent dissociation from the reality occurring in front of them. It seems that Marinovich sometimes could not believe that he had observed ANC supporters attack and then burn a suspected Inkatha member, Lindsay Tshabalala. A picture that won him the Pullitzer Prize. What must have been going through his mind?
The four members of the club courted danger. Sometimes they were in battle zones with bullets flying, and this is how Ken Oosterbroek lost his life; at other times they were witnessing the most horrific aspects of mob rule. It would not have taken much for the fury of the mob to have shifted to these white interlopers. What sort of courage and personality is it that pushes these guys to places where most 'sensible' people would not dare to tread?
And then there is the sheer scale of the violence being witnessed. It is something of a cliché that 'life is cheap' in Africa, but this does not explain the propensity for violence documented here- the slashing of a man's tendons behind his knee so that he could not run away from his would-be executioners. What sort of grief must have possessed Brian Mkhize when he met with Marinovich in a ditch the night after eleven of his relatives had been massacred? Perhaps it is no different from what we have been learning of the violence in the Balkans, in Ireland or any other war zone, but still it is shocking to see how men can so easily be consumed by hatred and violence.
The book helps to think through some, but not all, of these questions. For example, it seems that the photographer's sense of powerlessness to stop or change what is going on around him, is one of the emotions which is most difficult to deal with. The book is a powerful narration of these personal and political events, and no worse for leaving the reader with these questions and concerns.