Two War Photographers On Their Injuries, Ethics
Originally published on Wed May 23, 2012 11:59 am
Combat photographers Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed Wednesday in Libya, and two more photographers were seriously injured. On Thursday's Fresh Air, we air an interview taped Tuesday with combat photographers Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, both of whom have been seriously injured in the field.
Marinovich has been shot and wounded four times while covering conflicts in South Africa and Afghanistan. Silva lost both of his legs in a land mine explosion in Afghanistan last October while working as a contract photographer for The New York Times.
Silva has photographed wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, the Balkans, the Middle East and southern Africa. On the day he stepped on the mine in Afghanistan, he was embedded with a unit of the 4th Infantry Division and a New York Times reporter. Two other people and a minesweeping dog walked through the area where the mine was just before he approached.
"I was like third man in line, and I just happened to put my foot maybe a little more to the left or a little more to the right, and bam," he tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross, speaking from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he is recovering. "Basically I heard the metallic sounds — bang — and got thrown over. My initial reaction was to ask the guys around me for help. The guys around me were a little bit dazed from the explosion, but they grabbed hold of me pretty quickly and dragged me away from the kill zone."
While he was being dragged away, Silva continued to snap photographs. He asked the New York Times reporter, Carlotta Gall, for a satellite phone to call his wife.
"I called my wife. I told my wife, because I had seen my legs were gone, I told my wife, 'Listen. Legs are gone. But I think I'm going to be OK. I think I'm going to live.' "
Soon after, a medevac helicopter landed on the scene. Silva was transported first to Germany and then to Walter Reed, where he spent three weeks in the intensive care unit. In February, he took his first steps at the hospital using two prosthetic legs.
"I walk between parallel bars and use a walker when I walk longer distances," he says. "So I'm not quite balancing on my own yet, but I'm sure that will come in time."
But Silva has also suffered medical setbacks. After surgery to repair his rectal cavity and urethra, he picked up an infection and has been battling constant fatigue and pressure.
"The side of my face feels like it's the size of a melon," he says. "My eye's completely closed. There's a lot of pressure from the swelling. My white blood count has risen, so the rest of my body does feel it."
Silva faces more reconstructive surgeries to repair his urinary tract and intestinal cavity and will very likely spend several more months at Walter Reed. He hasn't picked up a camera since the incident.
"Right now, I'm focusing on my recovery. I'm either wheelchair-bound or I'm lying on my back," he says. "It's really difficult to shoot in those kind of circumstances. Bottom line, I don't feel the need. I don't want to. I have no need to. Maybe later on, closer to the end of my rehab when I'm a bit more mobile. And I might do it before everything closes up. But right now, no. I need to be more mobile."
Marinovich has visited Silva several times in the hospital. The two photographers are good friends and two of the four members of "The Bang-Bang Club," a group of photographers who documented the final bloody years of South African apartheid before the 1994 elections.
Marinovich stopped shooting in the field after his fourth gunshot injury, which took place in Afghanistan. He had previously been shot three times in South Africa.
"After Afghanistan, I realized that this was just not productive," he tells Fresh Air's Gross. "After several weeks [after being shot for the fourth time], it just dawned on me that I don't want to do this anymore, and I don't want to be injured anymore."
In 1994, Marinovich was shot and his friend Ken Oosterbroek, another member of the Bang-Bang Club, was killed while covering a battle in South Africa.
"I thought [the bullet] had gone through me," Marinovich says. "Nobody wanted to look. I wasn't breathing properly and all sorts of things because my lung had been punctured. And there were a couple of other wounds, rather embarrassingly, in my buttocks and in my hand."
In his memoir, The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War, which he co-wrote with Silva, Marinovich describes thinking his injury in South Africa was it.
"I had paid my dues," he wrote. "I had atoned for the dozens of close calls that had always left someone else injured or dead while I emerged from the scenes of mayhem unscathed, picture in hand, having committed the crime of being the 'lucky voyeur.' "
And that sensation of guilt, Marinovich says, stayed with him while covering other war zones.
"Just seeing someone — especially a mother over a young child or a young fighter or a young civilian who's being killed — and that look they give you as you come to photograph them, while you're kind of apologizing about photographing," he says. "And people want you photographing to show what's happened, but that look of hatred — that sometimes you get from a mother — is just so disturbing."
Marinovich received the Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for Spot News Photography. He later became the Associated Press' chief photographer in the Middle East. Joao Silva has received numerous awards, including the World Press Photo award. Silva and Marinovich collaborated on the The Bang-Bang Club book, which has now been made into a film starring Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch. The film tells the stories of the four combat photographers who risked their lives to capture the atrocities committed during apartheid.
Joao Silva on photographing wars
"I have this fascination to be on the cutting edge of history [and] witness history firsthand. I've always wanted to show those that are fortunate enough not to live in a war zone the realities or certain realities of war zones, which is ultimately the point. We go out and we expose ourselves believing somehow that we have an impact on society."
Greg Marinovich on interceding
"Journalism is not a profession. It's a craft. So you don't need any training to become one. You can just do it ,which is the route that I came. And so ethics and morality and the kind of New York Times set of rules about what you can and can't do and the guidelines that you receive there wasn't a part of my background. I came to it more as a citizen and as a person than a photographer. So my thoughts about interceding and not interceding — whether it was characters or a photographer — were unformed and they became formed. And what I stuck to was really, why does it matter if you intercede to save somebody or not? And I did, on many occasions, attempt and sometimes succeed and sometimes not. It's a very strange thing. It varies from day to day with what you're thinking and what you're feeling and what the situation is. To intercede, to change the picture, is unethical. To intercede at the cost of doing your job as a journalist, I think that's a personal choice you make. And I have no issue with people on the other side of that divide."
Joao Silva on voyeurism
"Somehow the camera gives us access to the most intimate moments in peoples' lives. And you do feel out of place when you're photographing a mother cradling a dead son or whatever the case may be. Or a young Marine helping an injured friend — you do feel like you're somewhat out of place. But at the same time, you know that it's important to do it. It's what you're doing there. Otherwise, stay home and hang out with your PlayStation. ... You gotta learn to live with yourself and what you do. When you take pictures — and these are extreme situations — you are intruding. You're very fortunate to be able to record somebody else's history. I've always maintained that the true heroes are the people around me. ... I always understand that it's the history that I'm documenting — that's the whole point of being there."
Greg Marinovich on the ethics of war photography
"The other thing that photographers struggle with is the setting up of pictures. And by that, I mean, where the photographer interferes in the scene to make it a better picture — where essentially fiction and nonfiction blur — that we have real problems with. I remember a very famous New York-based photographer was at the funeral of Chris Hani, the communist leader who was assassinated by white extremists. He was directing the show to make for a better picture, and we all immediately wrote to his employer — his contract employer at the time was Time magazine — and he was pulled off the job immediately. And this other photographer we spoke about — the right-winger — he would hire a Mercedes-Benz and drive into the township and drive up and down the volatile areas until people started stoning his cars so that he could get the pictures."
Greg Marinovich on the difficulties of publishing his 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning series of photos, which showed a man attacked with a machete and then set on fire in South Africa
"I didn't try and get it published. At the time I was freelancing, and I was shooting for the AP and also for Sigma, the photo agency. And so I had two separate cameras. One had color negative for AP and one had color slide for Sigma. And the AP put the pictures up. They put up 18 pictures in all. And newspapers complained about the graphic nature of those pictures, and many didn't publish those pictures. It wasn't that the 'burning man' wasn't widely published at all — certainly not in South America and not in America, and I can understand that; they are very disturbing pictures, and that's up for a newspaper to decide what they want to publish — but the tangential argument from that is that it's not up to us as photographers to censor that. It's not up to us to not shoot it because it's too graphic or too disturbing. It's not up to us to not edit that and put that in the take, and it's certainly not up to the distributing agency to decline to put those pictures in the take because of their graphic nature. In fact, it was the New York office of the AP that almost didn't want to move those pictures on. Because London had taken them in ... and in New York, it was difficult. They almost didn't move the picture."
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Yesterday, two photojournalists, Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, were killed, and two others were wounded in Libya by a rocket-propelled grenade. This tragedy is one of an increasing number of examples of how dangerous it is for journalists in war zones.
We're going to hear an interview I recorded Tuesday with two veteran combat photographers who have each sustained major injuries.
Joao Silva was embedded with American soldiers in Afghanistan last October, working as a photographer for the New York Times, when he stepped on a landmine. He lost both of his legs below the knees and suffered internal injuries. He'll join the conversation a little later from Walter Reed Army Medical Center, where he's recovering.
Greg Marinovich is a Pulitzer Prize-winner who has been shot four times while covering conflicts. Each time, Silva was at his side and helped him to safety. Marinovich gave up combat photography over a decade ago. Silva and Marinovich live in South Africa.
They co-authored a memoir in 2000 called "The Bang-Bang Club," about the experiences they and two other photojournalists had while covering the civil war in South African townships near the end of Apartheid. One of those friends was killed; the other committed suicide that same year. Marinovich was shot.
"The Bang-Bang Club" has been published in a new edition to coincide with the film adaptation, "The Bang-Bang Club." The film premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival tonight, opens in theaters tomorrow and is available on Video on Demand.
Greg Marinovich welcome to FRESH AIR. You started your career as a photographer doing other things, but as a photojournalist, you started your career taking pictures in South Africa of black South Africans killing each other just before the end of Apartheid, when the ANC was fighting with Inkatha, a Zulu group that supported the Apartheid government. Would you describe the photo you took that won the Pulitzer Prize?
Mr. GREG MARINOVICH (Co-author, "The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War"): Yes, I mean, and I'll get onto that in a sec here, but, you know, that one of the big failings of what we perceived we'd done, which was one of the reasons we wrote "The Bang-Bang Club" was that the pictures show a kind of superficial end result of what was 400 years of oppression and the last 40 years of Apartheid with, you know, nefarious forces working underground and what we were seeing were the kind of superficial outcome of that.
So yes, that it is what we showed, and in fact the pictures that I won the Pulitzer for showed an Inkatha-supporting man on a ledge, being stabbed and beaten over a long period and eventually set alight and killed.
GROSS: Set on fire.
Mr. MARINOVICH: Set on fire. And in this kind of horrific series of pictures that, you know, where the incident stretched out, you know, I'm never sure how long it stretched out. I think it was, like, well over 30 minutes.
GROSS: In one of the photos, you have this man in flames and another man standing over him with a machete, about to slice him with a machete. It's a horrifying image. How close were you from that burning man?
Mr. MARINOVICH: At that stage, I was a little further away because we thought he was dead, and we'd moved away. And prior to that, I'd been within touching distance of the entire stabbing and killing and stoning and the interactions that were going on, including with myself and the protagonists.
But then he lay on the ground, and I and everyone else thought he was dead, and another incident that happened up near the railway, 20, 30 meters away, and I'd run up there, and in the meantime, someone had doused him with petrol and set him alight, but he wasn't dead.
And he got up, and he started this stumbling run towards us. And so that final couple of pictures was shot on a longer lens, and he was about, I suppose, 25 meters away in that picture. It was a long lens.
GROSS: So what impact did it have on you to see this kind of brutality right before your eyes?
Mr. MARINOVICH: It was quite shocking. Exactly a month before that, on the first day I'd actually gone to cover the conflict, I'd witnessed Inkatha supporters killing an alleged ANC supporter, and that was entirely on my own, inside a workers' hostel. And I hadn't said a word.
I'd watched this man getting killed and photographed it from, you know, within a hand length of him, and the only thing I was thinking was to get the pictures right and also how I was going to survive if they turned on me about having the pictures.
I was way too terrified and shocked to try and intercede in the man's death, which was something that really disappointed me because I thought I was the kind of person who would have done that.
So in the month after that, obviously the violence was insane. I mean, there were 10,000 deaths in the Reef alone, which is the area around Johannesburg and where I was working.
And so when this incident happened in Soweto again with the burning man, I was determined to try and intercede, especially as he'd simply been pulled off a train. He wasn't involved in the conflict. And I was trying to argue with them about: Look, he may be a Zulu, but he might not be an Inkatha supporter. After all, you know, the civil war in KwaZulu-Natal had been between Inkatha and ANC supporters, all of whom were Zulu.
And quite calmly, the main protagonist, this man in a white shirt, had proceeded to tell me: Look, I know what you're saying, but we are sure of who he is, and we're going to kill him, and that's it.
And at one stage, a couple of the young attackers tried to knife me, which I was kind of half-aware of. And people were trying to get me away, and I was kind of convinced that if I stayed there, maybe I'd save him. And then became clear I wouldn't, and then I stayed on, at least they wouldn't burn him. And then obviously that was all quite in vain.
GROSS: So at what point did you form your opinion about whether interceding was even part of your job, whether it was the right thing to do or not? I mean, as a warzone photographer, you were witness to killing all the time, and you couldn't save everybody even if you tried, even if you wanted to. You could take pictures. So did your sense of the morality of whether you should intercede or not change as time went by?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Most - it's not a profession. Journalism is not a profession truly; it's a craft. And so you don't need any training to become one. You can just do it, which is the route that I came.
And so ethics and morality and the kind of New York Times set of rules about what you can and can't do and the guidelines that you receive there wasn't a part of my background at all. And I really came to it more as a citizen and as a person than as a photographer. That is kind of an aside, in a way.
So my thoughts about interceding and not interceding, whether it was correct as a photographer, were unformed, and they became formed. And what I stuck to was really that: Why does it matter if you intercede to save somebody or not?
You know, and I did, on many occasions, attempt and sometimes succeed and sometimes not. You know, to intercede to change the picture, is unethical. To intercede at the cost of doing your job as a journalist, I think that's a personal choice you make. And I have no issue with people on the other side of that divide.
GROSS: Can you tell us about a time when you did intercede?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Well, the one was the failed attempt at - during the Pulitzer pictures. Another time was in Boipatong, where I did intercede and on several occasions.
Once, in Soweto, I was photographing a shooting conflict between ANC and Inkatha, and a young boy got shot in the head, and they were carrying him away, and I was riding next to them carrying him away, and they just said to me: Hospital now. And mine was the only car available. So we just put him in our car, and we took him, you know. And he died on the way.
So that's - you know, where does that put you as a journalist, you know? And so many times, I've ferried food in - especially in KwaZulu-Natal, where there were besieged communities, I would ferry food into some of the - you know, buy staple foods and mini meal and that kind of stuff, corn porridge, and take it in.
And did I feel I was doing something wrong? No, not at all. I mean, I don't think it affected my journalism. I don't think journalism should be objective, I think it should be subjective, as long as you're honest about subjectivities. I think that's much more honest than people trying to pretend to be truly objective.
GROSS: Now, as you say, you developed your sense of ethics and morality as an individual, not by reading, like, the New York Times guidebook because you were a freelancer. You weren't working - you weren't hired by a company.
But you eventually were the AP's chief photographer in the Middle East, you know, in Israel and the occupied territories. And at that point did you - were you handed some kind of, like, ethics guidebook that you were expected to follow and that didn't necessarily jive with the ethics that you had created for yourself?
Mr. MARINOVICH: No, no, I've never seen such a creature. But it didn't. It didn't at all, you know. I think the interaction with other photographers and seeing what's right, and if you have a sense of honesty about what you do, I think nobody complains about humanitarian acts. I don't think it's unethical to do humanitarian acts.
The problems come in really with - on the financial side. Will you accept money from someone that you're doing a story on? And that, even if you're untrained, stinks to high heaven that you don't need the New York Times guidebook or the AP guidebook to know that that's wrong.
And the other thing that photographers really struggle with, photojournalists, is the setting up of pictures. And by that I mean where the photographer interferes in a scene to make it a better picture, where essentially fiction and nonfiction blur. And that we have real problems with.
I mean, I remember a very famous New York-based photographer came out and was at the funeral of Chris Hani, the Communist leader who was assassinated by white extremists. He was kind of directing the show to make for a better picture. And the late Ken Oosterbroek let rip at him, and we all immediately wrote to his employer, who - his contract employer at the time was Time magazine - and he was pulled off the job immediately.
And this other photographer we spoke about, the right-winger, he would hire a Mercedes-Benz, the latest Mercedes-Benz, drive into the township and drive up and down the volatile area until people started stoning his car so that he could get the pictures. And on two or three occasions, he even shot people. So, you know...
GROSS: Shot people with a gun, you're talking about, not a photograph?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Absolutely, absolutely. So - two occasions, I think it wasn't three. So, you know, these are the kinds of things that we had a problem with and that we would try and publicize, and it's really about honesty. I think if you are going to help a wounded person in the field there's absolutely nothing wrong with that.
And, you know, photography happens in a millisecond. So you can get your pictures and do what, as a human being, you feel you should do.
GROSS: My guest is Greg Marinovich, the co-author of the memoir of "The Bang-Bang Club," which has been adapted into a film. We'll talk with him and his co-author, photojournalist Joao Silva, who is recovering from a landmine injury, after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: We're talking about the risks of combat photography. A little later, we'll hear from Joao Silva, who lost his legs after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan last fall.
In the final years of Apartheid, he and my guest Greg Marinovich covered the civil war in South African townships. They co-authored a memoir about that called "The Bang-Bang Club," which has been adapted into a new film.
Marinovich has been shot four times in the field. The first was in 1994, about 10 days before the first democratic elections in South Africa, while he was taking photos of a township shootout. His friend and fellow photojournalist Ken Oosterbroek was killed during that same incident. Joao Silva was among the photographers and cameramen at the scene.
When Marinovich was hit in the chest, he fell on top of Silva. Marinovich told me he was expecting to die any second.
Mr. MARINOVICH: The pain was in the front of my chest. That's how I got hit. That's where I was bleeding. And I assumed - because at close range, these high-velocity rifles, when they hit you, it's not like being hit by a pistol, or like in the movies, you get hit, you go ow. You know? It is being kicked by an elephant. It's huge, the force.
And so your entire abdomen is just screaming pain. So I thought it had gone through me, coming out in my back, and nobody wanted to look. So that's why I thought that - and also I wasn't breathing properly and all these kind of things because my lung had been punctured. But, you know, you don't know what's happened.
And there were a couple of other wounds, you know, rather embarrassingly in my buttocks and in my hand. So...
GROSS: Those are shrapnel wounds?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Well, they were ricochets. So it didn't go all the way through, fortunately. The one in the chest was a direct hit.
GROSS: I see.
Mr. MARINOVICH: And once people were, like, dealing with me and all the chaos was going on, then someone called up: Ken O has been hit, Ken Oosterbroek.
GROSS: So what were the injuries that you sustained?
Mr. MARINOVICH: A shattered thumb, a hole in the bum, and my chest had a huge, plate-like hole in it where the bullet had gone across it, across my breast.
GROSS: Well, in the book "The Bang-Bang Club," you describe your reaction, which isn't what I thought it would be. You said that your reaction was: This was it. I had paid my dues. I had atoned for the dozens of close calls that always left someone else injured or dead while I emerged from the scenes of mayhem unscathed, picture in hand, having committed the crime of being the lucky voyeur.
Had you been experiencing a lot of guilt and feeling like a voyeur before you were shot?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Yes, you do because I mean, to be honest, one - I felt it a lot more in South Africa than in the other conflicts I covered. Being strange beasts, we feel more for our own country than other people. And I suppose, collectively, I spent a lot more time in South Africa.
But, you know, I mean, Joao and I were discussing this the other day on Skype or whatever, about just seeing someone, especially a mother over a child, a young fighter or a young civilian who's being killed and that look they give you as you come to photograph them.
And you're kind of apologizing about photographing, what's (unintelligible). And people want you to photograph to show what's happened, but that look of hatred that sometimes you get from a mother, I mean, I can think of almost a dozen examples that spring to mind immediately, is just so disturbing.
GROSS: Like you're invading the privacy of death?
Mr. MARINOVICH: More than that. You're a visitor. You're not the people suffering. You come from your - you know, mostly, these wars take place in underprivileged areas. It's not the rich who send their children out to get killed, it's the poor who have to choice and who are used as pawns, and this is the case in South Africa and in many other places.
And so you come from some middle-class neighborhood, and you return there, and you sleep fine in clean sheets, and these people have to deal with what they're dealing with every day, day in and day out.
GROSS: You were shot three more times after the time that you just described...
Mr. MARINOVICH: Yep.
GROSS: ...and each time you were shot, Joao was by your side and helped you.
Mr. MARINOVICH: Indeed he did.
GROSS: So Greg, at this moment, I want to introduce Joao Silva into the conversation. He's just returned to his room at Walter Reed Hospital and is on microphone with us. And Joao is a photojournalist who's covered warzones around the world.
He was a contract photojournalist for the New York Times, working in Afghanistan last October when he stepped on a mine and was very seriously injured, nearly died.
He lost his legs beneath the knees. He had other injuries, as well. He had reconstructive surgery just a couple of weeks ago. And I'm really - I feel very privileged that you're joining us. Thank you so much, Joao, for being with us.
Mr. JOAO SILVA (Co-author, "The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots from a Hidden War"): Oh, thank you.
GROSS: So before we talk about what happened to you, I just want to pick up where we left off. You know, Greg was talking about getting shot three times with you by his side, actually four times with you by his side. And you helped save him, I imagine, each of those times. What impact did it have on you, before you were injured yourself, to see your dear friend and fellow photojournalist shot?
Mr. SILVA: Yeah, obviously it's difficult because, you know, your immediate concern is for your friend's life, and then once you assess the situation and, you know, make a reading from that point, then you start acting, you know, based on what you have.
And it's either, you know, rush off to hospital, or, you know, whatever the case may be. But yeah, you know, it's always difficult seeing friends hurt, yeah.
GROSS: So I guess hearing about this makes me wonder.
Mr. SILVA: Excuse me, just a second. I'm just being given some meds. What's the other (unintelligible). Yeah, great thanks because...
Mr. MARINOVICH: Really, Joao's life at the moment is in between operations and medications and trying to just get better.
GROSS: Of course. Well, while Joao's taking his medication, let me just ask you, Greg: What impact did it have on you to - oh, Joao, are you back?
Mr. SILVA: I'm done.
GROSS: Okay. So how come you guys both stayed as photojournalists after all these close calls? Greg, you were shot four times, Joao, you were by Greg's side each of those times. How do you keep going in it, sustaining injuries or observing the injuries of your good friends?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Well, I mean, let's correct that. I stopped.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Okay, Greg, when did you stop?
Mr. MARINOVICH: In fact, after Afghanistan, I realized that this is just not productive, and I was sick of being hurt.
GROSS: Was that right after the fourth time?
Mr. MARINOVICH: Yep.
GROSS: So after your fourth hit, you were done.
Mr. MARINOVICH: I don't think it was like on a day - one day to the next, but I think over several weeks, it just dawned on me that I don't want to do this anymore, and I don't want to be injured anymore. And - but Joao has a different take.
GROSS: What was your take, Joao?
Mr. SILVA: Well, it depends. Are you talking about Greg's injury or careers...
GROSS: Yeah, let's go back to Greg's injury, and then we'll get to yours.
Mr. SILVA: Well, you know, with Greg, it was just, you know, every time I would just be astonished how many times he'd get hurt, you know, and the amount of bad luck that he was having in such a short period of time.
And, you know, I guess if I was in his shoes, I probably would have made the same decision. But, you know, the reality is that up until that point, I had never been injured. And, you know, I mean, once you're injured, it does change your perspective somewhat.
Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich will be back in the second half of the show. They co-authored the memoir "The Bang-Bang Club," which has been adapted into a new film that premieres tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival and opens in theaters tomorrow. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
We're talking about the risks of combat photography with two veteran photojournalists, Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich. They co-authored the memoir "The Bang-Bang Club," which has been adapted into a new film. They've both worked in warzones around the world and first met in South Africa, during the final years of apartheid, covering civil war in the townships.
Marinovich has been shot four times and has since given up combat photography. Silva stepped on a landmine last fall in Afghanistan, where he was embedded with American soldiers, taking pictures for The New York Times. He lost his legs beneath his knees and sustained internal injuries. He's joining us from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he's recovering.
Greg, what year was it that you were hit in Afghanistan?
Mr. MARINOVICH: '99.
GROSS: '99. So that was a while ago. And Joao, you kept going in war zones taking photographs, amazing pictures, until last October, when you stepped on a landmine.
Mr. SILVA: Yeah. You know, basically, you know, I kept bouncing in and out of -you know, plus '99, there wasn't really much going on in the world, so working for The New York Times and being a photographer based in Johannesburg, you know, I, you know, I was kept busy in the region because the Johannesburg bureau covers, like, 14 countries. But then, you know, in 2001, when America went to war, that pretty much changed everything. And it meant that I was, you know, constantly bouncing, you know, between Iraq and Afghanistan. And, yeah. That's pretty much it.
GROSS: What is it that drives you to - up until when you were injured in October - to keep bearing witness and to keep exposing yourself to danger in warzones?
Mr. SILVA: You know, I have this fascination and, you know, to be on the cutting edge of history, witness history firsthand, you know, making documentation of it and somehow be productive in society by doing so. I've always wanted to show those that are fortunate enough not to live in a warzone the realities or, you know, certain realities of warzones, which is ultimately the point, you know. We go out and we expose ourselves, you know, believing that somehow, we have an impact on society. For the most part, we don't.
You know, people are more interested in getting their iPad 2 and all that kind of crap than what goes on in Afghanistan and Iraq. But, you know, I've always believed that if you actually, you know, managed to change one single person's mind, or at least inform one single person, then you've accomplished something. So, yeah, you know, we're not changing the world out there with pictures, but we're certainly trying to inform the world. So, yeah. That's basically it.
GROSS: So, Joao, let's talk about what happened to you last October in Afghanistan.
Mr. SILVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: You were with New York Times reporter Carlotta Gall...
Mr. SILVA: Right.
GROSS: ...embedded with the unit of the Fourth Infantry Division. You were following American soldiers who'd been clearing the area of insurgents.
Mr. SILVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Did you assume that you were safe because there was somebody with a minesweeper and a mine-sniffing dog?
Mr. SILVA: No. No. I mean, you're always pretty much on the edge, you know? Even though there's a dog and there's a minesweeper, there's always, you know, room for - not mistakes, but, you know, for something to go, you know, unchecked or, you know, not to be found, which was the case with - in my case. You know, the dog and two other people walked through that, you know, very area that I walked through, and I was like third man in line. And, you know, I just happened to put my foot maybe a little bit more to the left or a little bit more to the right, and bam, you know.
GROSS: Tell me if this is too personal, okay?
Mr. SILVA: No, go ahead.
GROSS: Okay. What did you experience when the mine blew up?
Mr. SILVA: Nothing. You know, I heard that well - nothing, nothing is not correct. But, you know...
Mr. MARINOVICH: (unintelligible)
Mr. SILVA: Yeah. You know, basically, you know, I heard the metallic sound, the bang. You know, I got thrown over. My initial reaction was to ask the guys around me for help. I said guys, you know, I need some assistance or whatever, you know, I can't remember the exact quote, but I basically asked for assistance.
The guys around me were a little bit dazed, (unintelligible) from the explosion, but, you know, they grabbed onto the pretty quickly and dragged me away from the kill zone, out into an area that was, you know, open and, you know, relatively safe in comparison. And that's when they put me down on the ground and, you know, I still had my cameras with me and that kind of stuff. I tried to take a few frames, and my wrist was just too sore, so I just, you know, dumped the camera and my immediate instinct was to, you know, call home, which I did, you know, I called Carlotta. Of course, Carlotta so was somewhat in the rear.
And when I say their rear, I don't mean, like, a kilometer away. She was, you know, a few yards away. And I called her over and she came over, gave me the cell phone. I called my wife. I told my wife - because I think my legs were gone. You know, I told my wife listen, the legs are gone but, you know, I think I'm going to be okay. I think I'm going to live.
And, you know, I didn't want to keep talking and I just told her, listen. You stay on the phone with Carlotta and, which Vivian did, and she basically was -Carlotta, you know, talked her through it, explaining what was going to be happening next, that the helicopter would come and take me away and that kind of stuff. And, yeah. At that point, I passed the phone and, you know, laid back. The medic was trying to indicate some - you know, doing all the stuff that he needed. And, you know, I asked the guys for a cigarette, and I kind of laid back, had a smoke and, you know, patiently waited for the helicopter to arrive. I asked for a second cigarette, which was denied and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. SILVA: ...and then the helicopter arrived. I mean, that would have been 15 - 12-15 minutes from the incident. And that's it. You know, it was all very clear from the beginning, right until the end. I don't recall pain whatsoever throughout the whole thing.
GROSS: Was that because of morphine?
Mr. SILVA: No idea. Well, I didn't have morphine, initially. I think it's just your body kicks in and, you know, takes over. You know, maybe I was in shock, whatever the case may be. But I don't recall pain at any point. And, you know, once I was in the bird, the medevac, that's basically, at that point, that's when I kind of relaxed and, you know, realized that I was kind of safe - or safe-ish, at least. And that's where my recollection ends. I don't - from that point onwards, I don't, I don't remember anything until I woke up in Germany, where Vivian and a few colleagues were kind of standing over me with very worried looks on their faces.
GROSS: You sound like you were astonishingly calm and sober during that.
Mr. SILVA: Yeah. Totally. You know, I wasn't, you know, I wasn't surprised that it had happened. You know, I mean, it's not something that I anticipated or had hoped for, whatever the case may be. But, you know, given the amount of time that we spend out there, you know, you don't - you know, obviously, the more you expose yourself, you know, the risk does climb, you know? And you might go out on your very first patrol and get hit, never been out there. Or you might, you know, spent a lifetime doing it and nothing ever happens.
But, you know, when it did happen, I wasn't, you know, I was kind of pragmatic, you know? It was kind of okay, you know, my number's come up. And from that point, the focus was on getting better and staying alive and all that kind of stuff. So, yeah. That's it, pretty much, you know?
GROSS: My guests are photojournalists Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich. They co-authored the memoir "The Bang-Bang Club," which has been adapted into a new film.
We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guests are photojournalists Joao Silva and Greg Marinovich. When we left off, Silva was talking about recovering from the injuries he sustained last fall in Afghanistan after stepping on a landmine. He lost his legs beneath his knees and suffered internal injuries.
Joao, how are you now? You have prostatic legs now?
Mr. SILVA: Yes, I do. I've started walking and, you know, limited. I walk between parallel bars and use a walker when I walk longer distance, and, you know. So I'm not quite balancing on my own yet, but I'm sure that will come in time. But, in fact, the one thing that is actually going pretty well is the walking. Everything else seems to be falling apart.
GROSS: What is falling apart?
Mr. SILVA: Well, like, you know, secondary infections and all that kind of stuff. You know, I went - I picked up a bloody(ph) infection the week that my wife and kids arrived. And from that point onwards, for the next five weeks, I was in constant pain and, you know, that kind of stuff.
But, you know, the walking is going well. The walking is the one thing that's actually, you know - it's sweet, pretty sweet. And, you know, right now, I'm sitting, talking to you. I've got, you know, the side of my face feels like it's the size of a melon. My eyes won't keep closed. There is a lot of pressure from the swollen and, you know, it's an infection. You know, my white blood count has risen, so therefore, it's debilitating. Even though it's just manifesting itself in my face, the rest of my body does, you know, does feel it. So it's - and having said that, I'm still recovering from the big reconstructive surgery. So it's like, you know, double whammy.
GROSS: And what was the reconstructive surgery?
Mr. SILVA: They rebuilt my anal passage, which got severely damaged after the blast, and my urethra was damaged, too. So the big, the reconstructive surgery - which was always planned. That was - it was something that was always going to happen, it happened a few weeks earlier than scheduled because my body had healed sufficiently. And that was it. And they budgeted for five hours in the theater and - I mean, eight hours, and they, you know, they actually managed to do the whole thing in five hours. So as I mentioned to you earlier, by all accounts, it was a success.
So now it's just a matter of healing up from that particular operation which was a big one and fighting these secondary infections which are now attacking me, because my immune system is somewhat weakened as the result of, you know, numerous ops.
And then once that's done, it's just a matter of waiting for my body to either accept the reconstruction or not, you know. So in other words, if it all works out well, I'll be able to urinate normally because I have - you know, I have two catheters sticking out of my body right now. And then the anal passage and sphincter activity, you know, if that takes all of them, I'll be able to lose the colostomy bag and reverse all that and, you know, become a normal human being again.
Mr. MARINOVICH: You know, if I can...
GROSS: I hope the healing goes really well. Greg, go ahead.
Mr. MARINOVICH: Can I - you know, I mean, the losing the legs was kind of like the big thing. But most of the damage and danger to Joao's life was really not the legs. It was all the internal injuries. I mean, the extent was massive, you know...
Mr. SILVA: (unintelligible)
Mr. MARINOVICH: ...and we kind of - we forget about it, you know? You don't notice it, and people are kind of - and Joao's not that way. You know, people, oh, I don't want to talk about these things. You know, it's either disrespectful or undignified. But I think it's very important that Joao talks about the extent of his injuries and what it means and how it feels. Because...
(Soundbite of beeping)
Mr. MARINOVICH: I mean, I was just reading an article in one of today's papers that 2008, they were having 28 injuries amongst U.S. troops per month from IEDs and landmines, and now it's up to 281. So there's so many young kids and that who are going through the same as Joao, in the same hospital as him. And everyone kind of steers away from like, oh, that's a bit ugly. You'd rather think of some kind of clean injury, you know, or something that's not so embarrassing. And these things are incredibly difficult to fix and painful, and a long healing process.
GROSS: Joao, let me ask you. Greg was saying that the first time he was shot -and this was in the early '90s in South Africa - he had a feeling of - that he'd paid his dues now, that he had atoned for the close calls that always left somebody else injured or dead while he emerge unscathed, having committed the crime of being the lucky voyeur.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Did you ever share those feelings of being voyeuristic? And did you have that feeling after you were blown up in that land mine, that, you know, now...
Mr. SILVA: No. My answer's no.
Mr. SILVA: I mean, in the no. Absolutely not.
Mr. SILVA: I mean, the notion of voyeurism and all that kind of stuff, there is a reality, you know? We kind of - you know, we kind of - somehow the camera gives us access to the most intimate moments in people's lives, you know? And, you know, you do feel like - you feel out of place. You know, when you're photographing...
(Soundbite of ring)
Mr. SILVA: ...a mother cradling a dead son or whatever the case may be, or a young Marine helping an injured friend where - you know, so you do feel like, you know, you kind of somewhat out of place. But at the same time, you know, you know that it's important to do. That's what you're doing there, you know? Otherwise, you know, stay home and, you know, hang out with your PlayStation. But when I was first injured, no.
As I mentioned earlier, it was kind of, you know, my number came up. Okay. Cool. You know, I understand this, you know. And it wasn't so much of paying some sort of debt, you know. I didn't feel that. And, you know, you got to learn to live with yourself and what you do, you know, when you take pictures and - you know, and then these are extreme situations. You know, you are - you know, you are intruding. You're very fortunate to be able to, you know, record somebody else's history.
You know, I've always maintained that, you know, the true heroes and the people around me were never - you know, people asked me for interviews and all that kind of stuff, which I'm not necessarily big on. But, you know, I'm always, you know, I understand that, you know, I'm - it's the history that I'm documenting. That's the whole point of being there, good or bad.
GROSS: Greg, before - in case we do run out of studio time, I just want to ask: How have you handled seeing your good friend and colleague Joao, deal with his injuries? I mean, you got out of photojournalism in '99, after you were shot for the fourth time. You thought, enough. And you've been doing other photographic work and editing. So having watched Joao stay in the profession and now deal with a, you know, like, really serious injuries...
Mr. MARINOVICH: Mm. Mm. Look, it's very difficult, but, you know, I'm kind of -always been a worrier and I'm a kind of mother hen and I'm a helicopter parent and all these things. So I was always nagging Joao about the danger of these things. And, in fact, before that latest trip, we met for -I think was breakfast, hey, Joao?
Mr. SILVA: Yeah.
Mr. MARINOVICH: And we had a long chat about this and other options and stuff. So it was quite devastating. It is quite devastating, because it would have been nice if he'd remained immortal and invulnerable, you know?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. MARINOVICH: But I suppose that's unrealistic.
GROSS: Greg, our studio time on your end is up. You're in a studio in New York, so I need to say goodbye to you.
Joao, can I keep you for just a few more minutes to talk about a couple of your photos?
Mr. SILVA: Sure. No problem. Yeah. Sounds good.
GROSS: Thank you.
Mr. MARINOVICH: Thanks, Terry.
Mr. SILVA: Very glad this...
GROSS: Greg, thank you so much, and I really appreciate your talking with us. And Greg Marinovich is co-author with Joao Silva of the book "The Bang-Bang Club," about a group of four photographers, including them, in South Africa in the early '90s, photojournalists. And that book has just been adapted into a film.
And Greg, all the best to you, and I hope you're in good health in spite of all the shootings...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...that you recovered from.
Mr. MARINOVICH: I'm just fine.
GROSS: Yes. Okay. Well, thank you so much.
Mr. MARINOVICH: Thank you.
Mr. SILVA: Very good.
Mr. MARINOVICH: Later, Joao.
Mr. SILVA: Bye.
Mr. MARINOVICH: (unintelligible)
Mr. SILVA: Bye.
GROSS: Joao, I've been looking through - I mean, I've seen a lot of your photos in the Times New York Times over the years, but I've been looking at your photos online. And I want to ask you about one of them that really stands out in my mind. And it's not, you know, an Afghanistan or an Iraq photo that I'm referring to here. It's a photo from Malawi. It's a prison in Malawi.
Mr. SILVA: Right.
GROSS: And this is a photo of prisoners sleeping...
Mr. SILVA: Mm-hmm.
GROSS: ...as I imagined slaves slept on slave ships to America, in rows on the floor with a...
Mr. SILVA: Well, that was my initial reaction when I first saw it.
GROSS: Really? Yeah?
Mr. SILVA: Yeah. It was. Yeah.
GROSS: There isn't an inch of space between one man and the next. No space between either side of them...
Mr. SILVA: Yeah. (unintelligible). Yeah.
GROSS: ...or between their head and the next man or their feet and the next man. And some of them look like they're almost stacked on top of each other. Heads are resting on heads. How did you get access to this prison?
Mr. SILVA: Well, the, you know, the story wasn't necessarily something that was trying to make the Malawi government look bad. So after several months and, you know, several, several months of doing trips to Malawi, the correspondent that I was with, he was the one who, you know, pursued that angle and got us the access that we required.
In terms of the actual image itself, you know, I'd spent, you know, a day or so viewing the prison and it was explained to us, you know, they are packed like sardines in these cells. You know, a cell designed for 30 people or 40 people would have like over a hundred people in there, you know? And it was an image that I needed to get.
So, you know, I arranged to be at the prison very early the following morning, which is, you know, at the time when things start getting active. And within each cell, there's a select group of prisoners that are allowed out and, you know, go out and do these chores, you know, chop wood, start the fire, you know, get the cooking going and all that kind of stuff that, you know, they're the privileged ones, as it were.
And then, you know, so basically what happens is, you know, they're the first ones to be actually let out to start the activities, while the rest of the prisoners, you know, just either keep on sleeping or prepare themselves to get out.
And there was my moment, you know, when they opened the door for these guys to get out, I would stick my head in and shoot as many frames as I could and then I would have to step out and, you know, and then, you know, the door would be closed. And there were, you know, a number of buildings, you know, which were all cell blocks.
And so I had the opportunity to do it more than once. But by the time I got to the final cell, for instance, you know, at that point - because, you know, noise activity and all that kind of stuff, when I got to final cell, the prisoners, for the most part, all of them would be sitting up and, you know, the day started, you know. So they're just kind of, you know, waking. So, yeah, I had a very small window to, you know, to do that. But, yeah, it worked.
GROSS: My guess is photojournalist Joao Silva. We'll talk more after a break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is veteran combat photographer Joao Silva. He's joining us from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he's recovering from injuries he sustained after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan last fall.
How has your family been dealing with...
Mr. SILVA: Oh, it's been tough.
Mr. SILVA: It's been tough. And I think the toughest thing has been the distance, the separation. You know, the fact that they're so far away.
GROSS: They're still in South Africa, and you're recovering in Walter Reed.
Mr. SILVA: You know, they come to - I mean, my wife met me in Germany, and then she came to the States, and she spent all that time with me while I was in ICU, which is, like, five weeks or so. And once I was out of ICU and, you know, the infections were gone and I was kind of out of, you know, relative danger, then she finally went down to the kids because, you know, the kids were alone and -you know, all this stuff has had an impact, of course. You know, it's, you know, the family, you know, the nucleus has kind of disintegrated somewhat.
Having said that, they were, you know, they were always accustomed to me being gone for long periods of time. You know, the fact that they were accustomed to it did help, but this has been - this is - I've been here six months now. So I'm like, you know, like 10 days short of six months. So it is a long time and, you know, it's just difficult for them to get here. It's a long distance. They've been back. I see my kids. I spent time here. I managed to be outpatient and go spend, you know, live with them as a family, which is really great. Yeah. So - but it has been tough, as you can imagine, you know.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, I want to thank you so much for talking with us.
Mr. SILVA: All right.
GROSS: And I wish you a really good and swift recovery.
Mr. SILVA: Thank you.
GROSS: And I look forward to seeing more of your photographs, photographs of whatever it is you finally decide to do.
Mr. SILVA: Yeah, it's going to be a while. But, you know, certainly, you know, this is not over. And I'm not finished, you know. I'll keep working as a photojournalist and, you know, I might change my focus from combat to something else. But it will, you know, it will still involve...
GROSS: You might change your focus?
Mr. SILVA: I might. Yeah.
GROSS: Are you seriously considering going back into combat?
Mr. SILVA: If I can. Yeah. If it's a situation where my legs allow me to do it, the prosthetics and stuff.
Mr. SILVA: Sure. Why not?
GROSS: Well, because you'd be on prosthetic legs and...
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: ...and because you were nearly killed the last time you were in combat.
Mr. SILVA: Yeah. You know, but that doesn't bother me too much, the fact that I was nearly killed. What does bother me is right now, I don't really have a sense of exactly what the prosthetics are capable of.
Mr. SILVA: So once, you know, once I get to the point that I can walk, I can run, I can do all that stuff - which you can with prosthetics - you know, I'll it all depends on how good I move - I can move on them. And if I feel that I can move quick enough, I certainly will. You know, the one thing that there will limits, you know, limitations and restrictions. Like with the U.S. Army, if I want to do some sort of combat embed, you know, it might be difficult because, you know, you spend a lot of time walking. You climb over walls. You go through water, you know, these little canals, irrigation canals. I mean, you do all that kind of stuff. And, you know, prosthetics might not be the ideal thing to - you know, it's just - for the most part, it shouldn't be getting wet, anyway. So anyway, so, you know, there's bound to be limitations. Of course, my legs are gone but, you know, I could be in Egypt with prosthetics.
In fact, Emilio, was a AP photographer and a friend, he lost a leg in Afghanistan and - a few years back, and he spent time in Walter Reed, you know, doing rehab and that kind of stuff. He's back at work and, yeah. He was in Egypt and, you know, he followed the story all the way to Libya, and he didn't go inside Libya because AP had other people in there, but, you know, he's out there shooting, you know. And, okay, one leg versus two legs is - but, you know, again. I don't know. It's - I'll only know once I get to that point where, you know, I come through my rehab and I've looked at it.
You know, it's like, you know, I've - I ride motorcycles. You know, I plan to get back on a motorcycle the minute I get out, you know, and you can do it with prosthetics. I mean, again, certain things the change, but, yeah. It just depends on the prosthetics and how far I can push it, and I'll make decisions based on that. And, of course, assuming The New York Times will let me do it, you know?
Mr. SILVA: Again, there's many aspects of photojournalism. There's many things you can focus on and, so, yeah. My career is far from over. We just don't know at this point where it's all going to end up, you know? Bottom line.
GROSS: Well, I wish you well. I wish you a good recovery.
Mr. SILVA: Thank you. Thank you.
GROSS: And thank you so much for taking some time out to talk with us. I'm really grateful.
Mr. SILVA: My pleasure. And I'm sorry that medical issues got in the way.
GROSS: Oh, don't be silly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: No, thank you.
Mr. SILVA: Very good call. Well, thank you and...
GROSS: Thank you for being with us in spite of the medical tests that you had to get there. Yeah. All right.
Mr. SILVA: It's a pleasure. Thank you very much.
GROSS: Okay. Well, be well. Thank you.
Mr. SILVA: Thank you.
GROSS: Joao Silva spoke to us from Walter Reed Medical Center, where he's recovering from landmine injuries sustained in Afghanistan last fall. He and photojournalist Greg Marinovich co-authored the memoir "The Bang-Bang Club," which has been adapted into a new film starring Ryan Phillippe and Taylor Kitsch. It opens tonight at the Tribeca Film Festival, opens in theaters tomorrow, and is available through video-on-demand.
You can see a slideshow of Silva and Marinovich's work on our website, freshair.npr.org, where you can also read a chapter of their book.
Our interview was recorded Tuesday. Yesterday, photojournalists Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros were killed in Libya. Our sympathies to their families, friends and colleagues. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.