The New York Times
By Michael Kamber
Published: December 23, 2010
TWENTY-FIVE years ago, Joao Silva was a troubled high school dropout on the streets of Johannesburg. His future looked bleak until the day a friend took him along on a photo shoot. Joao fell in love with the camera.
He was drawn to battle. Within a remarkably short time, his photos of conflict were on the front pages of newspapers around the world. His camera became a prolific instrument, helping the public understand the wars of the last two decades.
His photographs from Iraq — where he was embedded with both the American troops and the insurgents fighting against them — created, in my opinion, an unequaled record of the war: a Marine pulling a bloody comrade through the mud to safety; an Iraqi mother wailing in anguish as her dead son lay nearby; an enraged militia member firing a machine gun from a window ledge at American soldiers; a car bomb victim engulfed in flames.
The danger was extraordinary. As his colleagues were killed and wounded over the years, Joao became the last working member of the fabled Bang-Bang Club to cover conflict. A tight-knit group of South African photographers who covered the township wars near the end of apartheid, they soon branched out into photographing other conflicts. Yet even with two young children, Joao persevered, making trip after trip to Iraq, Afghanistan and other war zones.
“I’ve always somehow managed to walk away unscathed,” Joao said. “I’ve been very, very lucky.”
Joao’s luck held until Oct. 23, when he stepped on a cheap plastic land mine outside Kandahar, Afghanistan. The blast ripped his legs off. Shrapnel tore through his abdomen, causing massive internal injuries. He is currently undergoing rehabilitation at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, where he will remain for the foreseeable future.
Talented, humble and generous, Joao was the rock for many photojournalists in the field. It would be no exaggeration to call him probably the best-loved and most respected photographer working today. So his wounding has created a crisis of confidence of sorts for many photojournalists.
Like Joao, I am a contract photographer for The New York Times and have covered conflict over the years. I have taken his place in Afghanistan. In the wake of Joao’s wounding, friends ask me why I keep returning to photograph men inflicting suffering upon one another. I have asked myself and my fellow photojournalists this same question over the years.
I grew up in the 1960s, learning of Vietnam by poring over black-and-white photos in Life magazine and The Portland Press Herald. The classic images of Eddie Adams, Nick Ut and Henri Huet brought home to me the politics and drama of the war, a sense of my country’s history unfolding on the page. Photojournalists gave us a visceral understanding of the link between foreign policy and the violence done to people’s lives.
And photojournalism helped create a culture of visual literacy that was instrumental in the activism of the 1960s. It is a culture that is slowly receding into a storm of visual, aural and written white noise: the weekly wait for Life is replaced by a stream of cellphone photos, blogs and Twitter feeds. And as papers close around America, front-line photojournalism is in decline.
Still, the frustrations of photojournalists today are outweighed by many rewards. We venture into remote corners of the world to watch incredible dramas. We are often the sole objective witnesses. We find that much history would happen in a vacuum, save for our cameras.
“I get a lot of messages from people saying that we show the world what they cannot go see firsthand,” Joao told me last year.
This is the reward and the magic of photojournalism.
I know that Joao Silva’s camera has not finished its work. Once Joao finds balance on his new legs, he will venture again to the corners of the world. He loves photography like few I have known. Photojournalism remains a profession that allows a dedicated, courageous high school dropout from Johannesburg to help record the history of our times.