Internationally-acclaimed South African conflict photographer Joao Silva was the only member of the so-called Bang Bang Club photographers who remained unharmed…until recently. But even after survivng losing his legs while covering the war in Afghanistan, he this weekend completed the New York Marathon. He speaks to Nadia Neophytou in a story first published in The Media magazine.
It was a twitpic* that delighted all those who saw it. It showed a smilling photographer Joao Silva standing on his prosthetic legs at the headquarters of the New York Times on August 1. A year ago, this same photographer was severely injured in Afghanistan. The twitpic pleased those who beheld it – friends, family members and even strangers who only know him through his work – because, as Silva himself puts it, people just wanted to see him “upright, standing, alive.” Because, he adds, for a while there were doubts he would make it.
The World Press award-winning photographer is one of South Africa’s most prized photographic talents who made his name as a conflict photographer, going from warzone to warzone around the world. This all started around 1990, covering the violence in South African townships. Silva began photographing for the New York Times in 1994 as a freelancer, and then in 2000, becoming a contract employee.
His seminal book, The Bang Bang Club, written together with fellow photographer and close friend Greg Marinovich, is the basis for the movie of the same name, which was released recently in South Africa. Although the movie, starring Ryan Phillipe and Taylor Kitsch, largely romanticises the story, it gives an idea of the important work he and his colleagues did in capturing the scenes of pre-1994 election conflict in South Africa.
Over the years, Silva marvelled at being invincible, never having been hurt until October 2010 when he stepped on a landmine while accompanying American soldiers patrolling an area near the town of Arghandab, southern Afghanistan. Despite immediate help from medics, he lost both his legs below the knee.
The twitpic was taken a couple of days after his first photograph (since he was wounded) was published on the New York Times front page (of the closing ceremony of the Walter Reed Medical Center where he had spent months recovering). People believed that the published picture was cause to declare that he’s back, an indication the man is on track with his recovery and his career.
And although on September 15 he signed his employment contract wit the New York Times (after having been a contracted freelancer for years) and had gone out on his first assignment, this was not entirely the case. “It’s astonishing how things happen. You take a picture, it goes on the front page of the New York Times, people see it and they say, ‘ah yeah, he’s back!’ The sentiment is fantastic, but the reality is a little different,” he says in an interview in New York at the International Center of Photography.
Silva and his friend, fellow New York Times photographer Michael Kamber, found time for this interview while doing a ‘visiting tour’ of the city, stopping off to show people he knew that he was much improved.
“I still have a long way to go,” he says. Not only did he lose his legs, but he suffered internal injuries too. A few days after his 45th birthday in August, Silva was re-admitted to hospital in Washington D.C for more surgery, which was successful. Silva is hoping this will be the last of many medical procedures on his path to recovery. “It is what it is,” he says. “I have good days and bad. I am only human. I’m in constant pain. It’s no small thing losing your legs. I’m still dealing with the internal injuries. So you know, one day at a time.”
Despite being so aware of the long journey to recovery, Silva was in good spirits. He was certainly not sitting around waiting for people. When I arrived, he was making his way around the room to see students’ photographs on display.
Silva says the support he’s received has kept his spirit strong and positive. He also takes strength from seeing others at the Military Advanced Training Center (MATC) where he has been going for his physiotherapy. “There, I’m surrounded by wounded soldiers, some of them half my age – 19 or 20 – and many of them are quadruple amputees. Some have even lost their genitals. I look at those kids, and it makes me realise how lucky I am. There is always someone who is worse off than you, who is more broken than you are. I take strength from their strength. I have two arms, and everything else is working. Once I’m okay with the prosthetics, I can get on with it.
“I think to myself, ‘alright, you’re pretty lucky, all things considered’. I think in the way that
other people draw strength from me and my story, I draw strength from them and their stories.”
Having the picture published helped too. “It makes you feel like there’s light at the end of the tunnel. You feel like, okay, I might be able to go back to one day doing what I love. Obviously things have changed a lot – my legs are gone. They’re never going to come back. Mobility is different now. I am going to be slower and there are things I won’t be able to do. Life has changed. Period. In terms of my photography, I’m going to have to adjust accordingly.” Silva says when he gets to that point where rehab has come to an end, and he has as much mobility as possible, he will make a final decision about the direction of his work. “I might not be able to do the combat stuff,” he says. “I might have to focus on other social ills, other than war,” he says.
He still feels he has unfinished business in Afghanistan though. “If I could, I would love to go back,” he says. “I’d go back there and go to Libya too. There are a few things I’d like to do there. They’re not all photo-related,” he adds. Silva was deeply affected when he heard about the plight of his friend, photographer Anton Hammerl who was killed by the Libyan government five months ago and the news of his death was not released for 45 days. Hammerl’s remains have still not been returned to his family. Silva says he is desperate to see Hammerl’s remains returned and closure for the late photographer’s family.
Silva also wants to see freelancers helped with the costs involved in war-zone insurance, which he believes, will go a long way in supporting journalists and photographers.
Silva has plans to take part in the New York Marathon, as part of the wounded vets, but also under the South African banner. For now, he is focusing on his recovery an getting back into his work. He is also planning to resume his life back in South Africa. And being able to take photographs that allow him to meet and chat to President Barack Obama certainly seems to help.
*For the uninitiated, this is a photograph that goes out on twitter.com
Follow Nadia on @NadiaNeophytou