It is perhaps the right time for João Silva's Retrospective, showing at Museum Africa. A few of his pieces were exhibited there earlier in the year in the Rise and Fall of Apartheid. In many ways he is one of the most notable photo-journalists of the end of Apartheid in the late 1980s and early 1990s; particularly his work in the townships pre-1994 Elections as a member of the illustrious Bang-Bang Club.
The Bang-Bang Club were a group of four photo-journalists who captured images of an internal war raging within the bellies of townships in and around Johannesburg. These are images that many who grew up in the townships during that time are familiar with; but which would otherwise not have been seen by outsiders. Apartheid was structured to keep people separated groupings, so white people were not a common sight in the townships (apart from Police and the Defence Force).
Soweto was literally on fire! The impetus was the intra-racial political wrangling started and funded by external factions (including government forces) to destabilise the townships pre-Democracy. The incidents were violent and fatal, and were front-page fodder the world over provided by the Bang-Bang Club. There is something insanely addictive about putting oneself in harm's way in order to capture the most heinous deeds that people inflict upon one another. This was of course pre-global mobile technology that has seen front-line images of the world's smallest and largest revolutions. Students of photography were enthralled the country over, and they sought to chase that same buzz when they graduated.
Having lived through that era; the images are melancholic for me. They had a way of bringing up vividly the memories of that time: the smells, the sounds, the texture of it all. The manner in which the images are taken is spontaneous and responsive; very little composition and technique can go into them, the viewer therefore gets a great sense of movement and speed as the photographer had little chance to: steady the camera, check light settings and manipulate aperture.
In the body of work are also images of periods of unrest in Angola, Bosnia, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Afghanistan. Many of the images are of the war-in-action; and are incredibly graphic -- perhaps even intolerable to look at. It would be much too difficult to describe, there are a few however that offer respite, that show the humanity in folks during extremely violent times. While many of the pieces of action do not much resonate with me; I do appreciate those quiet moments in which he captured ordinary people dealing with the aftermath of war and violence. There is an absolute grace in the subjects, as well as a strange, tranquillity -- a kind of serene mournful quiet.
You will not leave untouched by the last images he took as he stood on a landmine, which blew off both his legs in Afghanistan on 23 October 2010.
Image from The Guardian