Images of death still disturbing
Photographs are powerful mnemonic devices.
From family albums to the faded images of communities and places that were wilfully broken up or destroyed, photographs are alive with our histories and pasts.
There are times when the act of making photographs is as disturbing as what is captured within a frame.
Somewhere, on one of my storage drives, I have a photograph of the rubble and ruins of the Dresdner Frauenkirche that I took a few years before it was rebuilt.
The Frauenkirche was built in the 18th century and was destroyed in the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies during World War 2.
The picture of the destruction always reminded me of the carcass of an animal that was killed and then left to rot in a field.
Only, the ruins of the Frauenkirche were alive with memories and reminders of the horrors of war. For 50 years after the war, the ruins of the Frauenkirche were left in place as a war memorial.
Other than a distaste for war, and mixed feelings about the firebombing of Dresden and of the nuclear bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, I have no personal connection, nor memories of the Frauenkirche.
After the reunification of Germany restoration work on the Frauenkirche began in 1994, that fateful year that democratic SA was born.
There are very many pictures I have made over the years that are reminders of our cruel past.
A past which some of us would best forget, for they disturb our paddling in pools of privilege and confabulation.
I, for one, continue to be disturbed by the banality of our cruelty.
At times I feel detached from past gestures of photographing violence, death and dying.
In 2014, a little more than two decades after we established our democracy, I received an e-mail message about a different picture, one that I had taken in Lesotho 29 years earlier.
The person who sent the email wanted to confirm that it was I who had made the picture. This picture was of two people, a woman and a man, lying dead on the floor of their home.
Their faces were turned away from each other, as if one did not want to see the other dead.
They had been assassinated by the SA Defence Force in one of many raids into neighbouring countries to kill and destroy people and places.
The picture was never published – it was too horrific.
I remember the act of making the picture.
I stepped over the bodies, pointed the camera, captured the lifeless faces, stepped back and walked out of the building.
It was a seamless, almost mechanical, act.
Until I stepped outside and smelt the cool air of Maseru ...
Another angle of the couple’s bodies, photographed by someone else, and captured while the photographer stood somewhere behind and to the right of them, was less gruesome. That picture made it into the Sunday papers of December 22 1985.
More than a decade later, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission record of the event tells the gruesome story behind the picture.
“It was 1am, December 20 1985. A few days earlier their daughter, Phoenix, had her first birthday. Leon was in the bathroom when the house was attacked.
“Jacqui was murdered first. We could later see how Leon tried to break off the burglar bars. Bullets lay strewn in the bathroom and there were bullet holes in the walls.
“The bathroom floor was covered in blood, as were the hallway and kitchen. In the kitchen there was blood and human tissue because Jacqui was shot in the chest.”
The recollection of this assassination was provoked by an obituary, this past weekend, of Major-General Jannie Geldenhuys, who was head of the SADF and effectively oversaw the assassination of people during the 1980s using “unconventional revolutionary” methods.
As for the picture of the assassinated couple – whose full names I will not divulge for the painful memories they might bring – there was a possibility of it being published a few weeks ago.
Wisely, an editor recognised that it would bring back memories of a particular dark period of our past and withheld it.
There may be times when I feel detached from past acts of making pictures (of my own photography), but I remain disturbed by the almost callous voyeurism of war photography, and of photographing death and dying.
When I do, I often recall Kurt Vonnegut’s reflections on the firebombing of Dresden.
“The Dresden atrocity, tremendously expensive and meticulously planned, was so meaningless, finally, that only one person on the entire planet got any benefit from it.
“I am that person. I wrote this book, which earned a lot of money for me and made my reputation, such as it is. One way or another, I got two or three dollars for every person killed. Some business I'm in.”..