Q&A: Greg Marinovich on the Risks and Rewards of Combat Photography

By Alyssa Rosenberg

After I saw The Bang Bang Club, a movie about combat photography in South Africa (reviewed here), I sat down with Greg Marinovich, whose 2001 memoir of the same name is the basis for the film to talk about the risks and highs of combat photography, the impact of amateur video on photojournalism, and his next book project. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You mentioned that you, Ken [Oosterbroek] and Kevin [Carter, both photographers with whom Marinovich worked in South Africa] all did some military service. How did that experience impact your work as photographers?

We had such different experiences. Ken did his miltiary service and then continued to do…service in the townships. I processed old pictures of his after his death. He had piles and piles of rolls of film, black and white…They were fifteen years old. He’d never gotten around to processing them. So João [Silva, the New York Times photographer injured in Afghanistan last year, who is a long-time friend of Marinovich’s], myself ,and Gary Bernard took to processing these. Because they were so old, we did lots of tests. You’re a photo buff, you know how much fun this was. And some of the pictures were from his time as a conscript in the townships. He’s got pictures of his fellow conscripts pulling down UDF posters in the townships, these guys in uniforms and armored vehicles…João missed military service. I don’t know how. He was telling me that he remembers his parents going to see a general in Praetoria. He’s not sure if money changed hands, or how, but he was not conscripted…Kevin got into a lot of trouble in the military, essentially by trying to combat the racism of his fellow conscripts. And I reckon thinking I didn’t have to work within the system. I was wrong. I had two years of absolute misery and chaos and accusations of being a communist and all that kind of stuff.

But did those experiences influence the kinds of pictures you shot, the things you looked for?

[The war in which Ken saw combat] was a border war. It was a guerilla war on the border war with armed people and against armed people, whereas what was happening in the 90s in the townships, was most of it unarmed, a lot of it unarmed. The combatants were essentially unarmed, one in a hundred people would have a weapon. So I don’t think that would have had an influence. It wasn’t a war in the sense of any kind of guerilla or formal war. It was, how does one describe it? How does one describe five thousand people coming out of a hostel in a traditional zulu regiment, some of them armed with weapons, but the rest of them with sticks, and machetes and stuff? I don’t think any kind of military training would prepare you for that.

One of the things that come out of the book is that you say photographers are different from other people. Do you think it takes a particular kind of person to be a combat photographer?

It does. Not a single sort, but a variety of different kinds of things. I think that one of the things, int he context that you mention, is the ability to operate under stressful situations, and certainly to operate when you are scared if not terrified. There are a whole bunch of types of people who do this…There’s trying it, and then there’s sticking to it.

The other thing, which is not so obvious, is you have to be extremely duplicitous and extremely zen. Because very little of it is risking your life to get a picture or to get into a photographic situation. Most of it is lying to people to get to those positions, and convincing people to let you into those situations, and convincing people that your presence with a camera will in no way be bad for them, which is generally a lie, 99 percent of the time a lie. Most of the time, somehow, those pictures could be turned against them. So you spend a lot of time being patient, trying to get access, being nice to people, convincing people, being tested by people and not being provoked, all that kind of stuff. That’s a major part of conflict photography, honestly.

Journalists can get away from more. Journalists can hang back and observe and be unobtrusive. A photographer cannot. That’s a bit of a problem. You can’t fake you’re doing something else, or just remember good quotes in your head. You have to get pictures, and it’s very obvious when you’re getting pictures most of them.

Do you find that kind of duplicity difficult?

Nah, exhilirating.

At this point, Marinovich’s wife Leonie interjected to ask: “You find it exhilarating?”

We had a whole discussion, we always tell our kids not to lie, but Leonie, maybe we should teach them to lie properly. It’s a very useful human trait.

Do you think you got better at it over time?

I suspect I was born to it. I think I did…Sometimes it doesn’t matter, because if they don’t believe you, and who knows if they believe you or not just because they give you access, they’ve got their own reasons. And if they don’t fall for your lying, you don’t get the access, and you try something else or somewhere else. It’s a never-ending process. It’s always in steps. It’s not like you go to the gates of conflict X and say ‘Hi, I’m here to whatawhatawhata,” and the first person says “Great, come through.” There are so many other gatekeepers, and every roadblock and every guy with a gun is a problem. It’s just ongoing.

Are certain kinds of people more credulous? Or more credulous in certain situations?

You look at Libya. Absolute access. Anyone, people who are even if you’re not accredited, you want to go cover their war, you cover their war. Which has led to a lot of the tragedies. But on the other hand, in these technological times, everyone can shoot. Most of the film coming out of Syria is amateur film, for example. Libya is civilians or soldiers filming what they do.

If you’re shooting something that’s crisp and clear and something else that’s fuzzy or amateur and shaky and emotive, who has the truer, more expressive image?

Both of them. I mean, the craft doesn’t enter into that part of it. And certainly the market for images by and large is not determined by quality but by content, sadly.

I can’t imagine what it would have been like to do your job if people had the ability to create and distribute their own images in the townships. I wonder, I guess, if you feel like photographers play that interlocutor role anymore, or if you’re just part of a larger stream of information. Are photographers still the people providing official, definitive images?

I think so. Because that’s where the craft comes in. It’s hard to interpret a story and tell a situation through your professionalism, I suppose. It’s the same as writing. Anyone can tell of their experience, but if you have a Bill Keller or a Joe Schmoe writing about it, there’s going to be a huge difference of the impact of that piece, how it’s perceived. So I think it’s like a master filmmakers. Anyone can make movies. They’re not going to scorch across the planet and be a blockbuster becuase the craft is lacking. So it has a certain role, but there’s still space for professionals.

Today do you shoot primarily digital photographs, do you still shoot film?

I still use film, for my personal work. I really like film. And I think in the kind of art world, the museum world, there are already lines drawn between materials shot on film and digital. I’d like my grandchildren to rifle through my negatives, and think maybe we can pay for great-grandchild’s education through these negatives. One wishes. I somehow doubt the digital stuff will survive or be useful.

Do you think digital invites people to shoot too much?

Too much, carelessly. Also, you don’t learn from your mistakes, you delete your mistakes. I’ll make a confession to you. In the early days, I would shoot, like everyone else, I started out shooting absolutley shoddily. And then, when I got a little bit better, I looked back, and I was embarrassed by the negatives. And so I would destroy the negatives that were rubbish, what I thought were rubbish. Was I right? Was I wrong? Good question? And that’s not a great way to learn. You need to be confronted, in any craft or profession, you need to be confronted by your mistakes, the consequences of error. And digital seems to be less that way.

Can you tell me about your new book project?

It’s also vaguely autobiographical in a way. Ten years after my mother’s death, her brother, my uncle, casually mentioned that she’d been married previously. It’s like what? I said, no, no, it’s a detail I would have remembered. And then it turns out she was married to a murderer…He tortured her and starved her in their short marriage. She escaped. It’s not really about me at all, but it’s about my mother, and this murderer, and the cop who solved the case, and a whole lot of other things that were happening in South Africa in the fifties and sixties, quite fascinating.

He killed someone before their marriage?

No, after. She was the third wife, and he killed the first wife. And he may have killed others. It’s quite dramatic. It took me ten years to get my head around it and start working on it, and to think of ways of doing it. So it is difficult. On the other hand, it doesn’t need photography.

In a recent entry, you were talking about Libya, and this comes up in the book, too, about how journalists have to take responsibility or pay the price for the risks that they take.

Not pay the price, but totally take responsibility.

With the barriers to entry being lower, anyone can go out and take photographs, what responsibility do journalists have to keep themselves safe?

I think people go into it with their eyes closed. They really don’t think it’s going to happen to them. And I think if one’s going to cover conflict, whether as an amateur or professional, experienced or inexperienced, you have to truly, emotionally and intellectually understand it can happen to me, and what it means, the consequences of that. It’s not just getting wounded, and going home, and being in the Manchester Standard for a couple of days, and that’s it. I’m going to go out, make friends, and be with local people, and if I get wounded, and I’m lying in the street, crying out ‘Help me! Help me!’ someone’s going to risk their life and come pull me to safety. These are the kinds of responsibilities people don’t really think about. It’s not just yourself, not just your family, it’s a lot broader than that….It’s complex questions, some of which never get asked, or never need to be answered because it never happens, but you have to be prepared in some way for what might happen.

You seem conflicted in the book to a certain extent. You have to take the risks but the risks are devastating. You have to take pictures of people who are in agony or dying or dead, but there’s a responsibility to bear witness. Do you feel like you’ve reconciled your feelings about combat photography?

I stopped doing it fifteen years ago. It was very difficult to stop, I must say.

What do you miss about it?

Being wanted. Being able to choose any assignment I wanted to do and be well-paid for it, that feeling of self-importance, of being in a place that’s at the top of the news, it’s quite addictive. And also, the camraderie of friends in these places, and the excitement of it, all, and even dealing with the horrible parts, you do feel aggrandized, you feel self-important, and there’s ego involved. All these things. It’s a recipe for addiction.