And what can we learn from them? Nick van der Leek, a photojournalist himself, tracks down some of the best in the business to find out. 

Type the word ‘war’ into the Google search frame, and click. Then click on ‘image’ search. Try to imagine what is like to be armed with a camera in some of those situations. Imagine what photographers went through on D-Day on Utah and Omaha Beaches. Those epic, but deadly allied landings were recently re-rendered, but with half the scene smeared back into the almost saccharine sweetness of the present. It’s a reminder that war actually happens. To real people, in real places.

And what can we learn from them? Nick van der Leek, a photojournalist himself, tracks down some of the best in the business to find out.

So who are these people, who go out and wade into wars as part of their job descriptions?

Julian Rademeyer

Julian Rademeyer is a well known and well regarded investigative reporter. He’s worked as a conflict reporter for the Sunday Times, and while apartheid was perhaps more a struggle than it was a war, Rademeyer’s experiences of this violent and toxic episode are nevertheless compelling. Which images have stayed with him over the years?

“I think the images that stand out for me are the photos that were taken at the dawn of democracy in SA, before 1994. I was starting out in journalism in 1993. Those images have stuck with me ever since, probably because they represent where we came from and what we escaped. There are so many. Ken Oosterbroek’s image of the two kids running across a road in Thokoza in front of an advancing Inkatha impi, Greg Marinovich’s pictures of Lindsaye Tshabalala being stabbed and burnt to death, Joao Silva’s image of a boy running past a sign reading “No peace” in Thokoza’s Khumalo Street and Cobus Bodenstein’s shot of the moment a Bophuthatswana soldier shot dead three AWB members during the right-wing invasion of the homeland.

“On a lighter note, I also remember Oosterbroek’s shot of Nelson Mandela kicking a soccer ball and his shoe coming off to reveal a hole in his sock. There are other more personal images. Jon Hrusa’s photo of Eugene de Kock arriving for court in Pretoria. It was the first image ever published of the man they called ‘Prime Evil’ and Jon had spent weeks trying to get the shot through thick bulletproof glass of a police van with a polarising filter. Every day he’d wait for the police van transporting De Kock to arrive and every day he tried to get the shot. Eventually he did. I was there most days as a reporter covering the trial and watched him do it. The De Kock trial was the first major story I ever covered. Sadly Jon is no longer with us.”

Thus far Rademeyer has been modest about his own work. He writes that he “later went on to report on the Truth Commission hearings in Port Elizabeth.” Here he highlights another memorable picture. “I can’t remember who took the image. It’s one that I will never forget. Joyce Mthimkhulu, the mother of murdered activist Siphiwe Mthimkhulu, holding a fistful of her son’s hair that she had brought to the commission. She had kept it as evidence of his poisoning. I was there that day and while, for some reason, I can’t remember seeing the hair, but I can see that image.”

Are words more powerful than photos?

Rademeyer admits, “I’ve always been more a reporter than a photographer. Photography has been a bit of side thing for me. Some of the images I’ve shot can be found here:

James Oatway

Does he see himself as a war reporter?

Since Oatway and Colvin (and Rademeyer incidentally) work or worked for the Sunday Times (part of Times Media Group) let’s compare Oatway’s biography to Colvin’s, and then study his journey in more detail.

“I will be 36 soon. After completing my Journalism degree (B.Journ) at Rhodes I did an internship at The Star newspaper – the Pictures Editor at the time was Robin Comley. I then managed to get a staff photographer job at Die Burger in PE where I worked for more than 3 years. I was transferred to Cape Town for a short stint there before moving to Johannesburg to work at the ill-fated This Day newspaper. When that closed down I managed to get a job at Rapport/City Press (they shared photographers then). In 2006 Greg Marinovich (the Sunday Times Picture Editor at the time) offered me a job. So I’ve been at the Sunday Times for 8 years now. This year I was placed second in the “Newspaper Photographer of the Year” category in the Pictures of the Year International Competition:


“I was sent to CAR last year to cover the aftermath of the Coup which left 15 SA soldiers dead. I returned earlier this year to see how the situation had changed one year on.

“I went to Afghanistan in 2011 to cover the ongoing conflict there. I spent time embedded with both the US Marines (in Helmand Province) and the US Army (in Nangarhar). I also spent a couple of weeks in Kabul – unembedded.

“Why do I do it? I believe that I have a duty to record the realities of different people in different situations around the world – to shape opinion and for historical reasons. For me it is an ongoing study of human beings – the best and the worst that the human race has to offer. I like people to talk about my images – even if they don’t like them. The fact that they are debating the issue is important. I have learned that capitalism and the pursuit of wealth is an unnatural system that is at odds with most of humanity. It drives human conflict and environmental destruction.

“I’m not sure that anyone can change this at the moment – it is a cycle that needs to reach it’s own end. The “Looter picture” is an image of a 15-year-old-girl called Fabienne. She was shot during the chaos that followed in the wake of the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti in 2010. A type of “Alternate economy” sprung up in Port-Au-Prince. No one could work, food and money was even scarcer than it was before the earthquake. People began looting from damaged warehouses and shops and selling what they had looted. It was complete chaos. Looters were fighting other looters (I saw one guy die after being stabbed during a fight over a box of toothbrushes). Property owners were fighting looters (I took a boy to hospital who had been thrown from a three-storey building after being caught by building security). And the police were shooting indiscriminately all over the place.

“I don’t think that Fabienne had actually stolen those pictures. I think that she had bought them from a looter. She still had some money on her. Until someone stole it out of her dead hand. I am haunted by that picture and indeed the whole experience. Certainly those were some of the most haunting events I have witnessed. It was like being in a horror movie. The smell of death was constantly in the air and decomposing bodies littered the streets.”

What message is being lost?

Is it challenging?

Have you been injured?

Memorable moment?

Role models

What’s next?

Favourite photo? “I don’t have one specific but I’m really happy with the series “Three Antenna Hill” which I shot in DRC last year. It was also awarded second place in the “News Picture Story” category of the Pictures of the Year International competition this year:

Felix Dlangamandla

Felix is a man of few words. He lets his camera do the talking. There are only a handful of South African photographer brave enough to go where he has gone. But who is he?

“I'm 38 years old. I work for Media24 Afrikaans titles. I've been to Kenya covering the post election violence in 2008. I went to Zimbabwe to cover the elections in 2009 and was chased out of the country. I was told I had to leave within 24 hours.”

After that?

He mentions colleagues who have inspired him. “I've worked with a lot of journalists that have inspired me( Lucas Ledwaba, Julian Rademeyer, Adriaan Basson, Peit Rampedi,Pooko Tau,photographers like Chris Kotze, Themba Hadebe, Alexander Joe, Siphiwe Sibeko, Leon Sadiki,Veli Nhlapo and many more).”

What equipment do you take with you into these conflict zones?

You’ve had many experiences, all over the world. Does a particular image stand out in your mind?

Dlangamandla does not elaborate.

How was Syria different to other wars?

What comes across in all four of these reporters is clear, isn’t it? Courage under fire. These are people putting their lives on the line, to help us, make a better world. The next time you see a postcard from a war zone, give it an extra moment to sink in. Because each of these images come to us at great cost.