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? “People have short memories,” is Rademeyer’s answer. “Twenty years on, memories blur. We forget the details. But those images crystallised key moments. And they probably have a greater impact than all the words written and books published in the twenty since they occurred.”

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:
“[The archive] includes images from Lebanon, famine in Niger, Somalia and the xenophobic violence that swept SA in 2008. I haven’t really been much in the way of conflict since then.”

James Oatway

Does he see himself as a war reporter? “I don’t consider myself exclusively a ‘war photographer’. A lot of the work that I do,” Oatway adds, “is ‘conflict-free’. But my work often does take me to conflict zones.”

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? “Many stories are being under reported. Especially African and other stories from the ‘Third World’. We are hooked on Western media. I think that there is a shortage of African photojournalists telling African stories. I think that we really need to assert ourselves more on the photojournalism and journalism scenes.”

Is it challenging? “Working in conflict zones can be very challenging indeed. There is a lot of very tedious administration work that goes into it. Getting all the necessary visas, accreditations and various other bureaucratic permissions can take up a lot of time and patience. It is important to do your homework before you go. It is not wise to simply rock-up and start shooting. Safety is paramount – no one will see your pictures if you get arrested or killed before you take them. I try not to take completely unnecessary risks (although calculated risks sometimes can’t be avoided). And you really have to depend on instinct a lot of the time. I usually take a sat-phone with me when going to conflict zones – you can never be sure of the communications situation and it’s good to have a sat-phone in case of emergency.”

Have you been injured? “I have been very lucky in terms of injuries outside our borders. I escaped a high-speed car crash in Uganda last year unscathed. Drunk, drugged teenage militiamen are a constant threat in the CAR – last year a few dollars bought us enough time to escape a sticky fate. But I have had a couple of nicks and scratches here at home. I’ve had stitches after being shot by a police rubber bullet (I’ve been hit by about 6 in total) and I’ve been struck by a couple of rocks during service delivery protests etc.”

Memorable moment? “There are lots – the freshest has got to be last year’s visit to a gold mine controlled by Mai Mai rebels in the Eastern DRC. Myself and colleague Stephan Hofstatter had to march deep into the rainforest – in mud (sometimes thigh deep) for a full day to reach the mine. Supper was tinned sardines and a luke-warm beer. That was memorable.”

Role models? “There’s a guy called James Nachtwey. Also legendary British Photographer Don McCullin. Steve McCurry is amazing too. I was really influenced by the work of the late South African Ken Oosterbroek. Also W. Eugene Smith and Eugene Richards. And, Oatway quips, “Indiana Jones.”

What’s next? “For now I have to find my own place in the changing Photojournalism landscape. I need to keep shooting what I feel is important and exposing as many people as possible to my work!”

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? “I covered the earthquake disaster in Haiti in 2010, which was very traumatic. Dead bodies were lying on the streets, some being burnt. I covered the Japanese tsunami aftermath in 2011. I covered the recent Marikana massacre in 2012. In April 2013 I went to Syria to cover the victims of the war which were being brought to a hospital in a town called Darkoush. I guess I’m covering these conflict and disaster assignments because I feel it's th e best way to communicate the plight of the people. I do this through my work. It’s also a way to say to the world: please assist.”

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? “I have a satellite phone that I use to transmit images but in Syria I used wifi because of security reasons. I don't have a moment that stands out, but Syria was different because the war was ongoing and still is.”

You’ve had many experiences, all over the world. Does a particular image stand out in your mind? “A photograph that stands out is of the miners shot dead by police in Marikana.”

Dlangamandla does not elaborate.

How was Syria different to other wars? “Syria was different, Dlangamandla explains, “in the way that the war is ongoing. Bombs were going off every day. [We were] protected by the rebels and everywhere we went, there were rebel controlled checkpoints and so on. The language was another factor. We had to have fixers to translate between us and the rebels. Everywhere we went we were surrounded by AK 47’s, kids not going to school but carrying guns instead, every working together, around the clock to defeat the current regime.”

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.