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Documenting apartheid, ‘one long nightmare’

Editor’s note: This gallery contains graphic images that depict apartheid-era violence in South Africa. Viewer discretion is advised.

South African photographer Greg Marinovich spent years covering the rise of violence in his home country before the eventual death of the systemic racial discrimination policy of apartheid.

During the transition to democracy, he found himself on the front lines of history.

“When the violence broke out, I was not ready to cover it and ignored it for the first weeks but then realized that I couldn’t avoid it,” Marinovich said, reflecting on escalating tensions in 1990.

“At a hostel in Soweto, I witnessed a man being murdered and photographed it. It started my career as a conflict journalist, though I did not know that yet.”

Before then, he focused more on the social effects of apartheid, he says, especially in the former homelands, which were used to segregate blacks and whites into self-governing states throughout the country.

Marinovich saw himself simply as a journalist working to document a story that was unfolding around him in his own country.

He says he was not only reacting to news events and incidents but also trying to understand and capture the causes and conditions of the conflict.

“A lot of the time, I was not on assignment, but to be honest, now it all seems like one long nightmare,” Marinovich said.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer was born in 1962, when apartheid in Africa’s southernmost nation was well-established.

He is best known for the book “The Bang-Bang Club,” which he wrote with fellow South African photographer Joao Silva.

The name of the book came from a label primarily associated with four photographers and friends who covered the country’s violent uprising: Marinovich, Silva, Kevin Carter and Ken Oosterbroek.

Oosterbroek was killed while photographing clashes days before the 1994 election, and Carter committed suicide months later. Silva continued his career as a conflict photographer and was severely wounded in 2010 when he stepped on a mine in Afghanistan.

Alongside his colleagues, Marinovich covered the fall of apartheid from the late 1980s through the mid-‘90s.

He watched the ruling National Party cling to power before its collapse in 1994 when anti-apartheid revolutionary Nelson Mandela, who endured 27 years in prison, became the country’s first democratically elected president.

Marinovich met Mandela several times after his release from prison. “He always greeted you as if he knew you – a politician's talent,” he said. “Yet he was a genuinely warm person.”

The scenes Marinovich witnessed over the years took a toll on him, he says.

“It was very, very conflicting to be excited by getting powerful images that the world wanted and to see your own country appear to tear itself apart. And of course the cost to individuals we met along the way was harrowing.”

He says that he and Silva had different ways of coping but that in retrospect, neither of them handled it too well.

“And how could we have? Why should we have? You'd have to be a messed-up person to not be traumatically affected by those events.”

- Raymond McCrea Jones, CNN