Saturday, May 5, 2012

João Silva; Dedication and Sacrifice of the Photojournalist

On Friday 4 May 2012 I had the privilege to hear João Silva speak to a group of photojournalism students and faculty at the Corcoran College of Art and Design.  João Silva is a Portuguese born war/conflict photographer living in South Africa.  However, he shies away from the label war photographer although he has dedicated his life to it for the last 20 years since first beginning work for Alberton Record covering the political violence of Apartheid in South Africa.

After listening to his remarkable story, I decided to find out more about his work, and his story.  Amongst my research I found a 30 August 2011 NY Times story titled “This Is What I Do. This Is All That I Know” (  As I read through the NY Times story I was haunted by reading many of the same words I had just heard from the source – João Silva.  The NY Times article tells Silva’s compelling story and provides remarkable depth sure to leave an indelible impression.  I recommend it to you.

João is a double amputee.  He lost his legs when, in his words, when “I was blown up.” On October 23, 2010 he stepped on a mine while on a minesweeping patrol with US troops in Kandahar Afghanistan on contract with the NY Times.  He tells the story of feeling the sinking feeling of stepping on the mind and feeling the mechanical trip the instant before the mine took his legs and flung him face down in the dust.  The next thing he remembered was knowing “this is not good” and seeing his legs were gone.  Lying there he called for help, was dragged from the kill zone, and immediately returned to his journalistic instincts picking up his camera to continue documenting as medics worked to save his life.

Was it worth it?  Joao was clear on this subject. “As photojournalists, we are the eyes of the world and it is important to document what we see - even at the cost of my legs.  Yes, it is worth it.  Images change peoples lives.”  In addition to the physical sacrifice, João conveyed that the camera does not exclude you from what you see - there is an emotional toll.  “The emotions are real and what you see affects you – but like my legs, the emotion and pain is worth the service we provide.  Photography will not change the world, but it can influence the individual and how they think about the world.”

During the question and answer portion of the talk, I was able to ask João how he experienced and dealt with the conflict between his role to document and the impulse to intervene and offer assistance.  This question led to several stories of atrocities he had witnessed and the constant struggle between clicking the shutter and helping someone in need.  One of the stories involved a gruesome mob killing in South Africa as he was covering political conflicts of Apartheid.  A young man was beaten, slashed, clubbed and eventually burned.  There was nothing he could do but document although the horrific scene is one that will never leave.  In part, this contributed to his book (co-written with Greg Marinovich – another member of The Bang Bang Club) and subsequent movie, The Bang Bang Club.

In the NY Times article, Joao tells another story of his friend, colleague, and fellow member of The Bang Bang Club that dramatically and tragically emphasizes the balance between historian with a camera and the humanity of a photojournalist:

A very good friend of mine, Kevin Carter, eventually took his own life. He made the famous picture in Sudan. There’s this child lying face down in the dirt and there’s a vulture stalking the child. He was highly criticized for that picture. People who had no place in criticizing him — people who had no understanding of the dynamics that it took to make that picture — criticized him to the point that he got all conflicted. He took his life a month after winning the Pulitzer.

People always assume that this heartless photographer just walked past and shot the image of the child, and that wasn’t the case. For one, the child was a few hundred yards from a feeding center. That child was not abandoned. But that’s the power of photography. You isolate something, you transmit your image through that isolation, and it was the most powerful image. Ultimately that image was such a strong message of famine. Suddenly there was this influx of money that came out of nowhere. He saved more lives by taking that picture than he would have by not taking the picture.

João told other stories such as a time in Lebanon when a bomb decimated a neighborhood - he saw a man running through the street yelling for help as he carried his bloodied daughter in his arms.  He put the camera away and drove the pair to the hospital.  He recounted this as a recurring event – a time when his humanity took clear precedence over his role as a documentarian.  “We are humans first, but we should not apologize for our role as photojournalists – the eyes of the world and what we document is important.”

João concluded by saying he does not intend to let his injuries stop him.  He may not have the mobility to go back to battlefield photography, but he is anxious to continue with the next phase of his career.  Like the title of the NY Times article, “This is what I do.  This is all that I know.”  During his visit to the Corcoran, Joao Silva is receiving an honorary Doctorate.  Thanks to João for generously spending his time and story with us.

Have fun, and go make some great photography.



  1. I really like your motives and efforts. Wish I could be like you. Really photography can transmit you into a different one. Thanks for sharing.
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    1. Christine, thanks for taking the time to comment. Joao is an amazing person and it was an honor to spend a short time with him. His dedication to photojournalism coupled with his bravery and sense of purpose are remarkable.


    2. Good for you Carl.I just wish I can be as good as Him.