Focusing on the unflinching eyes of photojournalists

As smoke from a burning tyre billowed across a debris-strewn street in a township south of Johannesburg and the crack of gunshots filled the air, an armoured vehicle rolled down the road, four photographers running along behind it.

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Thokoza, South Africa // As smoke from a burning tyre billowed across a debris-strewn street in a township south of Johannesburg and the crack of gunshots filled the air, an armoured vehicle rolled down the road, four photographers running along behind it.

Peeling away, they sheltered from the crossfire behind a wall, along with a group of National Peace Keeping Force troops.

On one side of Khumalo Street members of the ANC's Self Defence Units (SDU) traded rounds with Self Protection Units of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, holed up in hostels home to migrant workers in South Africa during apartheid. Moments after one of the fighters was hit, his comrades rushed out to carry him to safety under continuing fire.

"Who wants a Coke?" Greg Marinovich asked his fellow photographers before sprinting across the tarmac, bullets puffing at his feet, to buy two large bottles from a shop that was still open despite the mayhem and elatedly rushing back to deliver them.

Within hours he had been shot three times and one of his closest colleagues was dead.

The battle took place only last month, except that on this occasion Marinovich was not the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer who now counts The National among his clients, but the Hollywood actor Ryan Philippe.

Marinovich was one of four members of the Bang Bang Club, young South African photographers who documented the carnage and violence of their country in the 1980s and 1990s. One, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed in the fighting in Thokoza and another, Kevin Carter, committed suicide a few months after taking one of the most harrowing pictures of recent years, when a vulture appeared to be stalking a starving child in south Sudan.

Along with his fellow survivor João Silva, Marinovich wrote a book named for the group, which is now being turned into a film starring Philippe, who appeared in the Oscar-winning 2005 film Crash.

"It was hot, I'd been up since five in the morning, I was thirsty," he said about the Coke incident, laughing. "Your levels of risk-taking get raised. This was called the dead zone, this was where shocking things happened."

In reality he was far enough away from the shooters to make it unlikely he would be hit.

"The shopkeeper ran across the road after me with my change," he said. "It wasn't as dangerous as it seems, it was fun. What can I say?"

But the making of the film has opened up not-so-old wounds for those involved and is a graphic reminder of the violence that engulfed South Africa less than two decades ago, an illustration of how much the country has changed - and how much it has not.

As the NPKF unit prepared to move out from behind the wall and attack a sniper position, one of its tense and inexperienced members - it was the first time they had been deployed in action - squeezed his trigger too early. Oosterbroek, the award-winning chief photographer for Johannesburg's Star newspaper, was killed instantly, his abdomen torn apart by expanding rounds, and Marinovich was hit in the hand, chest and buttocks.

"It's really painful, it's like having a truck land on your chest," he said. "The pain I still remember very distinctly, it really is like a physical memory."

The first emotion, though, was perhaps surprising.

"There was relief at finally being one of the victims. It was instant. You spend so much time photographing other people getting killed and they get upset and people don't like it, mothers next to their dead kids, 17-, 18-year olds, they got whacked like flies. You photograph their bodies and suddenly you are not just a voyeur."

Over and over, the cast re-enacted the event.

"You never really resolve this stuff," he said. "We have all dealt with it and it comes back again and again and again. The movie will kind of replace reality and it will be good, emotionally speaking. I didn't think it was going to be this tough.

"That feeling of relief, the realisation Ken has been shot and looking over and he's looking like …" his voice drifted away as he wiped away a tear.

The photographers' universal dilemma over how much to be involved and when to put down the camera is epitomised by his fellow club member and author João Silva, now one of the world's leading conflict image-makers, who took pictures of both men in the moments after they were hit.

"It's much worse for João because nothing happened to him and he still blames himself for shooting pictures of Ken," Marinovich said. "You can see he's really upset. I had a release, I was a victim. This is the time when I kind of paid my debts off, whereas João kept adding to his burdens."

But for Oosterbroek's brother Connall, now 40, Silva's actions were more than understandable, they were essential.

"If João hadn't done that Ken would probably be pissed off. That's what they were doing, they were photographers. That's what he had to do, he had to shoot," he said after watching his brother die on set several times.

"It's tough, yes it's tough. The first time they shot Ken that was really hard, the second was a bit easier. It becomes more the movie, it takes the reality of it away."

"I don't know if I have ever really dealt with it," he said. He was travelling in England at the time and found out about his brother's death only by chance, having made a spur-of-the-moment call home from a telephone box in the countryside of Cornwall.

"Ken was very special to me, he was my hero. He was the next one up above me so he was like my big brother, the one I looked up to. He was very, very intense, quite serious in many ways, but with a wicked sense of humour. When it came to photography and his job, he was very serious about it, very committed. He was consumed by it."

Watching the filming brought him "a bit of closure", Connall said.

"Greg and João are here so I'm listening to how it went down, what actually happened. It's not easy but I need to know for myself. I can't really blame anybody, it's just the fact of the times. They were really screwed-up times."

Sixteen people died in Thokoza on that day, a week before South Africa's first democratic election and the formal end of apartheid. The rival ANC and Inkatha forces, the latter receiving clandestine support from some arms of the regime's security service, were fighting a turf war that began as a contest for control of parts of the then Natal province, the Zulu heartland, and spread into the townships of Johannesburg where many Zulus had moved for work.

Demonstrating how much has changed, the battle scene was shot days after South Africa's almost entirely peaceful fourth poll.

"It was a war and therefore people were dying on both sides and doing atrocities on both sides and mass murder being committed on both sides," Silva said.

Amid the crowds watching the set from outside and even among the cast were many who took part, such as Linda Bayi, now a 36-year-old Afro-Gospel singer and an extra in the film. At the time he was an SDU fighter and he bears the physical marks of the fighting in scars on his hand, leg and shoulder, accompanied by the mental wounds to his psyche.

"I have lost so many brothers and sisters," he said. "I lost my mother, even my girlfriend when she was pregnant and wearing a T-shirt of Nelson Mandela. They said 'I'm not shooting you, I'm shooting that Mandela of yours'. That was here."

He paused, breathing deeply and choking back tears. "It's when we organised ourselves for having some bullets and even some guns to defend ourselves, to defend our community."

Merchant Mazibuko, also 36, was a leader of one of the SDU crews who were on a mission to destroy the migrant hostels whose residents were attacking them.

"I can't say I didn't kill somebody when I was fighting - we were fighting, I can shoot and I don't know where it can end up. Truly I have killed somebody. Many, not one," he said. "I'm proud because at that time I'm defending the people. This is our mothers, our fathers, our sisters, I can't let them die while I can do something. Let me do something so that they will stay alive."

Nonetheless, he said: "We were too young then, we were experiencing that thing. I don't like it to happen again, I don't want kids to see something like that."

It is unlikely that they will, but what the children of Thokoza see every day is a township that looks remarkably similar to the way it did 15 years ago, the same small houses and services that are failing.

"Nothing is happening to us who fought for this liberation," Mr Mazibuko said. "We are hungry."

And while a political dimension to conflict has all but disappeared, South Africa remains an extremely violent society with some of the world's highest rates of murder and rape for countries not at war.

The causes are complex, but historically many post-conflict situations have been exacerbated by the existence of men who have families to feed and no means of earning money except with the guns with which they fought.

Mr Mazibuko is confined to a wheelchair after being shot while committing an armed robbery in the democratic era.

"I think violence here simmers underneath the surface," said Steven Silver, the film's director, who is based in Toronto but is South African and was arrested several times for his anti-apartheid activism. "I think it would be unreasonable, after the kind of history this country has had, if it didn't."

But he pointed out that when another shooting was re-enacted in Soweto, had the camera moved one metre to the left the view would have been interrupted by Maponya Mall, a huge collection of shops and boutiques which opened two years ago to serve the township's newly created middle classes.

"It is this extremely extraordinary ornament that is a structural testament to how things are different. As complicated a country as it is, in spite of crime and corruption, the change here has been significant and important.

"I'm really walking in the shoes of my own history. As difficult and as violent and as frightening a time as those days were, they were also very heady days. Anything seemed possible, the future was open and it was ours for the taking.

"I really see this as a story about four young men. In many ways it's a coming of age story, it's a rite of passage, it's about young men negotiating their way into adulthood and working out how the world works.

"It just so happens the world they're navigating is unusual and complicated. It's also specifically about photojournalism. Their photographs went all over the world.

"When you open that door you find yourself discovering why they choose to do this kind of work, what kind of person does that kind of work and what it takes to bring us those kinds of images - and in the end the price they pay, or many of them pay, to do so."