The full picture - Benny Gool

Posted 1 Aug 01 By Design Indaba Point of View / Opinion Comments

First Published in

He jokes that most of his contact network comes from guys who operate breakdown trucks but he is no stranger to Bishop Tutu or Nelson Mandela's homes (making him also the man to know if you're looking for unofficial 'grand-daughter' Naomi Campbell's number.)

Benny's contribution to the communication arts in South Africa has been immense, having worked as a photojournalist since 1985 and winning many accolades in the process. He has partnered with well-known writer Roger Friedman on numerous projects and broken some of the biggest stories to feature in South African media.

The following pages contain the good, the bad and the ugly as Benny Gool has witnessed them in South Africa.

You are currently embroiled in a legal battle to hand over to the state the pictures that you took on the night of Rashaad Staggie's death in 1996. What's the story behind that?

This killing took about twelve to fifteen minutes, if I remember correctly and in that time I shot about four rolls of film so it was a substantial number of pictures. This thing actually started out as a normal protest march against gangsterism and drugs but in this kind of situation people get very angry so…

This is the sequence of events: first, he pitches up and he wants to know what they are doing outside his house and a commotion breaks out. A few minutes later, on the other side of the van, a shot rings out. The bullet comes clear through his head to my side and lodges into the pillar quite close to where I'm standing. Then I get to the other side of the van, shoot a few pictures for a few minutes.

For the picture of him in flames with his eyes looking straight at me, I had just come around the other side of the van and at that stage he was lying on the ground. He had already been pulled out of the van. Everyone, including the police, was watching. He fell down and then a petrol bomb came from the mob, landed on him and set him on fire. In the next one, he gets up and starts running towards his house. He doesn't know where to run and the ambulance man tries to stop him… to try and treat him, I think. But as he runs down the road in the direction of his house, he falls into the gutter. Then a guy comes with a fire extinguisher and by the time I get close he has already put the fire out. The fireman took a lot of flack from people because he was helping the guy. Eventually, people chased him away. And he had to go - it was getting unsafe for him to stay. Then stuff started happening. People started jumping on the body and kicking and hitting him with batons. After all that, he sat up. I was quite amazed at this point that he was still alive. So I just kept taking pictures.

At that point, I started wondering if it was safe to keep shooting and actually Roger started to pull on my shirt to get me away from there because it was starting to get really out of control. There were about ten to twelve journalists - all of them will tell you how difficult it was to take pictures in that situation.

What is your feeling about being subpoenaed now to hand over your photographs to the state as evidence against Staggie's killers?

Well, I've had five years of this. I've had four subpoenas in that time. The earlier ones were withdrawn because the state at that point seemed to think they had a watertight case against these people. They've only come back for me now since some of the witnesses have been "taken out." Many of the key witnesses in the trial have been "taken out" even while in witness protection. So, obviously now the state wants my photographs as evidence to identify the people who were on the scene - that's the latest subpoena. I guess I'll just have to wait until I'm called to court, then we'll see from there what happens. But my intention is not to go to court.

For the sake of your personal safety? Or out of a sense of journalistic integrity?

I think it's a combination of things. I cut my teeth in journalism in these communities based on a kind of trust that I could go in and get any story that I want. And really, as a journalist, your access is based on trust in the communities. I think with everybody access is based on trust.

I could get a direct line right now to Archbishop Tutu, Rashied Staggie, Eugene Terreblanche or Nelson Mandela based on the trust that I've gained as a journalist. Regardless of what I think of them, they each have a right to be heard.

There were policemen on the scene when I took those pictures, a lot of policemen. And they were fully armed. There's a shot that I've got that shows exactly how many policemen were there. They are the ones who should be providing evidence.

If I handed these pictures over I would never be able to go into the community and say "I'm here to do a story, and you can trust me to leave your name out, you can trust me to keep it anonymous and confidential." Nobody will ever believe me. As journalists, we have to create that distance and be clear that we don't do the police's work and that we don't come in there to act as spies.

In the bad old days when we used to photograph township violence in the eighties, you had situations where policemen could take your negatives and identify people who were protesting using pictures you took. That is where Section 205 came in - to enable them to seize negatives and to help them with arrests. It's a problem for journalists, that law. And I think we need to be firm about it.

With such controversy surrounding the issue, how did you feel about winning the Fuji Press Award for the Staggie picture?

It's a difficult thing winning awards as it is - but especially so for this picture. I initially didn't want to enter that picture into awards because at that point I was having a lot of security problems. I didn't know how I was going to deal with the response. Another problem was that these pictures kept resurfacing and every time this guy's kids had to see their father's death in the newspapers and they'd have go to school and hear about it. And, of course, their mother kept calling me saying "please man, these kids are taking strain. Can you please not make it so difficult for me?"

I finally decided to enter it and I went to the dead man's brother and told him I was entering it into the awards. He was okay about it. To be honest, I didn't know how to deal with the fact that I won but, in the end, it was a graphic image that captured a moment that told an important story and helped to bring the issue to light so…

You've worked for a long time in Cape Town, often showing the anti-'postcard perfect' aspects of it. What has your experience been working in this city?

I battle sometimes with the state of journalism in Cape Town, with what's going on in the city itself and to get editors to see the validity of some of the stories. I battle the whole time with the pace of the so-called 'transformation process'. You would expect newspapers and publications to try and bridge the gap by providing insight for people to try and bring them together but unfortunately that isn't the case. Most of the newspapers cater for the A/B income group in Camps Bay, Bishops Court and maybe the more affluent coloured areas but certainly not for the black people. I don't know, maybe they don't know that there are people actually living in Guguletu and Khayelitsha? Anyway, they don't have a marketing strategy to reach this group.

It's a shame that as journalists we are not able to do anything about it, that we are not able to bridge divides and to adequately reflect the lives of people who have a valid point of view. I don't think there's enough emphasis on the lives of the majority of people that live here, the lives of people of colour in Cape Town.

Can one talk about anything in South Africa without reference to race?

I don't know. At the moment, there's still a lot of "them" and "us" type language. For example, when the election posters come out the DP says things like "hang them." Who is "them"? Hang "them"? How do you read that? The wording of these posters doesn't help the cause of unity. In the '94 elections, we saw all these campaigns geared towards discrediting black people. There were set-up bombings of churches, in effect creating the fear that there's this big black monster coming and you better vote for the whites otherwise…

I don't understand- why are people so silent in South Africa? We have farmers that tie people up to the back of a van and drive off. How do we tolerate that?
There are people who pour paint over a little fourteen year-old girl. How do we tolerate that? Policemen feeding people to dogs - horrific!

In reality, Cape Town is probably the most African-unfriendly city I've ever been to. It's the "fairest cape" in more ways than one and you can't hide from it, although people try to. Roger and I did a story on it once, featuring a popular shopping centre.
We went to all the restaurants in the mall and it was just amazing that the only black faces we saw were in the kitchens. Of course, we got into a lot of trouble over that story but someone has to bring these things up.

But of course, it's not just a black versus white thing. It's also a coloured thing. I come from the coloured community (my father's Muslim and my mother's Christian) and I struggle to deal with the racism there as well. There is still such a wide gap between the race groups. We are all doing our own little thing living in our own little communities with our own little issues.

In a way, the PAGAD (People Against Gangsterism And Drugs) thing has also complicated matters. This struggle has become a Muslim issue and has mostly been kept a Muslim issue. But gangsterism and drugs are not just a Muslim problem - they're a people problem. The strategy of meeting in mosques for example is just one way they've excluded other people from the effort, that's why they don't get support. This thing has created a major rift between Muslim and Christian people in the Cape and it's a problem.

What's your opinion on the common perception that photojournalists contrive 'moments' or situations to elicit a particular response in the reader / viewer?

Well, most of the work I've done has been fast-paced with stuff happening around me at a hectic pace because I work on "hard news." In most cases, I'm not able to 'arrange' the light or anything else for that matter. There's just no time - which makes my work very challenging technically. Around the Staggie killing you can imagine how chaotic it was, how many people were on the scene. I really didn't have time to sit and have an intellectual debate around light sources, poses and things like that. Within twelve minutes it was over. It was just go go go.

I woke up the next morning thinking "why could I not just not have stayed home for once?" I actually regret being there that night.
I've never had a debriefing of the events of that evening and my life has never been the same. The whole experience took a lot out of me. I've gotten into so much trouble over this stuff and I'd just like to forget about it. I'd like to move on now and close that chapter of my life.

I've done a lot of other work, but today when most people talk about my work they think about the Staggie photographs. I've done great work on Nelson Mandela, for example. I've been around him for four years with total access documenting his life and his work.

How much of a role does your personal conviction play in your work? Can you just point and shoot and leave or do you allow yourself to get involved?

You can't help getting totally involved. When I worked for the newspapers, I was out of the house at six in the morning and would spend my life out there. I used to come back into town and I'd show people at the paper what I'd shot and people could hardly believe what had gone on during my day. It's hard work mentally because ultimately what you are doing is connecting. You're trying to bring people a real sense of what's going on out there and to expose things that go on in the community but it takes a lot out of you. It's many hours spent with strangers. I lived PAGAD and gangs for five years of my life. I was in and out of that scene taking photographs. Roger and I covered some controversial stories so we were always in trouble.

But you have to keep going. Keep chipping away at stuff that's eating away at communities. Unfortunately, there is not enough of that happening, not enough investigative journalism going on.

The media shows too many things going on that are just on the surface.
There's nothing special coming out. I find most of the newspapers boring now. In fact, most of their content is stuff that was on TV the night before.

After covering a difficult story, do you ever walk away wondering what will become of the people you interact with? Do you ever feel like intervening in some of the situations you encounter?

In a case like the Staggie killing, there's not much you can do. The best you can do is record the event.

I've travelled everywhere in South Africa. In some places, people don't have running water and they don't have a cent to their name. In those cases, you can't drive away without giving them R20 or R10 or something because you're human and you can see the poverty. People should go out in the rural areas and see just how poor others really are. It's bad! Not only poverty but also alcoholism. If it continues like this, I believe that South Africa will have a rural revolt not long from now.

I was speaking to photojournalism students the other day and there were only two coloured students in the group. The rest were white kids who had never ever been to Gugs, Khayelitsha or Mannenberg and these are our up-and-coming journalists. What kind of stories do you think they are going to prioritise for coverage? There's just no acknowledgement of reality.

Reality is a big thing for me. It's critical to bring reality to readers. I got to a point at the newspapers where I started to refuse assignments they were giving me because I'd end up in ludicrous situations, having to go to some Mrs Abramowitz in Camps Bay who had lost her R15 000 cat and get pictures of her looking all sad. And I just couldn't do it. Eventually, I got to a stage where I told the papers that I wanted to start deciding on what stories I worked on.

At that point you had the clout to do that.

For sure. A junior reporter would never be able to do that. But you can imagine my frustration working at a news desk that revolves around the lives of white people. You could go out into the Cape Flats and cover a story that affects people's lives, a story that you believe needs to be told.
But to get it into the paper was a constant battle. Fighting for your story to get in on a normal day is cool but when you have to fight it on the basis of racial or political agendas then it becomes a problem. I think this is a worldwide thing though because if you hear about the Concorde crashing in Paris it's a big story, but if twenty six people die in a plane crash in the DRC it's a page two brief.

One day I got a call saying there were two dead bodies on a dump in Khayelitsha and the editor's response was "wait, wait don't go yet, it could just be vagrants. Rather leave it." And I'm thinking "this could be a big story. It could be a serial killer. People need to know."

Another time there was a terrible bus accident in Grabouw and I got the call. I was running the picture desk at the time so I put a photographer on standby to go to Grabouw to find out what was going on. And someone in the newsroom actually said that the story was not worth it because the paper's target market doesn't ride busses!

In the end, media content is largely dictated by the advertisers. For instance, I can't write about some theme park in Cape Town being a white elephant because then I get called in by the editors and the owners are sitting there, totally pissed off and they want to see a positive story because they spend money with the paper.

What's in your future?

I've made a move into the digital video world. I want to be able to tell stories using a different medium. Just let me loose in a gang war in Mannenberg with a digital video camera!

I bought two digital video cameras and we've been shooting Archbishop Tutu. We travel with him everywhere. We were in Johannesburg last week interviewing Madiba (Nelson Mandela). We got stunning quotes on Tutu! We also talked to Pik Botha. When Tutu was calling for sanctions and conducting protests during the struggle against apartheid, Pik was foreign minister for South Africa so he had to counter everything the Arch was saying. It's amazing now because Pik says he's convinced that if Jesus was around today, Tutu would be his best friend. That's a thing! We've shot for four months on digital video. We'll edit the footage into two 52-minute documentaries.

What about the future of South Africa?

Having said all that, I think the future for this country is great. Economically we seem to be getting on track.