Joao Silva had been photographing war combatants and victims for two decades when he set out on patrol in Afghanistan with soldiers from Task Force 166 of the 4th Infantry Division. For most of his career, Joao Silva had been focusing his lens outwards, on the combatants and victims of war. On October 23, 2010 that suddenly changed.
His memories of the day are very clear: Captain Walter Reed, whose name would be prophetic, wanted to keep Silva in the rear. But the photojournalist, on assignment for the New York Times, was having none of it. “Look,” he recalls telling the captain, “if you keep me there, I’m not going to be able to see anything worth documenting.” Captain Reed relented.
Silva and I are sitting in the leafy, green garden of a guest house in Johannesburg. The lawn has been neatly trimmed, the pool sparkles off to the side and azaleas and bougainvillea border the patio. The verdant tranquility contrasts with Silva’s account of the moment that would permanently alter his life. “There was a guy with a metal detector sweeping one area and a guy with a dog sweeping another… and the guy with the dog is followed by a guy providing security. I’m photographing all of this. They passed through the doorway of a mud-house ruin and the first thing that went through my mind was, that’s typically where something is going to blow. Doorways are where [the Taliban] plant a lot of stuff. But it seemed fine now, so I made a decision to follow them. And as I took that first step I heard a ting. BAM! I was instantaneously face down. It felt like an electric bolt going through my whole body. An electric shock multiplied by thousands.”
Silva had stepped on a landmine. He did not lose consciousness. He can remember calling for help, and soldiers dragging him away from the kill zone. “I could see that my legs were shredded… one foot was dangling… I knew the [limbs] were gone… I’ve seen this enough times.” But, despite his grave injuries, Silva’s attention was elsewhere. The next shots on his camera illustrate the level of Silva’s commitment to bear witness. “As they put me down,” he remembers, “I tried to make the three frames… I’m lying on the ground taking these pictures and I feel this pain.” Finally, Silva set aside his camera.
I have interviewed the photographer four times over a 15-year period. In the time I have known him, he has seen his colleagues pay the price for their work in combat zones. Some were killed while trying to chronicle war; a few committed suicide.
What is striking about observing Silva over time is not what has changed, but rather what has remained constant. There has always been a disarming openness to him, an absence of hubris and a generosity of spirit. He has never wavered in his love of what he does or questioned whether it has been worth it.
Silva was not the only journalist on patrol that morning with the infantry. Carlotta Gall, a New York Times correspondent, was there too. She was carrying a satellite phone, which Silva asked to use. As he lay there on the hard, dusty ground of the Arghandab Valley, a world away from his family in South Africa, he phoned his wife.
“I called her for two reasons,” he says. “The first is that I wanted her to hear [the news] from me firsthand as opposed to being called by an editor from New York. And if I was going to die, I wanted to speak to her one more time, to hear her voice one more time.”
Silva lived, notwithstanding his critical injuries, the consequences of which will be lifelong: An above-knee amputation on the one side, a below-knee on the other, an abdominal wall that had been destroyed and needed to be rebuilt, over 60 surgeries endured.
I am intrigued by his first reaction to what befell him in Afghanistan. No sooner has he been dragged to safety, aware by now of his grievous leg injuries, than he reaches for his camera and shoots three frames. “Why do this?” I ask. “Why is this a priority in a situation of such extreme peril?”
“Instinct,” replies Silva. “It wasn’t a calculated thing. I wanted to record it… my instinct in other instances has been to document what takes place.”
On May 25, 1954, the great photojournalist Robert Capa succumbed to similar injuries when he stepped on a landmine while covering conflict in Indochina. Silva’s survival is testimony to the remarkable advances made in trauma medicine in the half-century since Capa’s death. It reflects his own fierce determination to reclaim not only his independence, but his career as a photojournalist as well.
Silva, like many thoughtful front-line journalists who have spent a lot of time in war zones, knows that his work often entails intruding into the loss and grief of others. Such is the inescapable nature of the job. A retrospective exhibition of his photographs at the Visa Pour l’Image photojournalism festival in Perpignan in 2013 laid it out for all to see: 20 years of photographing conflict in South Africa, Iraq and Afghanistan. The cumulative effect of so much violence and suffering on the viewer is overwhelming, as it is on the photographer too, something that Silva readily acknowledges.
The cost of bearing witness takes many forms. The three frames shot in Afghanistan do not carry the same emotional weight for Silva as a much earlier photograph, taken 21 years ago, which marks his most traumatic personal memory. April 18, 1994: South Africa was lurching towards democracy. The violence in racially segregated ghettos was unchecked. On that fatal day, while photographing in Thokosa, a black township outside Johannesburg, Silva’s colleague and friend, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed. “My instinct when I heard Ken was down was to run and help,” he recollects, “but when I got there he was being helped… so I took pictures. And it was all just instinctive. I was going with the flow, in the vortex. The final thing I did for [Ken] was photograph him on the floor, dead.” When the pictures of a dead Oosterbroek were published, his widow vented her fury on Silva. “Why it hit Monica so hard,” divulged Silva, “was that it was me [who had taken the photos]. Ken and I were pretty close.”
Guilt stalked Silva following Oosterbroek’s death, even after the widow quickly forgave him. “You hurt people sometimes without wanting to,” he says. “Ken’s death had a huge impact on me. At one point I was ready to give up photography. I was ready to walk away from war.”
The degree to which Silva’s actions continued to trouble him became clearer when he brought the conversation back to the photographs he had taken in the immediate aftermath of his injuries in Afghanistan. His instinct to capture that life-altering moment made him his own subject. “I redeemed myself in that way,” he says. “I redeemed myself in other people’s eyes.”
I first interviewed Silva in 2000, six years after his friend’s death. While it was apparent that there was lingering sadness over the loss of Oosterbroek and two other photographer colleagues, Kevin Carter and Gary Bernard, both of whom had killed themselves, it was also a happy time, with the pending publication of his book, The Bang-Bang Club, which he co-authored with Greg Marinovich. When we next met in 2005, the war in Iraq had been raging for two years and Silva had gained access to the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr. His photo book, In the Company of God, was due for release and would provide a compelling visual narrative of an ongoing war that undermined President Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech two years earlier. Our third meeting was in Bethesda on a broiling summer’s day in 2012. By now the name Walter Reed had taken on a whole new connotation for Silva, given his lengthy rehabilitation in an army medical centre with the same name as Task Force 166’s captain. His apartment in a large, nondescript housing complex revealed signs of his complicated recovery. An assortment of artificial legs lay scattered on chairs and sofas. His fridge stored a variety of medications. It was clearly a very difficult time for him. A portable suction pump attached to his abdomen sucked away. Weekly surgeries were required and he doubted how long his body could hold out. Our last meeting was earlier this year in Johannesburg. The surgeries had come to an end, the walking stick was gone, but intractable pain endured.
Silva is only too aware that it was inches that separated his footprint from those of the soldiers who preceded him. Such are the vagaries of war, where survival and loss are so finely calibrated. But he still has faith in the importance of his job. “Sure, I regret standing on the mine,” he confides, “who wouldn’t? But do I regret being there? No, because I was doing what I would normally do any other day. That’s where I had to be… to document what I see.”
This unwavering conviction has been one of a number of protective factors for him, emotionally. When offered psychological care in Walter Reed, Silva turned it down. “I didn’t think I needed it,” he says, “but I ended up talking to tons of psychology students… I guess they find me fascinating because of the way I deal with it.”
Listening to Silva describe how he coped, it quickly dawned on me that what he had put in place was a most effective homegrown variant of cognitive-behavior therapy, in which negative ruminations are supplanted by a more forward-looking, problem-oriented way of thinking. “To start off, I was quite pragmatic about the whole thing… I was like, my turn has come up… so many other times it could have been me and it wasn’t – it was either a close friend or a complete stranger. From the word ‘go’ I was like, ‘okay, I get it. I understand why… now it’s just a matter of focusing and getting strong.’”
Determining in advance how to tackle his recovery was a pivotal first step for Silva. There would be no looking back. “You start with the initial survival,” he explained. “There’s a euphoria [in] coming through this alive… then you move on to the next big struggle – all the surgeries. You don’t even think about the [next challenges]. You just think ‘okay, next week I have one more…’ Once you come out of that stage, your focus shifts to learning how to walk and that’s very positive stuff, because it takes your mind away from what you have lost, to what you are gaining.”
Certain variables, however, are beyond the control of an iron will: setbacks, surgeries that do not have the desired result, infections that were not anticipated. These cannot be ignored. “There were many nights when I was in a deep pit, you know,” he confides. “It’s always worse when you are alone in the dark, those quiet hours when insomnia has got hold of you.” But these moments were transient. “You’ve got to fight through the process and remind yourself that tomorrow is a new day… there was so much going on, there was no time for self pity, it was all just focus on the day to day, on being strong.”
The hazards confronted by front-line journalists are great. Joao Silva’s life attests to that. I know from my conversations with him that he is irritated by the praise and recognition that have come his way since being injured. Silva is back at work as a photographer. To him, the attention should be on his photographs. From an intellectual perspective, that is understandable. But from the standpoint of witnessing the human spirit, it is moving to observe an individual tap into a deep wellspring of resilience to pull himself out of a very dark place. No doubt the journey continues.
A recent e-mail found him in Paris, awaiting a visa for Togo.
Joao Silva portfolio
Joao Silva is a conflict photographer based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He became a regular freelancer for the New York Times in 1996. In 2000, Mr. Silva co-authored The Bang-Bang Club, a factual account of press photographers who covered the end of the apartheid era in South Africa and in 2005, published In The Company of God, a photographic book on the Iraqi Shi'a during the occupation of Iraq. Mr. Silva has worked in Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.