I was wading through some news articles a few days ago when I came across one about simmering political tensions in the Rift Valley in Kenya (Rifts in the Rift – 23rd January 2016 – The Economist). It talked about the tribal divisions that are still rife in politics in the country and showed how such tensions might boil over in elections around mid-2017, especially in multi-tribal towns like Naivasha.
I immediately felt some discomfort when reading the article especially when suddenly realising that by some dark twist of fate I was reading it the very day 8 years ago I had been in Naivasha itself covering the violence. On a whim, I decided to revisit that time briefly to see upon reflection what the images – and in particular the one image above of a recently deceased Grace Mungai and her traumatised baby Brian – that caught the media’s attention ever so briefly – means to me today. It has taken a few days to be even able to sit down and do this… I hardly revisit or talk about anything from that time – In fact, I don’t really even ever look through my old photojournalistic website at all – let alone write a blog about it. I find it really hard. I still get edgy and very nervous thinking about anything from time spent in conflict situations in general.
I took a photo that day – very much the right place and time type – of a horrific scenario that spread round the media campfire through Reuters and initially via the New York Times and came to be very much a brief talking point. Of course, I had no idea at the time. The photo itself is not well composed, very graphic, intrusive and just pure overwhelming content.
It was pure luck I had made my way to Naivasha anyway. I was actually en route to Nakuru further along the Rift Valley where violence was also apparently in full swing when news of clashes in Naivasha broke on the BBC World Service. I made the decision to divert into the very scenic town more out of curiosity, still planning to move on down the road later on. Surely this beautiful flower producing tourist centre couldn’t have been so affected? I was so wrong. I’ll let myself take up the story as I wrote it 8 years ago:
‘As soon as I arrived in Naivasha town it was clear that events were unraveling fast, with fires burning in several locations and the increasingly familiar smell of tear gas sweeping the entire town. The crack of live rounds from the GSU (General Service Unit – the Kenyan riot police) could be heard in the distance. I found a GSU patrol, left the car and followed them into an area of shanty dwelling where rioters were still battling with police.
Suddenly the sound of screaming women and children filled the air. Drawn to the noise, I found a group of people wailing outside a small corrugated iron dwelling. Everyone was in a frantic state and a lady had began removing all her clothes seemingly so overcome that she was unaware of what she was doing. When I looked inside the house, the sight that greeted me was so gripping that I was overcome by an overwhelming sense of dread. Before me lay a dead mother, shot through the neck, with her crying baby sitting on a chair behind. The dwelling seemed to have been ransacked. I took a few pictures, but then realised the frenzy of the crowd had begun turning its attentions to me. They were asking that perennial question that is asked of many journalists in similar situations. ‘Why don’t you help us?‘
A few days later, after the photo was printed page 3 of the NY Times, people had started writing in and asking a similar question as those that had surrounded the terrible scene that day – What had I done for the baby? Radu Sigheti – Reuters Africa Chief Photographer between ’03-’09 phoned me a few days later to get my side as a swell of readers had began asking that very question – maybe fearing a Kevin Carter style backlash in the heat of the media frenzy over his infamous vulture and baby shot. Upon reflection it is unreasonable to ask such things. I came to understand the role of photojournalist that day as being a concept that had become very mixed up in the general public’s perception. The drive to always be perceived as a humanist, a compassionate witness responsible for far more than the narrow remit of reporting news but rather fulfilling the altruistic dreams of what many would perceive themselves as having done from their armchairs a million miles away.
I had very much by chance ticked most of their boxes that day. I responded to the horrific scene and the restless crowd by seeking out an ambulance from the local hospital. It had taken time to find one and when I did, the crew were fearful – being from a different tribe on the opposing side of the clashes – that they themselves would be set upon by the crowd. The fact that news had got to me too that the baby’s dad was also on the scene by then and that I had to continue doing my freelance duty put an end to the futile effort.
It was in fact my assistant that day who turned to me and said – ‘what are you doing?!’. I had a job to do and here I was spending a disproportionate amount of time organising ambulances. To be honest I felt ashamed by having been overwhelmed by emotion, by being driven by a misplaced sense of duty and it all felt very unprofessional. It is this paradox – between reality and general perceptions of being a conflict photographer that has always left me bemused and something that has made me critical of this type of photography in the past (all covered extensively to the point of annoying in previous blogs so I won’t say much more about it here!).
What I haven’t said much about that day is that a bit later on I was set upon and nearly killed by a machete-wielding gang of youths. I had been innocuously asked ‘Are you CNN?’ while walking back to the car preparing to travel to Nairobi to file the pics somewhere. CNN were perceived then as having been biased against the majority tribe in Naivasha who were reportedly instigating the violence that day. It was claimed in later years at the ICC that the violence was calculated and organised that day. I remember clearly how a short young man watched on impassively as he directed the youths to attack me when I brushed their question aside. They used the butt of their machetes to try and put me on the ground for what seemed like an age but must of been about a minute. I knew I was in serious trouble as they didn’t even try and steal my cameras. Had I gone to ground I feel I would have been in real trouble. I think they were hesitant to really attack but – like all power games – the weaker one gets in a fight – the more it drives an uncontrollable lust for victory over the vanquished.
My assistant thankfully stepped in and gave me a few seconds breathing space to make a run for it. I remember rugby sized rocks whizzing inches from my head. I ran – carrying 2 DSLR’s as fast as I could down the middle of a wide road, lined on either side by drunken locals who had been whipped into a frenzy and were aiming projectiles at me as I ran. It was a miracle I escaped that day. I was bundled into the back of the car and we drove out as fast as we could back to Nairobi.
Looking at all the pics on my old website I think I am truly proud of only one from conflict zones and that is of a missile fired by SPLA soldiers on the frontline of fighting with rebel soldiers north of Bor in South Sudan. Another coincidence but it is also nearly the anniversary of this pic, taken 2 years ago on 26th Jan.
I like it mainly because there isn’t any direct graphic content and only alludes to it. I feel it is much more powerful because of it. Taking it was difficult too – the scream and overpowering noise of the missiles is just unbelievable to the uninitiated. I have never heard anything like it – completely possessing your body and shaking you to your foundations. Concentrating on pic-taking with the noise and a fast moving body is hard to say the least, let alone trying to compose a decent picture. I had to take video for Reuters as well that day and you can clearly hear me say very unprofessionally ‘Fucking Hell!’ after the first rocket was fired (much to the annoyance of the video editor later on.. Thankfully there was a lot more footage to select from)… I remember later on being a bit too eager and getting too close to one particular cartouche rocket being fired out the back of a jeep trying to get that perfect shot and the sound and energy literally knocked me on my back in slow-motion like in some cartoon (to the wild amusement of the SPLA soldiers and their usually very dark and brooding General).
Such moments of levity are few and far between. I am writing this as fast as possible hoping to end the blog as soon as I can. For all that I really remember is the unbelievable level of violence, darkness and evil that surrounds you in conflict. And it stays with you – however brief you might have been there as an observer or ‘witness’ – it clings to the sub-conscience like a parasite. A few months after I came back from South Sudan I travelled into the Karoo desert north of Cape Town with a friend. I remember him joking about all the shapes he could see in the hills in the landscape around us… I recollect being very quiet not responding and not saying much – all I could see were the outlines of faceless dead people – rotten carcasses, and specifically those of women and children.
work on my journalistic website is at www.geojournalism.com