I Deleted My Photos To Stay Alive!
Deleting images under duress is a constant problem for street photographers
An off-duty police officer forced me to delete photos from my memory card. I hated her for it . But now I’m eternally grateful to her.
She saved my life from an angry mob.
I was almost killed by a rampaging, blood-thirsty mob who demanded that I delete all my pictures. This happened in Mhluzi Township where I live.
I’m what most people would call an amateur photographer. As a shutterbug, I take pictures for fun. Photography for me is a hobby and not a profession.
Although I won’t mind being paid for my photography, I derive much pleasure in shooting for myself.
Before being forced into the real world of street photography by township mobsters on that cold Saturday morning in 2013, I was shooting anything and everything just for pleasure.
I Shot Anything And Everything
I shot Landscapes, Flowers, Insects, Parties and Sporting events. I also shot a lot of what I came to recognise as street photography. I shot documentary and newsworthy images for the Middelburg Observer (local newspaper).
The picture that almost got me into trouble was newsworthy and I wanted to sell it to the Observer.
Nothing saddens me more than being unable to show you the photo that I’m talking about. I deleted it, albeit very reluctantly.
What is even more painful is that a police officer forced me to delete that picture. Instead of defending me and using her authority to disperse the crowd, she persuaded me to erase all the images that I had captured.
Street Photography In Lekoko Street, Mhluzi
Lekoko street is one of the main roads leading into the Township of Mhluzi near Middelburg, Mpumalanga. It’s a busy road. Users of this road include the notorious taxi drivers, perambulating pedestrians and stray animals such as cattle, horses and dogs.
Buses ferrying workers to and from work also use this road. The road is also frequented by bike riders who are fond of showing off their riding skills and of course their Harley’s and Honda’s.
As if that was not enough, you’ll also find young motorists racing and sometimes spinning their vehicles to impress onlookers.
When the people of Mhluzi are angry with the authorities, or when the workers cannot agree with their bosses on wages increments, Lekoko street becomes a battle zone. They block the road with all kinds of debris, rubble and with dumpsters. Lekoko street has always been and continues to be my hunting ground for photos.
IF IT BLEEDS IT SELLS
Freelance photographers will remember the saying: If it bleeds, it sells. This means that newspaper editors are more likely to buy your images if they are gory or if they depict violence. With this in mind, I was always on the lookout for newsworthy images.
Road accidents are the mainstay of local newspapers. If you read a local newspaper, you are very likely to learn about accidents that happened in your area in the past week. The Middelburg Observer is no exception when it comes to reporting local news about road accidents and crime in my neighbourhood.
As a freelance photographer I was eager to capture anything that would be regarded as newsworthy by the editor of our local paper.
NO PICTURE IS WORTH DYING FOR
I had read about intrepid photojournalists and war correspondents in the past who had covered conflicts and the so-called ‘unrest‘ in South African Townships. Among them was Ken Oosterbroek, who was killed in Thokoza in 1994. I also remember the words of Aggrey Klaaste, the editor of the Sowetan newspaper from 1988 to 2002:
“No picture is worth dying for.”
As I said earlier, I love photography. And I’ll do almost anything to ‘get that shot.’
But I have never, in my wildest dreams, thought that I would one day be required to choose between a photo and my life. As an ordinary person, I also have this feeling that: ‘It won’t happen to me.’
But it did.
I was so unprepared for this incident that my immediate reaction was utter shock and disbelief. How could anyone threaten to hurt me for taking a picture?
My intention when I grabbed my camera and ran out of the house to capture the incident that was happening on the street was as pure as gold. I had no malicious intentions. I just wanted to do what came naturally to me. To take a picture.
But the timing was not right. This day was different from others.
BLOOD IS THICKER THAN WATER
Human nature causes us to defend our own.
Rightly or wrongly, we always believe that our brother, sister, aunt or uncle was treated badly. And we always believe that the other party was wrong.
When there is a death in the family, most of us get confused. We don’t know how to react to the sad news. We get angry, we point fingers at other people. Somehow we believe that this shouldn’t have happened to our relative.
It should have happened to other people. Because other people don’t matter. Only we matter. Sad but true. This is especially true in Black African communities.
It was this raw expression of bereavement that led to the incident that almost led to my death.
HOW AND WHY I WAS NEARLY KILLED FOR A PHOTO
It was a Saturday morning. And as usual, there was a funeral service in Mhluzi Township. This time it took place not far from where I live. I knew the person who had died. I knew his immediate family. We were not friends or closely related.
But I knew them, having attended the same Church with his parents and siblings in the past.
Usually after a funeral people engage in what is known in our communities as an After Tears party. This is when people drink alcoholic beverages to drown their sorrows. Some say they do this to celebrate the life of the dead person.
It was during this after tears celebration when a reckless driver almost knocked down an elderly man who was trying tho cross the busy Lekoko street. He is related to the person who had just been buried.
Most of the people who had gathered for the after tears were relatives of both the deceased and the elderly gentleman.
People were still trying to come to terms with the death and burial of their relative. And some members of this family were already
drunk from the after tears party.
They reacted angrily.
They wanted to surround the said driver and beat the daylight out of him.
That’s when I decide to grab my camera and record what was happening right in front of me.
I felt sorry for the driver. But I was also sympathetic to the old man. And I wanted to gather enough evidence that would be useful to the police and to the investigators later. Of course I also wanted to sell the photos to the local newspaper.
So I grabbed my camera and began snapping away from a distance.
My Nikon D3200 had an 80-200mm zoom lens. As I zoomed in and out trying to get a perfect shot, a young woman saw me. She was not amused.
She started yelling at me.
She said I can’t take a picture of her grandfather. She also accused me of being opportunistic because I wanted to make money at her grandfather’s cost.
I ignored her and kept on shooting. Big mistake!
The young woman incited the other members of her family and they left the errant driver alone. They then turned their attention to me.
There were young able-bodied men and women. Among them were some grown up men and the usual drunkards and a few respected people. They all acted in unison.
They had one goal on their minds: To smash my camera to
I had incriminating evidence that would expose their despicable behaviour. Hence they had to get rid of me. But first, the camera. It must be confiscated and destroyed.
I tried to protest but that didn’t help. So I ran for my life. They followed me.
A friend of mine managed to delay them for a few seconds and somehow I got away and hid my camera. I then came back to help my friend and face the mob.
They were fierce this time around. As they tried to hit me with all kinds of objects including rocks and sticks, I tried to fight back but they overpowered me.
Fortunately for me, there was an off duty police officer nearby. She was also related to most of my assailants. She called for calm and they respected her. They listened to her and she told them that I will delete the offensive images.
She promised them that she would make sure that the pictures that I had taken would be deleted. And that they must please go away and leave me alone.
The officer then persuaded me to delete the pictures to appease the mob and thus save my life.
I reluctantly obliged and deleted the pictures.
LESSONS TO BE LEARNED
What lessons can be learned from this unfortunate story?
I learned the following lessons:
That, whether we like it or not, one CAN actually be killed for taking pictures.
Your camera might be damaged or confiscated.
Your intentions will always be misinterpreted or misconstrued by others.
Using a huge DSLR and a long lens will attract attention to yourself.
Deleting images when asked to do so might just save your life.