João Silva (photographer)

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João Silva
Silva meeting President Barack Obama at the White House in 2011
Silva at the White House in 2011
Born (1966-08-09) August 9, 1966 (age 55)
Lisbon, Portugal
Years active1989–
Spouse(s)Vivian Silva

João Silva (born 9 August 1966) is a Portuguese-born South African war photographer.

He is the last working member of the Bang-Bang Club, a group of photographers who covered South Africa from the time of Nelson Mandela's release to the first elections in 1994. Silva has worked in Africa, the Balkans, Central Asia, Russia, and the Middle East.[1] On 23 October 2010, Silva stepped on a land mine while on patrol with US soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan and lost his left leg below the knee, and his right leg from just above it.[2]

After recovery and receiving two prostheses Silva's first assignment out of Walter Reed Army Medical Center for The New York Times was at the White House.[3] As of 2017, Silva is working as staff photographer for The New York Times in Africa.[4]

Early life[edit]

Silva was born in Lisbon, Portugal. He came to South Africa when he was nine years old. His parents immigrated from Portuguese Mozambique to South Africa, because of the war in the colony. Silva was sent to stay with his godfather to Portugal for a year. After his parents re-settled in Vereeniging, south of Johannesburg, Silva came on an immigrant visa to South Africa. Studying at a local high school, he decided to drop out,[5] saying the school had nothing more to teach him, as he told his parents.[6]

A friend of mine was studying graphic design and one of his subjects was photography. One of the projects that he had to do was on speed, motion. He came to the racetrack with us to photograph the race cars going around in circles, and I kind of thought: "O.K., I can see myself in this role. This thing is right for me." That was the first time I ever took pictures. The bug bit.[7]

Silva gave up his other jobs, bought a second-hand camera and studied black-and-white photography at a vocational night school. At the end of 1989, he moved to Johannesburg and established himself as photographer.[6]

Career start[edit]

Silva began working as freelancer (stringer) for the Johannesburg Herald in 1990. Beside his jobs for the Alberton Record in 1991, taking pictures from car–crashes and Rotary meetings, he went in the conflict zones of Thokoza and Soweto. There he shot his first pictures of the killings in the Hostels Wars.[8] Some weeks later he went with a portfolio of his best pictures to the Reuters office in Johannesburg and persuading them to let him "submit pictures on spec".[9][10] Silva realized soon that he could not make two jobs at the same time. He left the paper and worked from then on full-time as a freelancer for Reuters. His next step was to go with a new portfolio to The Star. The first editor was not interested, but Ken Oosterbroek did see the pictures too and that was the start for Silva to "string" for the Sunday Star. He was now selling pictures to Reuters and The Star. Oosterbroek worked for The Star, and was appointed as chief photographer in August 1991. He soon hired Silva as staff photographer for The Star. Nine months after coming to Johannesburg, Silva was established as a conflict photographer.[9]

Silva and the Bang-Bang Club[edit]

In 1991, Oosterbroek and Silva worked at The Star. Kevin Carter did know Oosterbroek from 1984 on. Greg Marinovich met Silva in March 1991 but did know Carter and Oosterbroek before 1984 on.[11]

We were all white. Middle-class young men, but we went to those unfamiliar black townships for widely differing reasons and with contrasting approaches; over the year, we would find common ground in our shared experience and develop friendship.

— First words of chapter 5 in The Bang-Bang Club by Marinovich and Silva.[12]

Silva and Carter in Sudan[edit]

Invitation by UN Operation Lifeline Sudan[edit]

In March 1993, Robert Hadley, a former photographer and at this time the information officer for the UN Operation Lifeline Sudan, offered Joao Silva and Kevin Carter to come to Sudan and report on the 1993 famine in South Sudan. Silva saw this as a chance to work more as a war-photographer in the future. He started the arrangements and secured assignments for the expenses of the travel. Silva told Carter about the offer and Carter was also interested in going. To pay for the travel expenses, Carter secured some money from the Associated Press and others, but he also needed to borrow money from Marinovich, for commitments back at home too.[13] Unknown to Carter and Silva was that all the time the UN Operation Lifeline Sudan did have "great difficulties in securing funding for Sudan", explains Marinovich.[14] Marinovich wrote further: "The UN hoped to publicize about the famine … Without publicity to show the need, it was difficult for aid organizations to sustain funding". About the political differences and the rebel fighting, "João and Kevin knew none of this – they just wanted to get in and shoot pictures".[15]

Waiting in Nairobi[edit]

Silva and Carter had prepared carefully for the trip. They flew to Nairobi to get from there to Sudan. The new fighting in Sudan forced them to wait in Nairobi for an unspecified period of time. In between, Carter managed to fly with the UN for one day to Juba in the south Sudan to take photos of a barge, used as a route for food aid for the region. But soon the situation changed again. The UN received permission from a rebel group to fly food aid to Ayod. Also Rob Hadley flying on a UN light plane invited Silva and Carter to accompany him to Ayod.[16]

In Ayod[edit]

The following day, they arrived on a light plane to the tiny hamlet of Ayod. The cargo plane landed shortly thereafter. The villagers were already waiting next to the runway to get food, wrote Marinovich, and "the mother had joined waiting for food leaving her children on the sandy ground nearby."[17] Silva and Carter separated to shoot pictures of children and the people, the living and dead victims of the hunger catastrophe that had arisen through the war. Carter went several times to Silva to tell him about the shocking situation he had just photographed. Witnessing the famine touched his emotions very strongly. Silva was searching for rebel soldiers who could take him to someone in authority. He found some soldiers and Carter joined him. The soldiers did not speak English, but one was interested in Carter's wrist watch. Carter gave him his cheap wrist watch as a gift.[18] The soldiers were their bodyguards and followed them for their protection.[19][20]

To stay a week with the rebels they needed the permission of a rebel commander. Their plan would take off in an hour and without the permission they had to fly back. Again they separated and Silva went to the clinic complex to ask for the rebel commander. The rebel commander was to find in Kongor, south Sudan he was told. That was good news for Silva, "their small UN plane was heading there next". He left the clinic and went back to the runway, taking on his way pictures of children and people. It was then that "he came across a child lying on his face in the hot sun – and he took a picture".[21]

Prize-winning "vulture and the little girl" photograph in Sudan[edit]

Carter saw Silva on the runway, coming fast toward him and saying:

'Man' he put one hand on Silva's shoulder, the other covered his eyes. You won't believe what I've just shot! … 'I was shooting this kid on her knees, and then changed my angle, and suddenly there was this vulture right behind her! … And I just kept shooting – shot lots of film!

Silva asked him where he shot the picture and was looking around to take the photo too. Carter pointed to a place 50 m (160 ft) away. Then Carter told him that he had been chasing the vulture away. He was completely shocked by the situation he had just photographed. He said to Silva "I see all this, and all I can think of is [his young daughter] Megan". He lit a cigarette and became more and more emotional by the minute. "I can't wait to hug her when I get home." A few minutes later they got into the small UN plane and left Ayod for Kongor.[22]

Conflict and war photographer[edit]

On 23 October 2010, Silva stepped on a land mine while on patrol with US soldiers in Kandahar, Afghanistan and lost his left leg below the knee, and his right leg from just above it.[23][24]

In 2011 Silva spoke at Bronx Documentary Center in New York about his life as photojournalist. His speech was published in The New York Times and the[7] He told the audience: "I don't really use the term 'war photographer' in describing myself... But as a photojournalist, you have a lot more responsibilities than just being at war." He continued: "I'm a historian with a camera, and hopefully my pictures use the medium to capture history, or to tell a story, or to highlight somebody else's suffering. That's ultimately why I continue doing it, and why I want to continue doing it."

Silva spoke in the section "The Human Being Behind the Camera" of that some people think behind the camera is a machine, a photographer without any feelings. He said that he was often asked how it was possible that he could photograph such cruel pictures. His answer was: "If you want to help people, then you should not become a photographer". But he said also, "We help people all the time." To take wounded people in his car to the hospital or to help just with small things was just normal too. But not every time, how Marinovich explained in his Book.[25]

As an example, some pictures are so strong that people are horrified. He mentions the famous picture by Kevin Carter from Sudan. Some people criticized the photographer for taking the picture. Silva says to the criticism:

He was highly criticized for that picture. People who had no place in criticizing him — people who had no understanding of the dynamics that it took to make that picture. ... Ultimately that image was such a strong message of famine. Suddenly there was this influx of money that came out of nowhere. He saved more lives by taking that picture than he would have by not taking the picture.[7]

Back to work[edit]

Silva was treated at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center,[26] after The New York Times insisted that he get the best medical attention. After more than eighty operations and rehabilitation training, he was working again as photographer. In between, he took part in a marathon, a year after he stepped on the landmine. He took part in the New York City Marathon on a hand-cranked bike finishing it in 2 hours 38 minutes.[27] In December 2011, he returned home in Johannesburg, South Africa, as a staff member of The New York Times.

After returning to South Africa, Silva bought a Harley-Davidson XL883L Super Low, motorcycles being part of his passion. Silva had it modified to be able to ride the motorcycle with his prostheses. To test it he went to a racetrack accomplishing fifty laps.[27]


Work from Silva's first 20 years as a conflict photographer was first displayed at the 25th annual Visa pour l'Image international photojournalism festival in Perpignan, France.[28] Later his images were included in an exhibition in New York, Munich, Milan and Johannesburg.[29][30]

Group exhibitions
  • 2010 Visa Pour l'Image, international photojournalism festival, Perpignan, France,
  • 2013 Visa Pour l'Image 2013, Perpignan, France
  • 2014 Rise and Fall of Apartheid: Photography and the Bureaucracy of Everyday Life, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa. The exhibition opened in September 2012 in New York and travelled via Munich, Milan to Johannesburg.
Solo exhibition
  • 2014–2015 João Silva: A Man Torn Apart by War, Museum Africa, Johannesburg, South Africa.


  • 1992: South African Press Photographer of the Year Award
  • 1992: 2nd prize and an honourable mention in the World Press Photo awards
  • 1995: Selected for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass
  • 2006: World Press Photo: Award-winning photographer, Contemporary Issues, second prize singles
  • 2007: World Press Photo: Award-winning photographer, Spot News, Honorable Mention prize stories
  • 2011: Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et Lettres on 4 April 2011, France
  • 2012: Order of Liberty (Ordem da Liberdade) by the Portuguese Government[31]
  • 2012: Honorary doctorate in Fine Arts, Corcoran School of Arts and Design in Washington DC, USA[32]

Personal life[edit]

Silva lives in Johannesburg, South Africa with his wife Vivian and their two children.

Published works[edit]


  1. ^ Filkins, Dexter (23 October 2010). "NYT photog Joao Silva wounded in Afghanistan". War Journos. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  2. ^ Philip, Rowan (24 October 2010). "War photographer maimed in blast". Times LIVE. Archived from the original on 15 February 2011. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  3. ^ Chivers, C.J. (15 September 2011). "A Test, and Gratitude, at the White House". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  4. ^ Richards, Hillary (27 August 2017). "The Wonder Women of Botswana Safari". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  5. ^ Kamber, Michael (23 December 2010). "Bearing Witness". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  6. ^ a b Marinovich & Silva 2000, pp. 43–44.
  7. ^ a b c "Joao Silva: 'This Is What I Do. This Is All That I Know.'". The New York Times. 30 August 2011. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  8. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 44.
  9. ^ a b Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 45.
  10. ^ Ignacio, Alex (26 June 2013). "What Is Spec Work And Why Is It Bad for Photographers?". PetaPixel. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  11. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, pp. 42–47.
  12. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 47.
  13. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 110.
  14. ^ Karim, Ataul; Duffield, Mark; Jaspers, Susanne; Hendrie, Barbara (June 1996). "Operation Lifeline Sudan – A review". Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  15. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 113.
  16. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 114.
  17. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 115.
  18. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 116.
  19. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, pp. 152–153, Marinovich explains the soldiers as bodyguards.
  20. ^ "Carter and soldiers".
  21. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 117.
  22. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, p. 118.
  23. ^ Philip, Rowan (24 October 2010). "War photographer maimed in blast". Times LIVE. Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  24. ^ Marinovich, Leonie; Marinovich, Greg. "Support Joao Silva Photojournalist". Retrieved 31 March 2011.
  25. ^ Marinovich & Silva 2000, pp. 152–153.
  26. ^ "Two War Photographers On Their Injuries, Ethics". NRP. 20 April 2011. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  27. ^ a b Power, Matthew. "João Silva: An Unbroken Man". Men's Journal. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  28. ^ Estrin, James (2 September 2013). "Joao Silva: Looking Back, Moving Forward". The New York Times. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  29. ^ Davie, Lucille (12 February 2014). "Exhibition exposes apartheid, celebrates South African photography". Brand South Africa. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  30. ^ "Joao Silva: a man torn apart by war". The Star, Johannesburg. Independent Media. 27 October 2014. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  31. ^ "Photojournalist: João Silva honored by the Portuguese Government – South Africa". Portuguese American Journal. 15 March 2012. Retrieved 30 September 2017.
  32. ^ "Joao Silva". World Press Photo. Retrieved 30 September 2017.


Further reading[edit]

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