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Ian Berry Takes Jaw-Dropping Photos of Massacres and Floods

In 1962, Ian Berry was invited to join Magnum by Henri Cartier-Bresson—which, in photographic terms, is as close to canonization as you can get. His invitation followed his work in South Africa, where he was the only photographer to witness the...

SOUTH AFRICA. Transvaal, Sharpeville. Monday, March 21, 1960. Villagers flee the center of the village where the police have opened fire on them, trying to protect themselves from the bullets by putting their coats over their heads.

Magnum is probably the most famous photo agency in the world. Even if you haven't heard of it, chances are you're familiar with its images, be they Robert Capa's coverage of the Spanish Civil War or Martin Parr's very British holiday-scapes. Unlike most agencies, Magnum's members are selected by the other photographers on the agency, so becoming a member is a pretty grueling process. As part of an ongoing partnership with Magnum, we will be profiling some of their photographers over the coming weeks.


In 1962, Ian Berry was invited to join Magnum by Henri Cartier-Bresson—which, in photographic terms, is about as close to canonization as you can get. His invitation followed his work in South Africa, where he was the only photographer to witness the massacre at Sharpeville, one of the more brutal events in late-apartheid history. His photos were retrospectively used in court to prove that the protest had been peaceful. He has covered conflicts in Czechoslovakia, Israel, Ireland, and Vietnam.

VICE: I understand you’ve been with Magnum for longer than 50 years now. Is that correct?
Ian Berry: Yes. I’m horrified to admit it, but yes. That says something about my inability to let go, I think. I think of quitting every year and never get around to doing it. You got your start in South Africa. How did you end up there?
Well, as a young Brit, I wanted to travel. And in those days you could get assisted passages to what was formerly, and in those times still, the Commonwealth. So, you could go to Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and South Africa. South Africa sounded the most exciting. You know, I thought I’d be seeing lions on the streets of Johannesburg and so on.

As it happened, my family knew a photographer there who had just come back from the States assisting Ansel Adams. And he was prepared to stand as a guarantor for me for a year. I didn’t actually need a visa but you had to have someone guarantee you. So I legged it out to South Africa, and that was it really. No regrets, either—it was a very exciting time to be there. You had no real formal training in photography beyond that, did you?
College for photography really didn’t exist at that time. The best thing you could do was become somebody's apprentice, and that's what I did. I mean, he was shooting on a four by five, and everything was lit, and so on. So it was great training, even though I realized that it wasn’t what I wanted to do.


SOUTH AFRICA. Supporters climb to every vantage point whilst awaiting the arrival of Nelson MANDELA in a Natal township. 1994.

The massacre of Sharpeville seemed to be a major turning point for you. Can you quickly tell us your story of it?
After I left this guy, I went to the work for the Sunday Times Group in Johannesburg. I had been there for a little while, and I’d heard that a famous British editor of a very famous London-based magazine called Picture Post was coming out to edit an African magazine called Drum. I felt there was something to be learned from this guy, so I applied and got a job with them.

And then, there was a national strike in South Africa—and most photographers and journalists went out to the potential hot spots, in case anything happened. I got a call about a guy having been shot in this township, called Sharpeville. When I got there everyone had turned up—a lot of international photographers, too. They were hanging outside the gates when a load of armored cars rolled up and headed in to the township. At that time, as a white, you had to have a permit to be in an African township.

We all leapt into our cars and followed in. A hundred yards in, the convoy stops and the officer in charge comes back and says, “You better get the hell out of here, or you’ll be arrested.” So, most of the cars left. Three cars stayed, including the one I was in, and we followed them for another hot mile until the guy got out again and said, “You better leave now, this is your last warning!” And the other two cars left.


We followed on as they drove into this police station that was in a sort of compound, surrounded by wire netting. I chatted to some of the police; I got up to the fence and they all looked pretty quiet to me. The crowd didn’t seem too aggressive, either. I thought nothing was going to happen so I walked back to the car and as soon as I got there, the police opened fire. Bodies started to fall around all over the place. It was all over very quickly. I just had a couple of Leicas in those days with a wide-angle and a normal lens. And I simply shot people running towards me. When I realized people were being killed around me I sort of got thrown in the grass.

SOUTH AFRICA. Zululand. Zulus on their way to celebrate a wedding. 1985. When the firing stopped, I got up and it was just me and one more person standing. And bear in mind that the South African police hated the press with a passion. I leapt into the car and we took off. And that was really it. The pictures were crap, just pictures of people running towards me, but it was an event that sort of went around the world. And got me in Magnum; the editor of the magazine I worked for, Tom Hopkinson, wrote to Magnum on my behalf. Wow. And those photographs were used as evidence to exonerate certain people, correct?
Yes. What happened was people charged the crowd. And they said that they had only fired once and that the crowd was being aggressive. Which wasn't true. In fact, I had a photograph of them reloading automatic weapons. And of course most people were shot in the back. They kept on firing at people as they ran away. I was the only white witness, and in those days, as a white your word counted more than any African's. So I gave the evidence, and fortunately the people who had been charged with the fray, the wounded, were released and let off. So even though the pictures weren’t great, they served a humanitarian purpose. And because of that, Magnum called, and the rest is history.
Well, almost. First, this guy who was starting a new agency in Paris and who had been the bureau chief of Magnum invited me to join. I was with them for a year. Then Magnum asked me to join them and of course I was flattered. And I joined. What was it like to work with Cartier-Bresson?
It was great, actually—a great education for me. He was very friendly, and he let me look at the contact books. Mark Riboud, who was another famous French photographer who was with Magnum at the time, let me, too. You can learn a lot by looking at other photographers’ contact sheets, about how they approach things and how they think. It was a pretty valuable experience.


SOUTH KOREA. Boryeong. Daecheon Beach. 11th annual Mud Festival. What kind of stuff are you working on now?
I’ve been working on a thing about water around the world. It’s been going on for too long because I’m sort of in need of a particular situation. I think when New Orleans happened I had just fallen off my motorcycle and broke my leg so I missed out on that. When the tsunami happened, I had done something similar and missed out on that. So, I have all the basics to finish it off but I need some natural disaster. I sailed all up and down the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Nile, the Mississippi—all of it. You know, the trouble with a project like that is you find yourself shooting the same stuff. And you need something to punch it up, to carry it. But it keeps me out of mischief. It seems like if the same problems are happening everywhere, this work might be a way to show that this is a problem that requires more attention. Have your opinions or politics been shaped at all by the work you've done?
No. I know the popular thing these days is to go to an event, situation, whatever with preconceived ideas whereas I still have this old-fashioned approach of going somewhere with an open mind. I think it was on my last trip to South Africa, when I was asked by a French magazine to do something on the farmers living just below Zimbabwe.

Now, I have no love for the Afrikaner; when I was working in South Africa I was always in more danger from the police than the Africans. And of course, the Afrikaners hate the British with a passion. But I went along to shoot this story and indeed what’s happening is a lot of the farmers are either being dispossessed or killed. And no matter how you feel about them you also feel sorry for them to a degree. I went to one farm that belonged to an old woman. Her grandfather had been buried there and she'd just been dispossessed with no sort of recourse. So, I still think you have to be fairly dispassionate wherever you go and whatever you do.


 ETHIOPIA. Villagers walk two miles to the only source of water to fill gourds, wash clothes or bathe. 1987 That’s interesting. Has working in so many places around the world taught you anything about world culture? Are human beings completely different from each other or are there similar threads that tie us all together?
We are very different, there’s no question about it. Just think of Korea today: I worked on a book on South Korea about three years ago. The people were great, friendly and pleasant. It makes you wonder how different the people north of the border can be. I had a German wife when the Berlin Wall first opened, and she would not go into the eastern zone. She seemed to think that they were some kind of wild animals. Obviously, I went to the East and the people were no different from those in the West, albeit a little poorer.

To me, that's what photography is all about. The camera is such a great tool for exposing cultures as well as opening them up slightly to one another. That sounds a bit pompous but there is not much reason to become a photographer if you aren't going to try to do a little good with it. As I look at your photographs, they strike me as being in line with the idea of the decisive moment. What do you think about digital photography and the snapping of thousands of photos at once? Is that something you embrace or is it something you reject?
No, I shoot digital and I think technically it’s good. When you’re on a two or three week shoot, to be able to go back to where you’re staying and look at what you shot and know what you don’t have—I think that's great. It’s not that good when you’re on a corporate shoot. In the old days you could walk around a place for ten hours and then go back and have a good meal, relax, do anything. Now you go back and have to download a load of junk and send it off the same day. It’s a mixed blessing. But I still think you have a better chance picking that moment with digital.


GERMANY. Berlin. Christophe SORCI playing jazz in East Berlin piano bar. 2000. Any tips for the younger generation?
If I had any tips, I’d tip myself off. It’ll be interesting to see how Newsweek works out, because at the moment nobody is really making any money in still photography. I give these workshops, and I get asked that exact question. I fear that I can’t really answer it. I suppose if I were to be absolutely callous, I would say take up a video camera instead of a still camera. But it’s a different world. I was just asked to shoot a project in Mozambique, and at the last minute they suddenly said they wanted video, as well. Up until now, I’d avoided doing that.

At the end of the day, the people with real dedication and a good eye will make it. Until we do start to make money out of the web, all you can say to those people is to hang in there. But I look at the photography schools in this country, the number of people who are being churned out as photographers and I doubt 1 percent is going to make it in photography. They might make a living working for the police or doing stuff for the museum, weddings, or God knows. Not many will make a living out of photojournalism, I think. I’d like to be wrong. Thank you, Ian. It was a pleasure speaking with you.
And to you, Christian.

Click through to see more photography by Ian Berry.

CHINA. Gansu Province. Xiahe. Novice Tibetan monks on their way to prayer. 1996.


BANGLADESH. Khulna. Jessore. Jhikargachha village. A woman whose arms and sides show the telltale black marks of arsenic poisoning has only this pump for fresh water. It is painted red to indicate the water is contaminated with arsenic. 2000.

England. London. Trafalgar Square. A kiss at midnight on New Year's Eve. 1964

South Africa. Gauteng. Johannesburg. Fordsburg. Affection between two people in a multi-racial cafe. 1961

SOUTH AFRICA. Natal. Durban. Members of a religious group participating in a total immersion baptism ceremony in the Indian Ocean. 1984.

Africa. South Africa. A young black girl, scarcely more than a child herself, looks after a baby girl for a white family. 1968

SOUTH AFRICA. Paarl. Whites enjoy a wine tasting in the Cape whilst coloured workers bring on fresh supplies. 1981.

COSTA RICA. Atlantic Coast. Limon Camp. Nicaraguan refugees while away the time playing guitar, with only mattresses to sit and sleep on.

SOUTH AFRICA. Ventersdorp. Police and AWB protesters clash for the first time. 1991.

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