‘People have no clue what it takes to bring photo images to the world'

2011-07-23 00:00

MONICA Hilton-Barber, who grew up in Pietermaritzburg and who now lives in a 12-hectare forest in Queensland, Australia, teaches English to both adults and children.

She says she has overcome many tragedies in her life.

Her first husband, Ken Oosterbroek, was killed on April 18, 1994, during gun battles between the National Defence Force and ANC supporters in Tokoza township near Johannesburg. Her second husband, Idols photographer Steve Hilton-Barber, died of a heart attack in 2002, and 11 months later their baby, Benjamin, died from complications following an operation at the age of 16 months.

She subsequently went to visit her sister in Australia, decided to stay there and resigned as bureau chief at Fairlady in Johannesburg.

In an e-mail interview Monica speaks to MARGUERITE VAN WYK about her new life in Australia and what she thinks of the Bang Bang Club movie which is due for release in South Africa on April 29.

How are you finding Australia?

It’s deliciously beige. A tad boring. But I don’t think I have the energy or patience anymore to live in South Africa. Life in Australia is very easy. I had Yannik (six) a year after Benjamin died and Soren (five) a year later. I am a mother first and foremost and devote my whole life to my two boys. They are gorgeous and very clever and wild! I’m married to a sculptor — a lovely quiet and calm guy. I feel at home here because there are so many South Africans living here!

Did the director of Bang Bang Club, Steven Silver, ever consult you before making the movie?

No. I have apparently been portrayed as Ken’s cheap and slutty girlfriend in the movie. I also never liked the book (written by Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, two of the other members of that club) on which the movie was based. People are going to think that is what happened, and it is far removed from reality.

I also think it’s unethical for them to talk about Kevin Carter’s (the fourth member of the club) drug problem. He isn’t here to defend himself (Carter committed suicide in 1994). To make money out of someone else’s problems if it serves no purpose, purely because of a craving for sensation, is not right.

Don’t you think the movie does, nevertheless, honour the Bang Bang Club and their attempts to portray the final days of the apartheid government by means of their photo stories?

Don’t be ridiculous. It is rather the case that they are portrayed as sad, superficial and silly. I believe Greg and Joao are probably dumbfounded by how far removed the film is from reality. I understand they are also unhappy about how the movie turned out.

The book does not correspond at all with what I recall from those times. Look, I realise that a lightweight, lousy movie should not receive any attention, but I am still human, so of course it hurts me that Ken’s girlfriend [Monica] is portrayed as sex-crazed! I know that people who know me know what the truth is. But unfortunately the book and the movie will live longer than the people in them. And the public will think it’s a documentary based on facts.

I wish I could find a reason to sue the producers of the film. I feel as if I have been violated by this movie and as if Ken’s memory has been sullied. I’m angry because I can’t just be thankful that I’m alive, that I survived the tragedies and have two gorgeous children. But actually all I want is for the movie to go away.

What should the world know about the Bang Bang Club?

The Bang Bang Club has been romanticised and there is a lot of sensation around it. It’s a slap in the face of millions of people who lived, worked and survived in South African townships in those feared and desperate times. Those were times when many people didn’t return to cushy homes in the evenings, and young, white adrenalin junkies rushing around excitedly lapped up the drama … and people bought newspapers, simply supporting the fact that death and destruction sell.

I myself am so ashamed about my vain and haughty attitude about journalism. Everything was about me. As it was with so much of the media around me. Everyone would sit back at home after a long day’s work and start boasting about their near-death experiences. One journalist would want to tell a better story than the next one. The more death and murder, the happier everyone was. A day without death and chaos was boring and sad. We were all sick and awful. Oh, our vanity, our bleating that it was our duty to tell the news as it was. As if the world could not exist if we did not personally expose other people’s lives. As if we really made a difference.

We probably caused more death because our stories made the news!

We as journalists, and the photographers, were not heroes. We were bloodsuckers and bootlickers.

The Bang Bang Club did not actually care about anything other than their ego and macho image. And money, of course. That is why Greg and Joao sold their sensational and strange book. I have a lot of contact with Joao and his wife, Viv, and of course I also respect him. I am extremely sorry that he was injured when he set off a landmine during patrols with American troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, and lost his lower legs. But is he a hero? Is it right to go and make money in a war in which you have no interest when you have two little children and a wife who love you?

The true hero through it all in South Africa was Robin Comley, the then photo editor at the Star. She kept us all together with her counsel and support. Without her the entire media world would have been even more immoral, awful and chaotic. She deserves so much more credit!

What kind of person was Ken?

Conservative and careful about how he approached life. He thought through things very thoroughly. He always made sure that I didn’t get up to stupid things and that I was safe. I get very embarrassed now when I think of how stupid and show-offish I often was, and dashed around in the townships — insensitive and rude. But I think Ken really thought he was doing something important, noble. It wasn’t always easy for him to worry about me, his work and my foolish moods, our passionate love relationship, the demands I made on him. I was not easy to live with. Mega high maintenance. Ken was very patient and dedicated. He was complex and eccentric … We were working together almost every second of the day. There wasn’t much space for other people in our relationship.

How do you handle the world of news nowadays?

I am a member of the Bahá’í faith. We don’t believe in gossip or scandals and I feel that is what news and news photography is about today. I prefer to stay away from it, unless it can help others. I feel incredibly sad for Kevin’s and Ken’s families — the memory of their loved ones is surrounded by sensation, purely for the enrichment of others.

* This is an edited version of an interview that appeared in Sarie magazine.

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