Johann van Tonder

Enough of the tear-jerkers

2005-02-10 12:51
<b>Taryn, the little girl who Johann photographed. (Johann van Tonder, Die Burger)</b>

Taryn, the little girl who Johann photographed. (Johann van Tonder, Die Burger)

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My career as a photojournalist has taken me to enough places, people and situations to realise how thrilling life is. Sometimes.

It's exciting to move along the front lines of history in the making. Oh, the hours are long and irregular, you're often thrown into stressful and life-threatening situations, and work generally takes preference over any other aspect of a normal life.

One New Year's Eve, my shift took me to the Waterfront, where I had been invited to document the party of Sir Richard Branson and the likes of Kate Moss.

Former president Nelson Mandela would also occasionally make statements at his house on a late Sunday afternoon and a handful of us would spend memorable moments with him, relaxing in his lounge.

The filters of sanity allow those good memories to remain strong, but scratching deeper soon makes you relive the real world.

I'd have a hard time convincing anyone that I'm not a pessimist, but after intensely observing thousands of people and being tuned into their emotions, I've had to conclude that life is in fact unfair and most of our world is actually quite a kak place.

We make the best of it, we just make it work.

Ordinary folk

I'm not even referring to wars, but ordinary folk in everyday situations.

One of the most haunting images imprinted in my memory is the toddler who needed a new liver to survive.

When I photographed her, tears were streaming down her face, but it was as though she had run out of sound and facial expression. She had moved off the scale of emotions.

Looking at her from behind a lens, I wondered if she could understand what was happening to her. If she knew that her parents had not abandoned her, but could not visit because of financial constraints.

Did she know that her twin brother, at home only a hundred-and-something kilometres away, prayed every night to see her again?

Or did she just write it all off in her two-year old mind and give up? It cracked me looking into her eyes.

That was eight years ago. Recently, I've only come close to that feeling in movies. What the hell is Hollywood trying to achieve?

On Sunday, I was part of a cinema-crowd who left Ladder 49 in a very sombre mood. It certainly killed my spirit for the day. At least, it proved to me that we haven't yet become as desensitised as we claim, but the ending pissed me off.

I've heard people raving about a movie afterwards, about how it made them doubt their relationship. Friends tell me how they wept during another movie, how I must go see it.

No, thank you. When I fork out 50 bucks for the movies, it's to have popcorn and escape all of that for 90 odd minutes.

  • Johann van Tonder is an award-winning news and conflict photographer, and was previously photo editor at Die Burger. He lectures in photojournalism part-time at the University of Stellenbosch and Rhodes University. He is currently finishing a book on how to break into the exclusive industry of photojournalism.

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