War and Waves

Deep into the cave with combat photojournalist Nic Bothma.

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It’s hard to focus on anything else when there’s a live grenade jiggling up and down in the pocket of the man sitting next to you. The two-foot long hunting knife that he rearranged to get seated in the jeep is long forgotten. Even the occasional bullet or mortar shell whistling overhead becomes background noise. All that matters is whether the rusty pin will stay in place as you jounce over the potholes, thus keeping your limbs intact. “It was an old World War Two grenade, the type with the bevelled edges,” says Nic Bothma. “I kept expecting the thing to go off any minute as we drove.” Now a veteran war photographer with more than two decades of experience on the African continent, this was Bothma’s first assignment abroad, documenting the climax of Liberia’s bloody civil war in 2003. The man seated next to him was Commander I-Jah-Mon, either a self-styled military leader or a deranged lunatic. It was hard to tell amongst the madness gripping Liberia at the time. The commander was the only one who would escort Bothma to a dilapidated bridge on the outskirts of Monrovia, where Charles Taylor’s troops were locked in battle with rebels looking to overthrow his government. Taylor’s soldiers were infamous for the bands of children they kidnapped, then armed with AK-47s and fed palm wine and “brown-brown” (a mixture of cocaine and gun powder) before unleashing them to fight. Some of Taylor’s troops would also appear wearing outrageous wigs and wedding dresses they’d looted, believing the garments would protect them from bullets. The rebels attacking them often did the same, cross-dressing, or simply wearing civilian clothing. It was virtually impossible to tell who was who. Commander I-Jah-Mon was more sensibly dressed for war in camo pants and a Michael-Jackson-style blue leather jacket. Whenever they arrived at a checkpoint, he would brazenly bark orders at the tweaked-out soldiers who barricaded the way. “We got as close to the bridge as we could with the car,” says Bothma. “But the driver stopped about two kilometers away and told us we’d be on foot from there. I took my cue from the Commander, hugging the sides of the road, aware of a constant whooshing sound coming down the middle of the street, which I soon realized was the sound of passing bullets.” When they reached the final checkpoint, a group of young soldiers with eyes bulging out their skulls cocked their rifles and started screaming at them, at which point Bothma was convinced he was going to die. Instead of retreating, however, the Commander roared back at them: “Me and me main man here are on strategic manoeuvres to inform. Do not interfere with our operations!”

“I liked telling the story of the liberation struggle for many reasons—one of them being that you were actually doing something about the situation.”

I-Jah-Mon’s bluster and lucky grenade got them through the checkpoint, onto the frontline. Bothma later heard that the Commander was killed attempting the same route the following day. “It was all completely mad and the most extreme war I have seen and will ever cover,” he says, looking back at his baptism of fire. “I landed in the capital of Monrovia and spent two months in the Mamba Point hotel, which was under siege by rebels who had spent 14 years making their way to the capital to overthrow Taylor’s regime and were now on the city’s doorstep. Each day I would wake up to the sound of mortars exploding, often right outside.” A surfer first, Bothma couldn’t help but notice the waves scattered amid the mayhem. “Mamba Point is actually a cooking left-hand pointbreak,” he says. “I would watch in awe as six foot sets rolled down the point while mortars exploded in the field next to us.” In fact it was surfing that had led Bothma to the war-torn West African country, albeit on a circuitous route. The son of a sailor, Bothma first cut his teeth as a surf photographer in South Africa during the fall of apartheid. After moving to Cape Town and falling in love with photography, he gravitated to the deep-water reefs that litter the Cape Peninsula, intrigued by the power of the waves and the courage of the surfers who rode them. This led to an enduring partnership with Cass Collier and Ian Armstrong, who would go on to revolutionize the South African big-wave scene. As a black surfer, Collier was technically not allowed at many of South Africa’s “whites only” beaches but would defiantly surf wherever he chose. Along with filmmaker Neil Webster, the tightknit crew was the first to document Dungeons and became synonymous with South Africa’s big-wave exploits. But with a country on fire and a camera in hand, it wasn’t long before Bothma gravitated towards the flames. “I was studying anthropology at the time,” he says, “and I realized photojournalists are actually anthropologists too. I liked telling the story of the liberation struggle for many reasons—one of them being that you were actually doing something about the situation.”

“Mamba Point is actually a cooking left-hand pointbreak. I would watch in awe as six foot sets rolled down the point while mortars exploded in the field next to us.”

While working part time as a runner for the international TV news crews that were sent to cover South Africa’s simmering unrest, Bothma would shoot stills on the side and sell prints to the local papers. “There was a lot of violence, faction fighting, and protests in the time before Mandela was released,” he recalls. “I found the photography a rush. It was compelling and addictive.” During this time Bothma got to work alongside his heroes, such as Kevin Carter, Ken Oosterbroek, and other members of the famous “Bang-Bang Club,” a grizzled band of photojournalists who were known for their uncompromising portrayal of apartheid and belief that you could never get too close to the action—a philosophy that would cost some of them their lives. After Mandela was released from prison, Bothma continued to work as a freelancer, splitting his time between assignments and surf missions with Collier and Armstrong. The duo would later go on to win the ISA Big Wave World Championships in Madeira, but one of their most poignant missions was a pioneering session at Robben Island, surfing a heavy left reef that broke on the shores of the island jail where Mandela had spent 18 years of his incarceration. The island was still off-limits to the public but Bothma managed to convince the group it would be a good idea. “One of the journalists that came along tried to surf the slab and got washed up on shore and was arrested by the wardens,” he says and chuckles. “But it was a historic session and very symbolic. Black and white surfing freely together. The country had changed and optimism was the currency. It was just a cool time to be young and free.” As much as the fall of apartheid shaped Bothma as a photographer, it was his first assignment for the European Pressphoto Agency in Liberia that came to define the purpose of his work. He had just returned to Cape Town after a five years hiatus pursuing his other love, sailing round the world on his 30-foot yacht Shakti. He was completely broke and trying to scratch up his old freelance contacts when Kim Ludbrook offered him a job. Ludbrook had just been appointed as the EPA’s bureau chief for Africa and was tasked with setting up operations on the continent. Two weeks later, Bothma found himself in Monrovia. “The U.S. embassy had asked all foreign journalists to leave the day I arrived,” recalls Bothma, who was 33 at the time. “Around 40 bodies had been piled up by the locals outside of the embassy as a plea for the U.S. to step in and help. CNN and most major networks were withdrawing because it was too dangerous, which left a crew of about 12 of us for many weeks.”

Bothma was mentored by two of the best war photographers in the business, Chris Hondros and, later, Tim Hetherington. Both would later be killed in Libya.

During this time, Bothma was mentored by two of the best war photographers in the business, Chris Hondros and, later, Tim Hetherington. Both would later be killed in Libya. “Most days we would go down to the bridges leading into the city and photograph the government soldiers defending the bridge from the rebels trying to enter,” says Bothma. “The soldiers were often high on crack and just looting to survive, since they were only paid by the government in bullets and drugs. The situation was extremely loose to say the least, yet it provided incredible access for photographs. The images we shot began to be used in the major international newspapers and caused an international outcry due to the number of child soldiers involved.” It was these photos that eventually led to a peacekeeping force being approved, ending the 14-year long civil war. “It was really satisfying to see directly how photojournalism is so important in shaping worldviews,” says Bothma. “But the risk was extremely high. I nearly lost my life on a number of occasions.” Since then, Bothma’s camera has taken him to the frontlines of Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Palestine, Togo, Darfur, the Ivory Coast, and countless other conflict zones. Invariably, he always keeps an eye out for waves, of which he has seen plenty. “West Africa is littered with waves but Dakar in Senegal is one of the coolest cities I lived in,” he says. “I had an idea it had good surf from seeing The Endless Summer, but the reality was even better. I stayed there for two years while covering the area, living in the 400-year-old village of N’Gor on the Almadies Peninsula.” Bothma surfed virtually everyday while covering the fall of Abdoulaye Wade, the country’s controversial president, and fell in love with Dakar’s vibrant culture and abundant surf. “There are a lot of spots and it has a huge swell window,” he says. “But that’s just one small country. Africa’s potential for waves is virtually unlimited and is still mostly untapped.” Senegal’s transition was relatively peaceful but, as Bothma points out, a lot of the countries he has worked in are still recovering from civil war. “Ironically that’s what makes them gems for surfers,” he says. “Whether real or imagined, there’s still the stigma of danger attached to a lot of these places, so they’re relatively unexplored and completely un-crowded.”

“Photography is just photography, regardless of the subject. Just the preparation is different I guess. Wet weather gear for the sea. Flack jacket for war.”

Although he rarely finds time to shoot surfing nowadays, Bothma occasionally makes an exception for the heavy-water reefs around Cape Town, even drawing parallels between his vastly disparate subjects of war and waves. “I like extremes in life,” he explains. “The very highs and the very lows. I like to document that and tell the stories of life on the extreme edges, where not everyone wants to go. That’s where I believe we discover our true nature.” When pressed on what differentiates big-wave photography for him, Bothma replies that it’s more about the waves than the surfers who ride them. “Yes, they are amazing, the guys that really charge,” he says. “But what is more amazing is the power and the beauty of the ocean when a 40-foot set unloads on an offshore reef. The sound more than anything is incredible and humbling. Combine that with the great athletic ability of the surfers, and you have both a natural and human peak. It’s all about those extremes. But if you’re asking me how I approach these different disciplines, photography is just photography, regardless of the subject. Just the preparation is different I guess,” he quips. “Wet weather gear for the sea. Flack jacket for war.” Asked if he ever feels compromised by his work, Bothma is forthright, saying there is no such thing as true objectivity. “You look, you see, you try to read the situation and portray it visually as best you can to communicate the essence of what you’re seeing in the most powerful way to the viewer. But on another level you’re a human being first, before being a photographer, and you need to have compassion and understanding when dealing with people. In dangerous situations you always have to consider the risk of your actions, and help where you can. It only takes a fraction of a second to take a picture. So you can do both.” After decades of documenting the best and worst of human nature, Bothma does not see himself retiring anytime soon. “I read once that photographers are like the early humans who used to crawl to the back of the cave with a flame and return to tell the tribe what they saw,” he says. “That makes sense to me. I want to go to places others fear or would not want to go for whatever reason. That’s when I’m doing my job as a storyteller.”