J. Ross Baughman | Rhodesia

Here at IP, I am devoted to providing accurate and informative backstories about iconic photos, but sometimes, I simply get things wrong. Here is one of such stories: @aalholmes

In 1977, J. Ross Baughman was documenting the bloody guerrilla war that broke out in Rhodesia as the minority white rule slowly disintegrates there; the attacks on anti-government guerillas were especially fierce and Baughman rode with a cavalry unit, Grey’s Scouts, and captured them torturing prisoners. Baughman remembers:

They force them to line up in push-up stance. They’re holding that position for 45 minutes in the sun, many of them starting to shake violently. Eventually, the first guy fell. They took him around the back of the building, knocked him out and fired a shot into the air. They continued bring men to the back of the building. The poor guy on the end started crying and going crazy and he finally broke and started talking. As it turns out, what he was saying wasn’t true, but the scouts were willing to use it as a lead. It had all the feeling of an eventual massacre. I was afraid that I might see entire villages murdered.

In my original post (June 2010), I posited that journalists don’t usually carry guns, since that meant forfeiture of a journalist’s status  as a neutral noncombatant under international law. I also erroneously claimed that J. Ross Baughman was the first photographer to tote a gun. In his correspondence to me, Mr. Baughman points out:

While some journalists might like to think that they enjoy special protections and immunity during conflict, in fact, no such practical guarantees exist. When a journalist anywhere near a military force happens to walk into the field of fire, either within the gun-sights or less impersonally anywhere near the radius of an impending explosion, no distinctions are made by the person about to squeeze the trigger. Soldiers often do not want to babysit a civilian asking to accompany their unit. They require fully embedded guests to be armed and capable of defending themselves, especially if such a civilian becomes detached from the unit or lost….

As long as cameras have gone to war, correspondents have been seen and documented carrying arms. A brief but incomplete list includes Alfred R. Waud during the American Civil War (shown in this photo with a revolver on his hip), Winston Churchill during the Boer War (carrying a automatic Mauser C-96 “Broomhandle” carbine), Ernest Hemingway during World War II (strapped with a 45 cal. Colt automatic and sometimes a Thompson submachine gun) and Peter Arnett during the Vietnam War ….

When I arrived in Rhodesia, there were many foreign correspondents (such as Lord Richard Cecil) already carrying weapons whenever they left the relative safety of the capital city limits. In my case, carrying a weapon was a precondition of being allowed out on the patrol.

In my original post, I wrote Baughman has infiltrated Nazi and Ku Klux Klan groups in the United States and Rhodesian Army, implication being the photographer secretly documented those groups. This was incorrect, as Mr. Baughman writes:

I infiltrated the Nazi Movement in America because it was the only way I could get access into their meetings and uncover their secret intentions. In the case of the Ku Klux Klan, there was no misrepresentation and I attended their meetings as a journalist. Likewise, I did not “infiltrate” or “join” the Rhodesian military… I arrived as a journalist, and all the soldiers knew that and treated me that way.

007-004 Rhodesia - Noose (Pulitzer) v3
The Rhodesian Army put nooses around guerrillas’ necks and dragged them behind horses

Most of Baughman’s work was confiscated by the Rhodesian authorities, but he managed to smuggle three rolls of films — for which (and for three photos featured in this post, especially) he won the Pulitzer Prize, and became the youngest professional photographer to win that prestigious award.*

But the photos were not without controversy. When they met to judge the entries for the Robert Capa Gold Medal, some members of the Overseas Press Club doubted the photos’ authenticity and questioned whether they were posed. As Baughman was unavailable to address these concerns, the photos were rashly disqualified (over objections of some notable photographers and editors); they were displayed in the Overseas Press Club Exhibit with a disclaimer: “A Judge’s Dilemma – This story out of Rhodesia began to receive serious consideration from the judging panel until we were advised that there was some controversy about the authenticity of the situation. Because of the inability of the panel to confirm or deny the rumor, the photographs were dropped from consideration, but are presented here.”

Later, after subjecting the smuggled rolls of film to careful scrutiny, Howard Chapnick — a leading arbiter of photojournalism — noted the photos indeed showed Baughman “working candidly in tight, economical bursts of two or three frames at a time … nothing about them suggested that the situations had been manipulated or staged … It becomes increasingly clear that the Baughman affair has been badly handled.”

Baughman wrote:

Regarding all those “unresolved doubts” about the authenticity of the images, suffice it to say that the primary critics from the Overseas Press Club judging committee finally apologized to me, and even John Durniak of Time and Arthur Rothstein of Parade magazine went on to hire me for several important assignments in the following years. The best absolution came when Sgt. Bruce Moore-King, a principal non-commissioned officer in my Rhodesian Grey’s Scouts report, confessed to committing the same kinds of torture and atrocities in his own autobiography White Man/Black War.

Chapnick concluded:

It becomes increasingly clear that the Baughman affair has been badly handled. A saddened Art Rothstein reflectively comments that ‘if Ross Baughman has been unjustly and unfairly accused and his reputation damaged in any way, I would like to see him vindicated. If there was injustice, it resulted from the conditions under which the photographs were submitted, the lack of information, and the fact that Baughman was unavailable to talk to… If in any way I was part of this injustice, I feel very badly about it.

‘In retrospect,’ says John Morris, ‘I feel that Ross Baughman was unfairly treated by the Overseas Press Club jury. We simply did not have all the facts, but I’m not sure that excuses us.’

Maybe we can learn something from this experience to apply to future contest judging. Taking the time for further investigation might have provided the answers to the ‘unsolved questions’ which troubled the Overseas Press Club jury. The price for a precipitous rush to judgment can be too high. It certainly was for Ross Baughman.

I think there was some lesson to be learnt here, especially in our quick-to-judge culture of today.

007-005 Rhodesia - Lieutenant with Bat & Prisoner (Pulitzer) v2
A young Rhodesian lieutenant holding a bat he used to interrogate politician Moffat Ncube (shown unconscious in the background)

… oh, and sorry for f**king things up first time around and thank you for correcting me, Mr. Baughman.

Further Reading: Howard Chapnick. “Behind the Pulitzer Prize controversy”. Popular Photography, June,1979; Charles Rotkin. “A Puzzle for the Press Club”. News Photographer, June, 1978.

*(John Filo was still a student and an amateur photographer when he won the Pulitzer for his Kent State photo).

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0 thoughts on “J. Ross Baughman | Rhodesia

  1. Oh so easy to cherry pick events with the benefit of hindsight. It was not your grandmother who sat up all night listening for gunfire and scrambling under the bed at the slightest knock or indication of possible gunshots. Paralysed by fear and immobilized by hopelessness the locals cowered and hid while the privileged whites rolled in on their expensive military equipment, horses chewing on biltong from slain native cattle. For the Zimbabweans (Rhodesians) at that time, the horrors were little imagined or rationalised as the course of history, rather real, day to day mind numbing, heart stopping throat choking realities from which there was no escape. The natives were fearful of the white Army, the Guerillas who carried out beatings and murders of those accused of selling out. The natives were caught in the middle and it was a matter of time before death came calling for you, at the hands of any of the warring parties. It was a terrible time of doomsday proportions where grown people cried themselves to sleep, afraid to wake the next morning. White people brutalised the natives with impunity, some were thrown into disused mine shafts and sealed in, some provided entertainment by fighting 3 to 5 dogs in a drained swimming pool to the amusement of whites. To sit here and read how high and mighty the very same white people talk about winning prizes because they captured the most gruesome atrocities and to hear them congratulate each other on being masters of the world while every single one of them is not without fault in the killing of babies and pregnant women, all in the name of holding onto their precios Rhodesia makes me sick to my stomach. Whites indeed got a sweet deal from Robert Mugabe, the whole lot deserve to be lynched and beaten to death, read the death of Emmett Till. How do white people live with themselves. I feel powerless and ashamed, for had I the power, I would give the whites a taste of what they put Zimbabweans through. If there is a GOD in heaven, then show thine might and balance the blood scales. For generations black people have wept, toiled and died under the influence of the white man. to date the tyranny does not end. What kind of people are you if even…

    You cannot win every battle of every war everyday, the roles will be swopped one day and on that day the blacks will sing and dance on your lifeless corpses.

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    1. Baughman refers to Moore-King’s book as an “autobiography” and claims that it supports his case – this is an exaggeration. The book is neither autobiography nor history, more a series of vague cameos that give no names, dates or places, that can be checked for historical accuracy. In fact, many reviewers describe it as a novel. Further, it was written and published in Zimbabwe, where Moore-King was trying to further his career under the dictator Mugabe, and presumably felt it would establish his bona fides as a pro-Mugabe, anti-Smith, all-round reliable employee. I own a copy of the book.

      Two other books mention the Baughman photo controversy – the excellent account of journalists in Africa written by Christopher Munnion (of UK Daily Telegraph fame) under the title “Banana Sunday” and the book “Major Mike” by the American Major Mike Williams, 2IC of the Grey’s Scouts at that time, with the assistance of Robin Moore. Munnion was not complimentary regarding Baughman’s methods and activities as a photo-journalist, regarding him with distrust, an opinion that was enlarged upon by Major Williams who pointed out that Baughman not only carried a weapon but was also keen to use it, on one occasion while attempting to “help” prevent a captive terrorist from escaping. According to Williams, the non-military gun-toting journalist proved more of a danger to the troops than to the enemy.

      Far from trying to censor Baughman’s work, the Rhodesian military insisted on allowing him to accompany patrols, despite objections from the Grey’s Scouts officers that he was becoming a danger to their men and a liability due to his erratic behaviour. After the photos had been published amidst much controversy the Rhodesian Government set up an inquiry and offered Baughman complete immunity if he would return and give evidence. Baughman did not accept the offer. Some of the people interviewed for the inquiry stated that Baughman had persuaded black Rhodesian soldiers to pose as captured terrorists, which they did, believing his story that the photos were for his private collection. Since Baughman did not attend the inquiry, little was produced in his defence. The Rhodesian military nevertheless dismissed several officers to show that they were taking Baughman’s claims seriously.

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