João Silva: An Unbroken Man

Christopher Anderson / Magnum

The tattoo ink on João Silva‘s right arm has bled over the years, but the outline of an angel can still be discerned, framed by the words accept no limit.

“This is me in my late teens deciding, Fuck the world,” says Silva, glancing down at the tattoo, “I’m going to go do things my way.” There are still glimpses of that headstrong kid in the 46-year-old Portuguese–South African photojournalist. For two decades, Silva has documented the human cost of the world’s wars, political conflicts, and humanitarian disasters: Rwanda, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan. His images render the abstractions of faraway suffering an unavoidable reality. By any standard he has lived up to his tattooed maxim, even when he encountered a physical limit most would have no choice but to accept.

In October 2010, on assignment in Afghanistan for the New York Times, Silva was on a combat patrol outside Kandahar, embedded with members of the 4th Infantry Division. Entering a blasted and desolate compound, he was following two soldiers and a bomb-sniffing dog on a narrow trail through mounds of rubble. The recent NATO troop surge had driven the Taliban away from direct confrontation while greatly increasing their use of IEDs and land mines. Silva and Times reporter Carlotta Gall had come to document that shift.

“As fate would have it, I found exactly the story we were looking for,” recalls Silva. “I stood on it.”

He remembers a metallic ting and a deafening bang, and he was instantly on the ground, covered in dust and blood. The soldiers ran back, dragged him out of the kill zone and began administering first aid. He couldn’t feel anything, except, oddly, in his shooting wrist, and Silva managed to squeeze off three more frames before he dropped his camera. Then he looked down at his legs. “I could see them dangling and shredded,” he says. “I knew they were gone.”

The explosion had destroyed Silva’s left leg below the knee, and his right leg above it. But he had also been very lucky that day. The antipersonnel mine he’d stepped on was rigged to a second device, a metal canister filled with 30 pounds of homemade explosives that hadn’t detonated. “If it had gone off, they wouldn’t have found enough of me to put in a matchbox,” he says.

He stayed conscious throughout the entire ordeal. The medics applied tourniquets and let him smoke a cigarette, and he used Gall’s phone to call his wife of 25 years, Viv, in South Africa. “I told her, ‘My legs are gone, but I think I’ll be all right.’ She said, ‘Please don’t die,’ and I told her, ‘I’ll try not to.'”

Silva’s career began during the political violence that wracked South Africa as apartheid ended. In the early 1990s, Silva was a member of a small group of young photographers dubbed the Bang-Bang Club. In 1994, while covering street clashes, the group was caught in a crossfire and Silva’s best friend, Greg Marinovich, was wounded, shot three times. Another friend, Ken Oosterbroek, a 31-year-old photographer for the Johannesburg Star, was killed. Silva was unscathed. Afterward, he felt guilty that he had paused to photograph his friend lying dead at his feet.

Another Bang-Bang Club member, Kevin Carter, later won the Pulitzer Prize for a photo of a starving Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture. The public condemnation Carter received, calling him a vulture for not helping the child, may have pushed him over the edge. Three months later, he ran a hose from the tailpipe of his pickup through the window and asphyxiated himself.

“It’s not only the guilt of survival; it’s also the guilt of what you’ve witnessed,” says Silva. “So there’s a lot of guilt associated with this. There’s no way you can avoid it.”

The months after Silva’s injury were a haze of hospitals and endless surgeries. He had been transferred from Afghanistan to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. – rare treatment for a civilian and foreign national. Ultimately, he would have more than 70 operations, with his pelvis held together by a titanium plate and a biological mesh keeping his organs in place.

The path to recovery would be long and agonizing, but Silva set on it immediately, carried by two prostheses, the one above the knee a state-of-the-art robotic leg with gyroscopic sensors to adjust to motion and balance. Recovering at Walter Reed provided powerful motivation, as he did physical therapy alongside soldiers who were triple and quadruple amputees. “I’d watch these kids way worse than me, and they were just going for it,” he says. “You find strength.”

“They say God only gives you as much as you can handle,” says photographer Michael Kamber, one of Silva’s closest friends. “He gave João a lot.”

Despite near-constant physical pain, he found reserves of will and endurance he didn’t know he had. He credits the support and love of his family, his doctors at Walter Reed, and an outpouring of concern from strangers around the world who have been moved by his work. A year after losing his legs, Silva did the New York City Marathon on a hand-cranked bike. Because of his surgeries, he had only a few weeks to train, and he’d hoped to finish in four hours. He made it in 2:38.

Silva has had a lifelong passion for motorcycles. This past winter he returned to South Africa, bought a Harley-Davidson XL883L SuperLow, and had it modified with special foot pegs and a solenoid that lets him shift gears with the push of a button. In April he took it to a racetrack and did 50 laps, leaning so hard into the corners that he ground the ends off his foot pegs.

“Taking those laps,” Silva said, “I forgot that I had no legs. I was doing something that I love.” The process of recovery, he’s come to realize, involves “regaining bits and pieces of your life that you lost. Regaining small things. Riding a motorcycle. The final stage is gonna be regaining my career.”

Silva began photographing again his first summer, while still at Walter Reed. That September, he covered the Medal of Honor ceremony at the White House for the Times. He met briefly in the Oval Office with President Obama, who asked, “How does it feel to be back on the job?”

“I’ll know about that later, when I take a picture,” Silva replied.

Handling the physical demands and risks of shooting conflict are still distant goals, and Silva understands this. But he’s already strategizing the return to his calling and to places where his eye is most needed. When Nelson Mandela, ailing and in his nineties, passes away, Silva wants to be in South Africa recording the responses of the people. When the U.S. pulls out of Afghanistan, he wants to be there to witness it. In a closet in the Times’ Kabul bureau, there’s a duffel bag containing the helmet and body armor Silva was wearing when he was injured. It has a sign on it that reads: do not touch.

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