Obituary: Juhan Kuus, loner whose lens captured a violent era

09 August 2015 - 02:00 By Chris Barron

Juhan Kuus, who has died in Cape Town at the age of 62, was one of the hardest of the hardcore frontline news photographers covering the violence in South African townships in the '80s and early '90s. He was certainly the most cynical and uncompromising. He was the ultimate loner, partly because nobody with a normal survival instinct wanted anything to do with him.A former Sunday Times photographer, he had no respect for authority, convention or political correctness. He broke every rule in the book. He packed a gun, which violated one of the most sacred journalistic codes of them all.He was denounced by the South African Union of Journalists and expelled by the Foreign Correspondents' Association.He was charged with murder and attempted murder after fatally shooting one person and wounding two others during a scuffle. He got off but Sunday Times editor Tertius Myburgh wanted him fired.mini_story_image_vleft1His colleagues who went into the burning townships together for mutual support and protection shunned him.He went in alone, sometimes at night. One night in Thokoza he was stopped at a roadblock manned by township youths. As he told it, things got out of hand, he drew his gun and shots were fired. His gun saved him, he said.Kuus was drawn to life on the margins, to violence and atrocity. His pictures, shot mostly in black and white with his beloved Leica, captured the brutality and horror in unsparing detail, close up and in the moment.Taking these pictures made him a target. He learnt to hide rolls of negatives under rocks, in dustbins or flower pots as he shot, retrieving them when the coast was clear.Once, during the state of emergency in '80s, he was dragged off to a police station and beaten by cops who demanded his film. While this was happening, he held his camera below his waist and took pictures of two more police victims dumped in a corner.When it came to getting the right picture, no risk was too high. When the ANC planted landmines on a farm road along the Limpopo River in 1985, which killed six people including three children aged three to nine, Kuus was sent there by the Sunday Times.The road was blocked by South African Defence Force soldiers because it was suspected there were more landmines. Somehow Kuus and reporter Hilton Hamann managed to evade them. They and an equally intrepid photographer from another publication set off in their different vehicles. Neither wanted to lead the way, so they agreed to alternate after every 15km.story_article_right1 To calm his nerves Kuus drank neat whisky from a collapsible plastic glass he carried around with him. After 50km they reached the bombed-out bakkie and then carried on to the farmhouse.It was no surprise that Kuus was such a heavy drinker, although he did later bring it under control. Or that he sometimes seemed slightly unhinged.During a 14-year stint with the French agency Sipa he arranged to do a photo feature about Cuban doctors working in the remotest parts of KwaZulu-Natal. They asked him to bring a live pig for a Cuban-style pig roast.He dumped it on the back seat of his old blue Land Rover and set off. Eight hours and many toilet stops later they arrived, both looking slightly shredded.Kuus was born in Cape Town on February 27 1953, the son of an Estonian father and a South African mother, who ran a takeaway restaurant.He started at Die Burger in 1970, working as a darkroom assistant, messenger and junior photographer. He covered the 1976 uprising for Rapport. It was during this period he started to carry a gun. According to him, he shot and wounded three people who began stoning him.When politics no longer supplied enough violence to satisfy his documentary zeal, Kuus began documenting crime. In Cape Town he befriended leaders of the most feared and violent gangs on the Cape Flats. He photographed hit men, druglords and hookers.full_story_image_hleft2He was inside a gangster's house when it was attacked by a rival gang and he found himself in the middle of a raging gun battle.He was taking pictures of The Fluffy Kids when a gang member knocked him out. When he woke up he'd been stripped of everything, including his cameras. Wearing only underpants, he went to the home of a particularly notorious gang boss and asked for help. The gangster made a few calls and within an hour all the stolen equipment was returned.Kuus won World Press Photo awards in 1977 and 1991 and was twice nominated for South African press photographer of the year. He was highly respected by his peers. But he alienated so many editors and burnt so many bridges that he struggled to find paid employment.He was invited to submit a portfolio to the legendary Magnum photo agency, which only the world's very best are invited to join. But he was rejected, amid talk that some fellow photographers had raised objections.His life hit the skids. He ended up in a home for the destitute elderly in Cape Town via the Salvation Army. Of necessity he spent a lot of time on the streets, where he developed an empathy for the homeless, and took many unique pictures of them. One, which was used in The Big Issue, won the picture of the year award in a competition run by the international network of street newspapers.He died after falling down stairs at St Monica's Home, where he was staying, shortly before an exhibition of his work - now on at GalleryF in Cape Town - was due to open.1953-2015

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