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Juhan Kuus - recollections of one of the greats

Juhan Kuus
Juhan Kuus doing what he did best!
  This is an article I write both with a heavy heart and a smile.
 Yesterday, 12 July 2015, South Africa and the world lost one of its greatest news photographers, when Juhan Kuus died following a fall down a flight of stairs in Cape Town.
 Juhan was "one of a kind".
 I first met him at the Sunday Times somewhere around 1983, where I was first a general reporter then later Military Correspondent and Bureau Chief. We hit it off immediately as we shared a common love of guns and cameras.
 Kuus was always thin - I told him he looked like a concentration camp survivor. Although tall, his smoking and previous drinking excesses left him with an appearance of frailty. But Juhan was anything but frail. He was absolutely fearless and single-minded when it came to getting the shot and telling the story. As a result, there were many times, his dogged determination resulted in his getting his arse thoroughly kicked by, but not confined to, the AWB, the police and Cape Flats gangsters.

Doggedness

 A good example of his doggedness was late in the 1980s, during the State of Emergency when journalists and photographers faced the threat of lengthy prison sentences for a variety of "crimes" while just doing their jobs.
 An anti-government march took place in Germiston that led to violent clashes with the police, leaving some of the protestors dead. Naturally, Kuus, now a freelancer, was there with his beloved Leica. After shooting a few rolls of negatives, each of which he hid in pavement dustbins and a flower box outside a shop, Juhan was suddenly nabbed by a notorious security cop and dragged off to Germiston police station from where the police had set up a sort of staging post.
 There, he saw the bodies of two protestors. The cop proceeded to give Kuus a severe beating, interspersed with threats of being locked up for the rest of his life.
 And all the time, while getting 20 shades of crap knocked out of him, Juhan shot images from the waist, without the security policemen being any the wiser. Later, he retrieved the rolls of film and, together with the images shot at the station, shipped them off to SIPA, his agency in France.
 Juhan went above and beyond for SIPA, who shamelessly exploited him, kept him hanging on for money owed to him and only returned his negatives after a battle that lasted years.
 On countless occasions that I visited him at the Honeydew cottage he and his then-wife, Mareta shared, he was penniless, despite being owed thousands by the guys in Paris. But such trivialities never phased Juhan. Documenting the world around him, was the most important thing in his life and came before anything else. He talked the lady in a processing lab in Krugersdorp into letting him run a tab for film and developing and when she eventually demanded payment he couldn't make, he couldn't understand how she could not see or appreciate the important role she was playing in his documenting South Africa's history. He was exasperated she was unwilling to make a further contribution to something so important.

Important work to do

 He sold off many off his possessions to temporarily fend off circling creditors but never wavered in his belief that what he did was important and, in the grander scale of things, was bigger than himself or any financial discomfort he or Mareta experienced.
 I once asked him why he didn't take on commercial work or shoot weddings on the weekends to help dig himself out of the hole he was in.
 He shrugged his shoulders and replied: "Because that type of stuff is trivial. I've got more important work to do."
 There are many stories I could tell about Juhan and some are perhaps best left untold but a few spring to mind.
 On 15 December 1985, two ANC terrorists placed landmines on the sisal road that ran along the Limpopo river, bordering Zimbabwe. It was the first time landmines were planted on South Africa soil. As a result, six people, including three children aged between three and nine, all members of the De Nyschen and van Eck families were killed.
 Naturally this was a huge story that had local and international news organisations scrambling. The Sunday Times sent Juhan and I to cover the story but we quickly found we were outgunned by Rapport and Beeld, who had a team of around 10 and could much more easily cover the vast tracks of ground and multiple angles. We decided, if we were going to compete, we'd need to team up with some other media guys. Enter left, the famous Des Blow from City Press, who was there on his own.
 In the meantime, the SADF had flown in specialist troops from South West Africa and there were mine-protected vehicles and a squad of engineers, about to start sweeping the sisal road for more landmines.
 The road was closed off and the only movement allowed on it by the people who lived along the river, was in SADF mine-proof vehicles, in military convoys. However, after turning left at Beit Bridge, we managed to talk our way past a confused Citizen Force soldier from a local commando unit who manned a makeshift barrier.
 We were all scared. Juhan particularly did not want to die hitting a landmine without getting a picture. So we came to an arrangement with Des Blow, we'd drive in front for 15 kilometres and, if we hit a mine, he'd get the shot. Then we'd switch and he'd drive in front, giving us an opportunity to get the picture.
 To calm his nerves Juhan quietly, and with great determination, did his best to flatten a bottle of Scotch, drinking from a collapsible plastic glass. (This was in his drinking days. He later cleaned up his act and became completely dry.)
 After about 50 kilometres of leap-frogging, we came upon the military engineers, sweeping the road - towards us! We were given a roasting by the senior officer and told to "vok die moer weg", before we proceeded along the swept road. We stopped to photograph the bakkie that detonated one of the mines and then proceeded to the farmhouse where the affected families were trying to come to terms with their loss.
 As usual, Juhan's images captured the pain and poignancy of the story.

Pig

 On another occasion, while working for SIPA, Juhan arranged to do a photo-feature about Cuban doctors working in rural medical facilities, in the remotest parts of Kwa Zulu - Natal. While setting up the story, they asked if he could bring a pig so they could have a Cuban-style, pig-roast. There was only one problem, the animal needed to be delivered alive so it could be slaughtered on site.
 "Sure," said Kuus, "no problem at all."
 What followed was an eight-hour trip in his old, blue, Landrover with a live, none-too-happy, condemned, pig on the backseat and regular toilet stops.
 After moving to Cape Town he became fascinated with the gangs of the area and somehow gained the trust of the leaders of some of the most feared and violent organisations. He photographed their wedding and functions, cold-blooded hit men, drug lords and hookers. It was a peek into a life few outsiders ever see.
 He was there, inside a house occupied by gangsters, when it when a rival gang opened fire and a full-scale gun battle erupted. (He posted a picture of scenes from the battle on his Facebook feed just last week.)
 Then there is a remarkable sequence of photographs he took in the Cape ganglands. In the first couple of images his lens is pointed at leaders of "The Fluffy Kids", the last two frames, however, are blurred images of the sky and explained by the fact at that moment, another member clocked him over the head from behind. When Kuus regained consciousness he was stripped of everything, except his underpants.
 Anyone else would've got the hell out of Dodge and never come back but not Juhan. Dressed only in his underpants, he made his way to the home of a particularly feared and gang lord and explained the situation. A few phone calls were made and, within an hour, everything stolen from him was returned.
 Amazingly, Juhan was not working for any publication when he shot his gangland series. I'm not sure he ever managed to sell any of those images. But that didn't seem to bother him, he was, after all documenting life and history, and that was what was important.

Penniless

  A while later his life once again spiralled out of control and he found himself penniless and basically on the streets. While living in a Salvation Army shelter, his laptop and camera equipment was stolen but friends, most notably Gavin Furlonger, stood by him, as he battled his circumstances, as well as a raft of medical problems.
 Slowly he rebuilt his life to a point where, a couple of weeks ago, he told me he'd applied for a grant from UCT and was optimistic about his chances of being awarded it.
 He focussed on documenting and photographing the lives of the homeless and street-people of Cape Town, who accepted him as one of their own, because he was.
 On Thursday we spoke via email for the last time. We made arrangements for him to send me new images to publish on this site.
 "I'll send them on Sunday," he wrote. He died before he could do so.
 As I write this I'm looking at the last email he sent me. His signature reads: "Juhan Kuus, Concerned Humanities and Documentary Photographer". That he certainly was.
 I will never forget you, my friend.

Juhan Kuus Facebook page
 
 

 
 

Some of Juhan's huge body of work:

Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 
Juhan Kuus images
 

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