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It ends with a shotgun in his mouth

The decision to leave behind the hard news photojournalism that Graeme had thrived on was essentially made for him. He tells of the day he photographed a woman being shot, and found himself on the unfriendly end of a shotgun.

“The right wing was attempting to begin a coup in this particular apartheid homeland (apartheid era term for a segregated area).

“At some point, there was this right wing group, the AWB, and they were driving in convoy and they should have gone out of town and turned right at this T-junction but they arrogantly turned left to go through the town again. It was a big event in the time.

“They drove into town and three white AWB guys were killed by soldiers from this homeland.

Then things just went ballistic.

“This one AWB guy was a middle aged, well-dressed deacon of the church-type chap, with his hunting rifle.

“(He) was shooting a woman as she ran in between houses and I was photographing him do it and as I did it, these young AWB guys saw me and went for me.

“So I put my cameras down and then they beat me up a bit and then one put a shotgun in my mouth.

“An older guy came by and said in Afrikaans, “don’t shoot him, beat him up’.”

“And it was a weird thing. Up until that exact moment even though I’d seen friends die and many other people die, I never believed – there was never a deep belief that it could have been me, otherwise you can’t really do that work.”

While saved from the grip of imminent death, the incident had a lasting impact on Graeme and while he got up and walked away, he was soon felled.

“A week after that event I was covering something in another part of the country and it hit me, literally like a brick wall,” he says.

“I couldn’t actually do anything. I checked into a hotel and slept for, like, 20 hours.

“Then it was gone. I still did some news, but I was always aware of my own vulnerability so you can’t actually do that work if you carry that knowledge around with you all the time.

“I knew it was time to get out because I was a danger to myself actually.

“You are operating at a pretty low consciousness level while covering violence. It’s all pretty primal stuff. You can’t survive by just relying on one’s intellect.

Graeme says it was a deliberate, yet difficult, decision to stop.

“It was like almost going cold turkey. When Mandela was inaugurated in 1994, the urge to go and photograph that event and be a part of this huge moment was really strong.”

Instead he stayed at home and watched it on television. “I never did news again,” he says.

And tellingly, it took another five years before Graeme felt that he could integrate with normal society once again.

Tomorrow: Graeme’s photograph represents Barack Obama: Newsweek