James Oatway graduated with a BJourn from Rhodes University in 1999, and two decades later he has been awarded a JMS50 Alumni Award from the School of Journalism and Media Studies for his unflinching courage in photojournalism and for bringing the hard truths of violence and war to the public gaze. Oatway’s work revolves predominantly around themes of social inequality and people affected by conflict.
The role of photographers in conflict zones has always been a contested one. Oatway experienced this first-hand in April 2015 when, during a wave of xenophobic violence, he photographed the murder of a Mozambican migrant by South African men. The photographs of attacks leading to the death of Emmanuel Sithole made the front page of the Sunday Times, where Oatway was Chief Photographer and Picture Editor at the time. The images sparked outrage and made international headlines, leading to the army being deployed and mass demonstrations against xenophobia across the African continent. Despite receiving criticism for not intervening in the attack (although whether the intervention would have made any difference is up for discussion), Oatway and his colleague did take Sithole to a nearby clinic, firstly, and then to the hospital, where Sithole died shortly after arrival.
The impact photography makes on the public was captured by the sentencing magistrate, who said in his judgement against the three men convicted of the murder, “This specific murder trial caught the entire country’s attention because it was caught on camera. We were forced to witness this gruesome attack. By looking at the photos we were forced to share his pain, as he laid in the mud begging for mercy.”
Oatway’s work has been published in The Guardian, the New York Times, Time, Science magazine and Harper’s magazine among others. He has photographed the conflict in the DRC and the CAR, and photographed the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake and the war in Afghanistan. He has received international awards, including multiple Pictures of the Year International (POYi) awards. In 2015 he was named the South African Journalist of the Year, and in 2016 the winner of the Mohamed Amin photojournalism award at the CNN Multichoice African Journalist of the Year awards. In 2018 his Red Ants project won the prestigious Visa d’or Feature Award at the Visa Pour l’image Photojournalism Festival in Perpignan, France.
He is co-author of The Battle of Bangui, published in 2021, and together with photographer Alon Skuy, has published a photographic book about xenophobic violence in South Africa called [BR]OTHER, also published in 2021. Oatway often works with humanitarian organisations such as UNICEF, UNHCR and Médicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders).