On March 26, 1993, when this photograph depicting the suffering of the Sudanese famine was published in the New York Times, reader reaction was intense and not all positive. Some individuals asserted that photojournalist Kevin Carter was inhumane for not dropping his camera and rushing to the little girl’s aid. A few months later, when he received the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph, the controversy only intensified. At the end of July 1994, he had passed away.
Carter and other photojournalists were able to witness countless tragedies and continue working due to their emotional detachment. The world’s intense reactions to the photograph of the vulture appeared to be a punishment for this essential characteristic. Eventually, it became painfully apparent that he had never been detached. He was profoundly and fatally affected by the horrors he witnessed.
Carter grew up in apartheid-era South Africa. He became a photojournalist because he felt he needed to document the sickening treatment not only of blacks by whites, but between black ethnic groups as well, like those between Xhosas and Zulus.
Carter, along with a handful of other photojournalists, would rush into the action to get the best shot. The newspaper in South Africa dubbed the group the Bang-Bang Club. Photographers used the term “bang-bang” at the time to describe the act of traveling to South African townships to cover the extreme violence occurring there.
In a few short years, he witnessed countless murders by means of beatings, stabbings, gunshots, and necklacing, a barbaric practice in which an oil-filled tire is wrapped around the victim’s neck and set ablaze.
Carter was given a special assignment in Sudan, where he took the iconic photograph of a vulture. He spent several days touring villages populated by starving individuals. All the while, he was surrounded by armed Sudanese soldiers who were there to keep him from interfering. Even if he had decided to help the little girl, the soldiers would not have allowed it, as evidenced by the images below. The initial photo was taken by Carter himself.
After receiving a number of phone calls and letters from concerned readers, the New York Times took the unusual step of publishing an editor’s note describing what they knew about the situation. “The photographer reports that she regained sufficient strength to continue her journey after the vulture was driven away. It is unknown whether she made it to the [feeding center].
Most of us have trouble comprehending how Carter and the rest of the Bang-Bang Club did this kind of work day after day. However, it turns out that it took a toll on them, and Carter paid the ultimate price. Carter’s daily routine included cocaine and other drugs, which helped him cope with the horrors of his occupation. He confided in his war correspondent friend Judith Matloff frequently. She claimed that he would “talk about the guilt of the people he couldn’t save because he photographed them as they were being killed.” It was initiating a downward spiral into depression. Reedwaan Vally, another friend, says, “You could see it happening. You could see Kevin descending into a gloomy trance.”
Ken Oosterbroek, his best friend and fellow Bang-Bang Club member, was shot and killed on location. Carter believed it should have been him, but he was absent from the group because he was being interviewed about his Pulitzer Prize win. Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa in the same month.
Carter had dedicated his life to exposing the evils of apartheid, and now — in a sense — that mission was accomplished. He was unsure of how to live his life. In addition, he felt obligated to live up to his Pulitzer Prize. Soon after, in the haze of his depression, he committed a grave error. In Mozambique on assignment for Time magazine, he traveled. On the return flight, he left all 16 rolls of film he had shot there behind. It could not be recovered. This proved to be the last straw for Carter. In less than a week, he passed away. He drove to a park, connected a hose to his car’s exhaust pipe, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.
Yes, winning the Pulitzer Prize put pressure on him, but it didn’t lead directly to his death. Rather, it added to the stress and guilt he had accumulated while photographing some of the world’s most gruesome locales. The famine in Sudan, however, was brought to the world’s attention as a result of this photographer’s photograph. Carter left an indelible mark on the consciousness of the world.