Sunday marked the World Photography Day and as the day is set aside to measure progress made so far in the industry and as well as celebrating practitioners whose work brought change and relief to people I chose to focus on late Kevin Carter, a courageous, passionate and curious South African war Photojournalist.
He took one of the globally notorious photos known as Vulture and Girl that depicted the gravity of the infamous Sudan Famine which sparked emotions , wild condemnation and also debate on whether it is ethical for a photojournalist to take photographs of his subject on the verge of death or to rescue the subject.
For Kevin, he was doing his job since he was not the cause of that devastating famine and at the same time did not want to go contrary to the instructions giving to him by the United Nations officials.
Though Kevin did his job as a photojournalist but his failure to provide a tangible answer to what happened to the girl after he took the picture exposed him to wild condemnation across the world for being insensitive to the girl’s plight.
His explanation that he scared the bird away while his failure to rescue the girl was based on the warning given by the United Nations that nobody should touch victims during the operations worsened his case despite the fact that his work exposes extreme leadership failure on the continent.
The girl was said to have been left by her mother to go for food at the feeding centre was struggling to get to the same feeding centre where her mother had gone caught the attention of the photojournalist who was there to cover the United Nations humanitarian interventions in Sudan.
Late Kevin Carter in his war photographic gear
Obviously, Kevin captured one of the most unbelievable and dramatic scenes the world has ever seen, the photojournalist’s 1993 photograph of a struggling, emaciated two-year-old girl with a predated vulture waiting behind her has also been one of the most controversial images of famine in Africa.
My choice for this topic is to throw more light on Kevin.s legacy and also how he carried out his work to enable members of the press photo community to learn from this great man whose unnatural death overshadowed the fantastic work he left behind.
Keving Carter was a member of some powerful group of 4 war photojournalists in South Africa calling themselves Bang Bang Club.
Kevin Carter knew the stench of death. As a member of the Bang-Bang Club, who chronicled apartheid-era South Africa, he had seen more than his share of heartbreak according to Japanese journalist and writer Akio Fujiwara and Time Magazine.
Kevin( right) being photographed by one his coleagues
Emotional detachment allowed Carter and other photojournalists to witness countless tragedies and continue the job. The world’s intense reactions to the vulture photo appeared to be punishment for this necessary trait. Later, it became painfully clear that he hadn’t been detached at all. He had been deeply, fatally affected by the horrors he had witnessed
In 1993 he flew to Sudan to photograph the famine racking that land. Exhausted after a day of taking pictures in the village of Ayod, he headed out into the open bush. There he heard whimpering and came across an emaciated toddler who had collapsed on the way to a feeding center.
As he took the child’s picture, a plump vulture landed nearby. Carter had reportedly been advised not to touch the victims because of disease, so instead of helping, he spent 20 minutes waiting in the hope that the stalking bird would open its wings. It did not. The New York Times ran the photo, and readers were eager to find out what happened to the child—and to criticize Carter for not coming to his subject’s aid. His image quickly became a wrenching case study in the debate over when photographers should intervene. Subsequent research seemed to reveal that the child did survive yet died 14 years later from malarial fever. Carter won a Pulitzer for his image, but the darkness of that bright day never lifted from him. In July 1994 he took his own life, writing, “I am haunted by
Carter’s photograph was sold to the New York Times, and was first published on March 26, 1993. Many other newspapers across the globe also published the photograph. In 1994, the so-called “Struggling Girl” won Carter the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.
However, as with many dramatic and compelling images, “Struggling Girl” also earned Carter some criticism for his actions as a photojournalist. People around the world wanted to know about the fate of the girl, and whether he actually helped her in any way. Carter initially said he took the picture and left right after. But later, he also answered that he waited for 20 minutes for the vulture to leave and when it didn’t, he chased it away and left.
On May 23, 14 months after capturing that memorable scene, Carter walked up to the dais in the classical rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library and received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography.
Two months after receiving his Pulitzer, Carter would be dead of carbon-monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg, a suicide at 33. His red pickup truck was parked near a small river where he used to play as a child; a green garden hose attached to the vehicle’s exhaust funnelled the fumes inside. “I’m really, really sorry,” he explained in a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack. “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.”
How could a man who had moved so many people with his work end up a suicide so soon after his great triumph? The brief obituaries that appeared around the world suggested a morality tale about a person undone by the curse of fame. The details, however, show how fame was only the final, dramatic sting of a death foretold by Carter’s personality, the pressure to be first where the action is, the fear that his pictures were never good enough, the existential lucidity that came to him from surviving violence again and again — and the drugs he used to banish that lucidity. If there is a paramount lesson to be drawn from Carter’s meteoric rise and fall, it is that tragedy does not always have heroic dimensions. “I have always had it all at my feet,” read the last words of his suicide note, “but being me just fit up anyway.”
Kevin enrolled in the South African Air force so after leaving the service, Carter got a job at a camera supply shop and drifted into journalism, first as a weekend sports photographer for the Johannesburg Sunday Express. When riots began sweeping the black townships in 1984, Carter moved to the Johannesburg Star and aligned himself with the crop of young, white photojournalists who wanted to expose the brutality of apartheid a mission that had once been the almost exclusive calling of South Africa’s black photographers. “They put themselves in face of danger, were arrested numerous times, but never quit.
By 1990, the civil war was raging between Mandela’s A.N.C. and the Zulu-supported Inkatha Freedom Party led by Chief Mangosutho Buthelezi. For whites, it became potentially fatal to work the townships alone. To diminish the dangers, Carter hooked up with three friends — Ken Oosterbroek of the Star and free-lancers Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva — and they began moving through Soweto and Tokoza at dawn. If a murderous gang was going to shoot up a bus, throw someone off a train or cut up somebody on the street, it was most likely to happen as township dwellers began their journeys to work in the soft, shadowy light of an African morning. The four became so well known for capturing the violence that Living, a Johannesburg magazine, dubbed them “the Bang-Bang Club.”
THINGS THAT COMPELLED HIM TO CAUSE SUICIDE
His pictures would eventually be splashed across front pages around the world, but he came away from the scene in a funk. First, there was the horror of having witnessed murder. Perhaps as importantly, while a few colleagues had framed the scene perfectly, Carter was reloading his camera with a film just as the executions took place. “I knew I had missed this f—— shot,” he said subsequently. “I drank a bottle of bourbon that night.” He lost his best friend in the Bang Bang Club. He had financial difficulties and finally the loss of the undeveloped films he used during the Mitterrand assignment.
At the same time, he seemed to be stepping up his drug habit, including smoking the white pipe. A week after the Bop executions, he was seen staggering around while on assignment at a Mandela rally in Johannesburg. Later he crashed his car into a suburban house and was thrown in jail for 10 hours on suspicion of drunken driving. His superior at Reuter was furious at having to go to the police station to recover Carter’s film of the Mandela event. Carter’s girlfriend, Kathy Davidson, a schoolteacher, was even more upset. Drugs had become a growing issue in their one-year relationship. Over Easter, she asked Carter to move out until he cleaned up his life.
Early on Monday, April 18, the Bang-Bang Club headed out to Tokoza township, 10 miles from downtown Johannesburg, to cover an outbreak of violence. Shortly before noon, with the sun too bright for taking good pictures, Carter returned to the city. Then on the radio he heard that his best friend, Oosterbroek, had been killed in Tokoza. Marinovich had been gravely wounded. Oosterbroek’s death devastated Carter, and he returned to work in Tokoza the next day, even though the violence had escalated. He later told friends that he and not Ken “should have taken the bullet.”
With the Pulitzer award, however, he had to deal not only with acclaim but also with the critical focus that comes with fame. Some journalists in South Africa called his prize a “fluke,” alleging that he had somehow set up the tableau. Others questioned his ethics. “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering,” said the St. Petersburg (Florida) Times, “might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene.” Even some of Carter’s friends wondered aloud why he had not helped the girl.
Carter was painfully aware of the photojournalist’s dilemma. “I had to think visually,” he said once, describing a shoot-out. “I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man’s face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, ‘My God.’ But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can’t do it, get out of the game.” Says Nachtwey, “Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make themselves feel good. It is very hard to continue.”
According to friends, Carter began talking openly about suicide. Part of his anxiety was over the Mitterrand assignment. But mostly he seemed worried about money and making ends meet. When an assignment in Mozambique for TIME came his way, he eagerly accepted. Despite setting three alarm clocks to make his early-morning flight on July 20, he missed the plane. Furthermore, after six days in Mozambique, he walked off his return flight to Johannesburg, leaving a package of undeveloped film on his seat. He realized his mistake when he arrived at a friend’s house. He raced back to the airport but failed to turn up anything. Carter was distraught and returned to the friend’s house in the morning, threatening to smoke a white pipe and gas himself to death.
Carter and a friend, Judith Matloff, 36, an American correspondent for Reuters News Agency, dined on Mozambican prawns he had brought back. He was apparently too ashamed to tell her about the lost film. Instead, they discussed their futures. Carter proposed forming a writer-photographer free-lance team and traveling Africa together.
On the morning of Wednesday, July 27, the last day of his life, Carter appeared cheerful. He remained in bed until nearly noon and then went to drop off a picture that had been requested by the Weekly Mail. In the paper’s newsroom, he poured out his anguish to former colleagues, one of whom gave him the number of a therapist and urged him to phone her.
The last person to see Carter alive, it seems, was Oosterbroek’s widow, Monica. As night fell, Carter turned up unannounced at her home to vent his troubles. Still recovering from her husband’s death three months earlier, she was in little condition to offer counsel. They parted at about 5:30 p.m.
Members of the Bang Bang Club
The Braamfonteinspruit is a small river that cuts southward through Johannesburg’s northern suburbs — and through Parkmore, where the Carters once lived. At around 9 p.m., Kevin Carter backed his red Nissan pickup truck against a blue gum tree at the Field and Study Center. He had played there often as a little boy. The Sandton Bird Club was having its monthly meeting there, but nobody saw Carter as he used silver gaffer tape to attach a garden hose to the exhaust pipe and run it to the passenger-side window. Wearing unwashed Lee jeans and an Esquire T shirt, he got in and switched on the engine. Then he put music on his Walkman and lay over on his side, using the knapsack as a pillow.
The suicide note he left behind is a litany of nightmares and dark visions, a clutching attempt at autobiography, self-analysis, explanation, excuse. After coming home from New York, he wrote, he was “depressed . . . without a phone . . . money for rent . . . money for child support . . . money for debts . . . money!!! . . . I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . . ” And then this: “I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”
Any lessons learnt here?
Why should a great photojournalist in the calibre of Kevin Carter go through these difficulties and later went ahead to take his life?
His Vulture and Girl picture alone was overly used.
He won the prestigious Pulitzer Award
He was the only photojournalist to have covered Necklace Execution.
He was among the 4 renowned war photojournalists who chronicled the brutalities and human atrocities during the apartheid era.
After widely circulation of his works Kevin was still complaining of financial challenges associated with depression which compelled him to use illicit drugs to give him some relief while nobody cared for his plight.
Does this mean he never got a deserving reward for his work or what went wrong for some whose work falls under ten best images in the world?
May his soul rest in peace