Monday, September 13, 2010

Kevin Carter - Wanting a Meal

The haunting photo of a vulture stalking an emaciated Sudanese girl who'd collapsed on her way to a feeding station won photographer Kevin Carter a Pulitzer Prize in 1994. Carter also become notorious for sticking to the journalistic principle of being an observor and not getting involved -- he left after taking his photo and neither he, nor the New York Times, which first published the photo on 26 March 1993, knew what happened to her. (Looking at the photo, it's hard to imagine a pleasant ending.) A few months later after collecting his Pulitzer, Carter committed suicide, the violence he'd encountered in his life as a journalist, especially in South Africa, becoming too much to live with.

In March 1993 Carter made a trip to Sudan. The sound of soft, high-pitched whimpering near the village of Ayod attracted Carter to an emaciated Sudanese toddler. The girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. He said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn't. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. However, he came under criticism for just photographing — and not helping — the little girl:

The St. Petersburg Times in Florida said this of Carter: "The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering, might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene."

The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run a special editor's note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown.

Kevin Carter, the South African photographer was found dead on Wednesday night, apparently a suicide. He was 33. The police said Mr Carter's body and several letters to friends and family were discovered in his pick-up truck, parked in a Johannesburg suburb. An inquest showed that he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Mr Carter started as a sports photographer in 1983 but soon moved to the front lines of South African political strife, recording images of repression, anti-apartheid protest and fratricidal violence. A few davs after winning his Pulitzer Prize in April, Mr Carter was nearby when one of his closest friends and professional companions, Ken Oosterbroek, was shot dead photographing a gun battle in Tokoza township.

His picture of an emaciated girl collapsing on the way to a feeding centre, as a plump vulture lurked in the background, was published first in The New York Times and The Mail & Guardian, a Johannesburg weekly. The reaction to the picture was so strong that The New York Times published an unusual editor's note on the fate of the girl. Mr Carter said she resumed her trek to the feeding centre. He chased away the vulture.

Afterwards, he told an interviewer, he sat under a tree for a long time, "smoking cigarettes and crying". His father, Mr Jimmy Carter said: "Kevin always carried around the horror of the work he did." -

What are the odds the little girl is alive today? Not very high, I'd say. If she is alive, what quality of life is she likely to have? She almost certainly has permanent damage from her period of starvation during crucial development, both before and after birth. It is easy to criticise Kevin Carter. Why? Because he took a photo of one starving child among thousands? Let those who send all their spare cash to the needy cast the first stone...

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