Friday, March 19, 2010

Iconic Photographs: Vulture and Child/Kevin Carter (1960-1994)


Kevin Carter (1960-1994) was a South African photojournalist. Having commenced as a sports photographer, he changed to photojournalism with the intention of showing the brutality of apartheid. He was the first to photograph a public execution by “necklacing”, the practice of putting a petrol filled tyre over a victim’s arms and chest, then setting it alight. He justified his photographs by saying:
"I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures... then I felt that maybe my actions hadn't been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn't necessarily such a bad thing to do."
He recognised that the media may, in fact, be responsible for the events happening:
"…the camera completed the last requirement, and acted as a catalyst in this terrible reaction. The strong message that was being sent, was only meaningful if it were carried by the media. … The question that haunts me is 'would those people have been necklaced, if there was no media coverage?"
In 1993 Carter was in the Sudan when he saw an emaciated Sudanese infant paused to rest whilst struggling towards a feeding centre. A vulture landed nearby. By his own account Carter waited for about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. When it wouldn’t, he took the above photograph and chased the vulture away.  He then left.

The photo was sold to the New York Times, prompting hundreds to ask what had happened to the toddler. The newspaper replied that the little girl had had enough strength to walk away from the vulture but it wasn’t known what had happened to her afterwards.

An alternative account was later given by Joao Silva, a photojournalist who accompanied Carter.  Silva said that  the parents of the child were nearby, receiving food from a plane, and had only left the child temporarily.

The photograph was awarded the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Carter became a celebrity but inwardly he was still haunted by his demons. Two months after receiving the Pulitzer Price, Carter drove to an area in Johannesburg where he used to play as a child, connected a hose to his car exhaust and took his own life. He left behind a note in which he stated “I'm really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist." His note also gives an insight into the horrors in his psyche:
"I am depressed ... without phone ... money for rent ... money for child support ... money for debts ... money!!! ... I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners...I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky."
(The reference to Ken is to Ken Oosterbroek.  Oosterbroek was a South African photojournalist and friend of Carter’s who had been killed by friendly fire from peacekeepers near Johannesburg 3 months prior to Carter’s suicide).

Carter’s legacy is not only his famous photograph. Upon publication, the photo prompted complaints from thousands as to Carter having watched the child for twenty minutes, instead of helping her. It also touched off debates and discussions as to the nature and boundaries of news photography.

The St. Petersburg Times in Florida summed it up: :
"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.”

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