Remembering Kevin Carter

There is a WhatsApp forward that shows the photo of the Vulture and the Little Girl – Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo from the Sudan in 1993. It reads

This was the Circulated Photo of a vulture waiting for a starving Sudanese girl to die so it can feast on her.
It was taken by Kevin Carter, a prolific photojournalist, during the famine of 1993 in Sudan.

This photo later won Kevin the Pulitzer prize for an ‘exceptional’ caption. However, Kevin later got depressed and took his own life four months after his world wide celebration as a skilful photographer.
He fell to depression.

His depression began when during an interview (a phone-in programme), someone asked him what happened to the child. “I did not wait to see what happened after this shot as I had a flight to catch…. “And the person replied, “I put it to you that there were two vultures that day; one had a camera”. This statement sank Kevin and as he constantly thought of the statement, he got depressed and ended his own life.

In whatever we do, let’s consider humanity first. Kevin Carter, may still have been alive today had it been he helped that little child. We have not truly lived, until our lives have become the stars and sunshine of someone else. If there is that one person you feel you can help in this period, start now tomorrow might be too late.

The story (in that forward) is incorrect on several counts. I recall reading the book “The Bang Bang Club” that features Kevin Carter and his workmate Ken Oosterbroek. It was made into a film in 2010.

  1. Very basic point. The child in the photo is not a girl. It’s a boy named Kong Nyong.
  2. The boy survived and was rescued by the UN. His father confirmed it.
  3. The photo was taken in 1993. Kong Nyong lived for a further 14 years and only died in 2007 after suffering from fever.
  4. Kevin’s photojournalism work undoubtedly drew attention to the Sudan and unlocked international aid, thus helping save many more lives.
  5. It is true that Kevin Carter committed suicide but that was not until 27 July 1994 – more than a year after taking the photograph.
  6. In his life, Kevin was a deeply traumatised person because of the work he was doing. He was in a lot of trouble spots, wars and strifes. For example, he covered the core brutality of apartheid such as “necklacing”, prior to his work in the Sudan. Imagine if your work was to document wars, violent killings and injustice all year round.  
  7. To cope with stress, he was heavy into drugs and he was suffering from depression.
  8. The death of his friend Ken (shot and killed) in April of 1994 did not help. It is at this point that finally the depression took over his life and pushed him to suicide 3 months later. He was financially broke, his body broken and his soul lost in a world that was neither seeing nor responding to his pain. Yet, that pain was there in the photographs he left us.
  9. His suicide note, available online is stark:

I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. …depressed … without 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 … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.

This is the maddening world we live in – fake news and unverified information in social media. We can question Kevin Carter for not picking up the child forgetting that he probably also died questioning himself. However, when we twist a story so grotesquely just to fit a narrative, we fail to see that Kevin himself was a victim. Even more tragically, we riddle a supposedly good message with inaccuracies that detract from the pureness of the lesson that was supposed to be imparted – sympathy.

The assertion that Kevin Carter, may still have been alive today had he helped that little child is interesting but neither here nor there. The truth is, we just don’t know. If I had to guess, he would probably have lost his life in any one of the meaningless wars that dot the planet – and we would still have found something to hold against him.

Rather than paint Kevin as a vulture by changing the facts of this famous photo to show what a horrible person he was, perhaps we should ask ourselves the human cost of photojournalism.

How much do some of the people who work in the media go through? Some are woken up to go to accident scenes, bombed out places and morgues so that they can bring us our daily dose of news. The cycle repeats every day – it never stops. The deadlines are tight, the visible human suffering is unrelenting and the journalists do not always have the right support mechanisms. They are traumatised, living on the front lines, hardly ever switching off from the madness of the news cycle, each day more tragic than the previous one. It is intense and sometimes they may not make the right choices, simply because they are human.

In the final analysis, these journalists are also casualties of a horrible world and they work in the aftermath of selfish local and global interests that maim and kill the innocent, starve whole populations and leave newspeople to document their evil deeds.

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