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On Kevin Carter’s famous photo and suicide

I saw this story on Reddit this morning — it was a TIL — about Kevin Carter’s suicide, which took place three months after he won the Pulitzer Prize for arguably one of the most depressing photos ever taken.

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People claim that the photo captures Sudan’s famine better than anything else ever recorded, but there’s more than that. The picture is insanely chilling to look at. A vulture is a bird of prey. It primarily eats carrion, but can eat almost anything (as a result, it serves the important ecological niche of clearing out rotting carcasses). Still, though, it’s a bird. It’s not a human. But in the photo, it looks as if it might contemplate eating this poor, sickly Sudanese child en route to a feeding center. The photo almost reverses the natural order of nature in one frozen shot. It’s heartbreaking. (On Carter’s Wiki, you can read different accounts of how the photo was taken and how the shot was set up. It almost doesn’t matter. It’s still heartbreaking almost no matter how you view it.)

It was heartbreaking for Carter too. His suicide note read in part, “The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.” I won’t deeply bore you with the background of Carter, as you can find it yourself all over the Internet, but he was part of the Bang-Bang Club, only two of whom (Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva) remain alive. They are considered some of the more famous war photographers of the modern era — they primarily existed during South Africa’s transition to democracy — and were immortalized in a 2010 film.

Here’s a good rundown of his most famous shot, including this truism — if you gathered 100 marketing/advertising executives together, even the best ones in the world, they couldn’t come up with anything like this photo. There’s also some lines from his diary in there about the value he placed on not wasting food after taking that photo.

Carter stirred up criticisms in some, notably: Why would you simply take this photo, and not help the child? At the time, and still today, photojournalists are encouraged not to be a part of helping, lest they spread disease or contract it themselves. Carter also photographed public executions prior to taking the vulture picture. As for those, he said:

“I had to think visually. 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.”

Reading about this whole thing — I had never heard of Kevin Carter before today despite these cultural reference points, which is one reason I posted this with no real contextual tie to anything else — made me question a lot of different things. First off, there’s the photo. Like I said above, it literally takes the order of species and flips it. You can say it’s a picture about famine. It’s not. It’s a picture about how the world left some of its own — huge swaths of its own, in fact — behind. It’s a picture about something we’re all a part of. That might be the most depressing aspect of the entire thing.

Then there’s the nature of war journalism, both print and photo. Why do we have war journalists? Is it simply to tell the stories, so that we understand? But how can we understand? Is it to tell the stories so that we don’t repeat the actions? But people have been fighting each other since the dawn of time. So what’s the role supposed to be? Why are we putting untrained (militarily, at least) people in these areas and situations? What are we hoping to achieve? Here’s one take, with a simple answer:

The answer is that I believe in eye-witness reporting by professional journalists, and I want to be where history is happening.

Here’s another take, with posthumous reflections on why two photojournalists did it:

They were in a position to experience world events first-hand and to make a difference. Their work portrayed war in a close-up fashion that showed the world what conflict is really like, what it’s like for the victims and what it’s like for the soldiers. I think that unique experience and perspective compelled them to do what they did. And it inspires all of us to do it.

I get it in some ways, and at a broader level, everyone is different. People have different interests, passions, beliefs, and ways they give back to the world (or try to give back to the world). Context is everything; that’s why I named this blog the way I did. Just like some people want to slaughter cows, and some want to teach third grade, some want to take photos in war zones. I guess this is what makes me depressed about the Kevin Carter story, and why I felt I needed to write one entry about it: if you slaughter cows, you’re in a bad situation, but there’s some good that can be seen (people are eating). If you teach third grade, sure, your school might be a disaster, but there’s some good (kids are learning and growing). If you take photos in a war zone, there’s good things (you’re at the middle of it, and you’re showing the world what it’s really like), but I don’t see the long-term. This picture was taken in 1993. Are we any closer to eliminating famine? No. His public execution pictures were taken earlier. Are we closer to ending public executions? No. It just happened in North Korea, apparently. It seems like in Carter’s situation, all we lost was a great photographer — and we lost him because the world showed him the lowest depths it was capable of. Being alive is supposed to inspire, not do that. At least I think that’s how it should work.

I’ll try to avoid getting deep as I close out this post, but I may anyway. Sometimes I think that the way we — collectively as humans — approach life (at least in the industrialized world) involves a lot of taking things for granted. Periodically, we do things because we’re supposed to do them, based on how we were raised or what our parents did, or what our specific communities do. Kevin Carter didn’t do that. He got out and saw the world, and saw the absolute worst parts of it. He made the world weep, and the world did the same to him. It’s just an absolute shame for a quest so seemingly filled with virtue to end like this. In a small way, it made me question everything I’ve known about commitment and connection and choosing a path. I’m just glad I got to learn the story eventually. I think it makes you a more complete person to sometimes think about issues way bigger than what you understand and can comprehend based on your own context.

Ted Bauer

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