Kevin Carter and the Pulitzer Prize Photo of a Sudanese Child
Famous documentary and news photographs are there to see in books, exhibitions, or in various places on-line but their context is primarily post production, how they were and are presented, where we have seen them, how they relate to our knowledge of the event they were part of, how the critics reacted and how we reacted. Occasionally the story of the photograph is documented by the photographer providing an insight into the circumstances surrounding its capture and publication and we are able to measure our reaction in terms of the photographer’s intent.
Less occasionally a photograph becomes something more than ink on paper, or pixels on a screen, it becomes the political or social symbol of a particular time or place, placed at the centre of an ethical or political argument, appropriated by different groups to prove their viewpoint, used as evidence on one or, sometimes, both sides of a debate. Susan Sontag, in Regarding the Pain of Others (1), cites the example of the same photographs of dead children being handed out at both Serb and Croat press briefings as proof of the atrocities committed by the other side.
Kevin Carter was a South African photo journalist, part of the Bang Bang Club, which was a loose association, more a friendship, of four independent photo journalists who covered events in African in the 1990s. The story of these men is told by the two survivors, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, in The Bang-Bang Club (2).
The photo in question, Kevin Carter’s Sudanese Child and a Vulture, created controversy from the moment it was published by The New York Times in 1993, controversy that was rekindled when Carter won a Pultizer Prize for the picture in 1994 and again when he committed suicide in 1995 at the age of 33 (3). It is notable that, by the time of his death, The New York Times, could use the phrase “Sudan Photo” in its headline expecting that its readers would know the picture.
This picture of a starving child and plump vulture has frequently been used as a metaphor for the plight of Africa and was presumably seen by the Pulitzer judges as one of the most important news photos of that year so why all the controversy? According to Nancy Lee, a Times staffer, the calls started as soon as the picture was published, people wanted to know what had happened to the child. Lee spoke to Carter who appeared to be evasive saying that they were near to the feeding station so she would have made it but that he hadn’t helped her. The Times ran an Editor’s note to reassure its readers that the child had probably made it to the feeding station but the question quickly became why hadn’t Carter helped her?
In the Bang-Bang Club (2) Silva, who had been with Carter on the trip to the feeding station and clinic in Sudan, described the excited and emotional Carter straight after he captured the picture. He points out the child, still lying face down on the dirt, to Silva and tells how he chased the vulture away. Silva is disappointed to have missed what sounded like a great photo and is irritated by Carter’s excitement. There is no mention of either of them helping the child or checking on its well-being.
Other photojournalists who visited the same station at or around the same time have suggested that the vultures were common place and that mothers would place their children on the ground while they collected food so with a low angle and a telephoto lens to foreshorten the perspective it was an easy shot to get. In some ways a set-up.
Greg Marinovich avoids judging Carter for not intervening but believes that he (Marinovich) would have taken the picture, because that was his job, and then intervened. (4) “To intercede, to change the picture, is unethical. To intercede at the cost of doing your job as a journalist, I think that’s a personal choice you make. And I have no issue with people on the other side of that divide.”
The arguments that surround this photograph are reflective of a much wider debate on photographic ethics. Carter was an independent, professional news photographer working within a set of self imposed rules concerning not manipulating a scene or the pictures he took. By all accounts this photograph is genuine in the sense that the child was lying face down on the ground, as seen by Silva, and there were vultures in the area. Using a long lens may make the vulture seem closer than it really was but I would argue that, having seen African vultures in wildlife parks, the scale of the child and the bird make the distance between them fairly obvious.
Who am I, who has never been in a war zone, to judge whether Carter should have carried the child to the feeding station or whether, indeed, the child needed that help? I walk past street people when I visit London, I often photograph them, I might give them a few coins but does that qualify as meaningful assistance?
So, for me the question of intervention is open. The second question would reasonably be one of exploitation.
Unless a photographer dedicates their career to empty landscapes there will always be a question of whether we are exploiting our subjects. For a photojournalist covering war zones, famines and other disasters it might be easier to find a answer than it is for amateurs. Anyone who buys a newspaper, pays their TV license, or subscribes to Sky is helping to fund photojournalists to take photos of current events. They are there at our behest, collectively we are hungry for their images and therefore if they are exploiting their subject then we are collectively responsible.
I agree with Sontag (1) that photographs of war do not stop war, they are used by pacifists to argue against war, by the combatants to rally supporters to their cause , by the winner to prove the atrocities committed by the loser and for a hundred other reasons including entertainment. However, if we consider the result of war, the photographs of the starving children in the Sudan, helped charities raise millions of pounds to buy food and many believe that the publication of Philip Jones Griffiths’ Vietnam Inc. (6) helped start the process of turning US public opinion against the Vietnam War.
Philip Jones Griffiths towards the end of his life asked important questions about the role of photojournalism in the future (5). His concern was that news reporting had been progressively dumbed down to the point where the one-off, eye-grabbiing shot has become the norm and that we are swamped with images to such a degree that the important ones are lost. I see this argument at the heart of the exploitation question, Jones Griffith’s Vietnam Inc. cannot be seen as exploitive, even though it predominately uses photos of Vietnamese people, often in dire circumstances. It is not exploitive because it is the deeply researched work of a concerned photographer, someone who wanted to bring about change by publishing his work. He was not chasing a Pultizer prize, or “likes” on Flickr, he had become connected with his subject and was fighting on their behalf in the only way he could – with his pictures.
There is therefore an argument that intent determines whether a photograph is exploitive but it becomes difficult to close this argument out if you have to define an acceptable intent. The extremes are easy to define; the work of concerned photographers aimed at raising public awareness of an issue with the ultimate intent of bringing about change is clearly following the great tradition of humanist, social documentary photography.
At the other extreme child pornography is so obviously exploitive and vile that it rightly remains one of society’s strongest taboos, probably one of the few situations where looking at a photograph is potentially a criminal act.
The problem of definition is all in the large gap between these two extremes – is art an acceptable intent? is wining a photographic competition an acceptable intent? is collecting images as part of a degree course and acceptable intent? Because it is impossible to define a scale of acceptable and unacceptable intent the whole argument collapses.
Ultimately most photography is exploitive and we, as photographers, have to accept that fact and question whether we are doing harm by each specific instance of exploitation. The responsible photojournalist must constantly question their motives and work within self imposed limits of what they believe is acceptable. The amateur street photographer needs to be doing the same.
The original question was whether this photograph is objective. The answer is no because no documentary or news photograph is truly objective. I will discuss this in more depth elsewhere but in the case of the Sudanese child we know enough of the back story to be able to be certain of the lack of objectivity. The photographer’s viewpoint, his act of waiting until the child and the vulture were in the same frame, the choice of lens and the selected depth of field make this photograph very subjective. It is unquestionably Carter’s view of this event.
(1) Sontag, Susan (2003) Regarding the Pain of Others. Penguin Books 2004 Kindle edition. London, Penguin Books
(2) Marinovich, Greg and Silva, Joao (2000) The Bang-Bang Club: Snapshots From a Hidden War. Arrow Books 2001 Kindle edition. London, Arrow Books
(6) Jones Griffiths, Phillip. (1971) Vietnam Inc. : First Published by Collier Books 1971, this edition published in 2001 and reprinted in 2011. London: Phaidon.
(3) The New York Times (accessed 2014) Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Winner for Sudan Photo, is Dead at 33 – http://www.nytimes.com/1994/07/29/world/kevin-carter-a-pulitzer-winner-for-sudan-photo-is-dead-at-33.html
(4) NPR (accessed 2014) Two War Photographers on their Injuries, Ethics – http://www.npr.org/2011/04/21/135513724/two-war-photographers-on-their-injuries-ethics
Photography News (accessed 2014) Remembering Kevin Carter and the photo that made the world weep – http://www.photography-news.com/2013/09/remembering-kevin-carter-and-photo-that.html
(5) Photo Histories (August 2014) – Philip Jones Griffiths – http://www.photohistories.com/interviews/23/philip-jones-griffiths