Kevin Carter- his life and death

  • SumoMe

My dad asked me once if I had heard of Sudan. I gave him my I-know-it-all look and told him with my chin up, “of course I know!” and went ahead giving him a lengthy monologue about the condition there. He listened to me patiently and then proceeded to ask me if I knew Kevin Carter. Well I had never heard of him!!!My dad told me to check up on him and added, “It would interest you”. I googled him and the story and images I stumbled upon left me zapped and I just had to share here, what I found.

Turns out, Carter was a South African photojournalist and a brilliant one too. However, the key word here is ‘was’. He killed himself at the age of 33. The defining moment in his career would be a picture he took of a young wasted Sudanese girl that made newspaper front-page across the world. The picture was first published in The New York Times and The Mail & Guardian, a Johannesburg weekly. The photo showed the emaciated, visibly extremely malnourished child crawling or trying to crawl her way to someplace while a huge vulture stood guard behind her, almost like it waited for the girl’s strength to run out. The photo was complete in its morbid portrayal of near-death starvation, of the ‘undead’ trying to cling on to the last remaining vestiges of life with death so nearby. It went on to fetch Carter a Pulitzer Prize while becoming an image that managed to a certain extent, to capture the horrors and the sufferings that one whole nation was going through.

When it made its appearance in The New York Times, the response to it overnight was staggering; an unbelievable number of people contacted the paper to enquire the fate of the young girl. It lead the editor of the paper to run a special note where he informed the readers that the girl was on her way to a feeding centre and had sufficient strength to move from that place. As Carter’s photo became famous, his own infamy accompanied it. The irony of the situation cropped up again- the fact that the people to let us know of all the atrocities committed, all the heinous crimes happening, all the overlooked facts that people close their eyes to, are also in some ways the first (maybe passive) witnesses of all that abominable actions. He said of all those horrible images he captured, “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.”

Carter came under massive criticism for choosing to be the one to photograph and not help the little Sudanese girl. He had also mentioned that he waited for a full 20 minutes before taking the shot because he hoped that the vulture would open its wings providing the shot with stronger impact. But since it didn’t do so, he clicked his photo and then chased away the vulture without providing further assistance to the child.”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”- that is how one paper chose to describe Carter. However Carter himself was deeply disturbed with all that he saw. The images that he clicked, of murder, suffering and brutality haunted him. After taking the photo of the little girl, he sat under a tree, “smoking cigarettes and crying”, thinking about his little daughter, Megan. Carter’s father once said about his son, “Kevin always carried around the horror of the work he did.” It was and still remains easy for people to criticize Carter and others of his kind for being amidst poverty and squalor and doing nothing but capturing images or writing stories, but I guess if we look closer home and underneath ourselves, we would be left with nothing of substance to say or criticize with.

The dilemma between choosing to be the rescuer or to be the reporter of sufferings, the question of ethics and the perennial divide between work and duty- Carter was well aware of it. “I had to think visually,” he said once, while describing a shoot-out. “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.”

On 27 July 1994 Carter drove to the Braamfonteinspruit River, near the Field and Study Centre – a place he used to go play as a child, and he killed himself by taping one end of a gardening hose to his car’s exhaust pipe and placing the other end in the passenger’s side of the window. He turned the engine on, played music on his walkman and then rolled over to his side using the knapsack as a pillow and that’s how his short life ended. The suicide note that he left behind told the problems he was besieged by, the personal battles he had to fight every day, the living nightmares that haunted him and the memory that failed to fail him and remained fresh as ever. He wrote:”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.”(Ken Oosterbroek, his best friend and fellow photographer was killed while covering an outbreak of violence)

Of course fame or the criticism that accompanied fame was not the sole reason responsible for his suicide. The way of life that he embraced- the one with sombre visuals and dark truths, the kind of wildly passionate person he was, the pressure of getting the job at hand done, to be the first to be where the action is, the insecurity of existence or permanence of everything (including life), the scars gathered in surviving violence over and over again, the sedatives taken to numb ugly consciousness temporarily…….all these were very much parts of the equation that resulted in Carter killing himself. After his death, his little daughter said in an interview, “I see my dad as the suffering child and the world as the vulture.” Now that’s some food for thought. There cannot be any conclusion or lucid finality to the question of why exactly Carter killed himself and the questions that his self destruction raised are still seeking answers.

Pronoti Baglary

[Image courtesy:]

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