The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photo So Emotionally Devastating, The Photographer Took His Own Life

Many people are familiar with this picture from the South Sudan famine, but few know that the tragedy reaches far beyond the picture itself – it extends to the photographer, Kevin Carter. The photo of a starving Sudanese boy struggling to reach a food center, watched patiently by a hungry vulture, conveys a heartbreaking subtext; however, the details of the events leading up to the image, as well as the photographer's life following its capture, make it one of the most striking and complex stories of human suffering in the modern era. 

In 1993, Kevin Carter snapped the now famous photo in South Sudan while covering the famine plaguing the country, as well as the international relief efforts in response. When the picture first appeared in The New York Times, it ignited a firestorm that included both condemnations and congratulations for Carter. Most notably, the photo won him the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Not long after, Carter took his own life, unable to process the horrors he had witnessed in South Sudan. His end adds yet another layer of tragedy to this somber tale.

Photo: Cliff / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

  • Kevin Carter Claimed That He Chased The Bird Away After Taking The Photo

    While on the way to a United Nations feeding center, a young boy – initially mistaken for a girl – had stopped to rest, exhausted by starvation. As his parents had likely gone ahead to collect food, the emaciated child lay vulnerable, attracting the attention of a vulture.

    Initially, Carter claimed to have come upon the scene, snapped a few photos, and then chased the bird away.

  • In Reality, He Let The Bird Inch Closer So He Could Capture The Perfect Image

    Carter eventually admitted that he watched the scene for about twenty minutes, waiting for the vulture to get closer to the boy and hoping that it would spread its wings for a more dramatic photo. After the vulture refused to move, Carter finally chased the bird away.

    No one is certain whether or not the child reached the feeding center,  though he did survive the incident; however, sources later revealed that he succumbed to malarial fever fourteen years later. 

  • The Suffering In South Sudan At The Time Was Blatant And Appalling

    Unfortunately, famine is not uncommon in South Sudan. The country was caught in the grip of famine intermittently throughout the 1990s. Due to this and other factors, the mortality rate in South Sudan was high at the time of Carter's photo.

  • When The Photo Was First Published, The New York Times Received Much Backlash

    Carter sold the photo to The New York Times, where, upon publication, readers were affronted by the potent image. People barraged the Times with inquiring about whether or not the child survived the encounter. This prompted the editor to insert a note in their next edition stating that he escaped the vulture, but that they knew nothing further.

    From there, critics turned on Carter, wanting to know why he hadn't helped the suffering child.

  • Despite Winning A Pulitzer For The Photograph, Carter Was Highly Criticized For His Methods

    Photojournalists in South Sudan at that time were specifically instructed not to touch famine victims due to the possibility of spreading disease. Carter's defendants argued that, because of these instructions, there was little he could have done to help the child, though critics were still quick to judge.

    The revelation that Carter spent twenty minutes on the scene tarnished his reputation even further. Said the St. Petersburg Times, “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.”

    Still, not all of the photo's feedback was negative. Many praised the power and emotion with which it captured the human suffering occurring in South Sudan. 

  • For Carter, The Photo Was The Final Straw In A Lifetime Of Distressing Images

    For Carter, The Photo Was The Final Straw In A Lifetime Of Distressing Images
    Photo: Ilagardien / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0

    At the age of 33, Carter took his own life through carbon monoxide poisoning. He left behind a note that cited debt and a struggle with depression as his primary reasons for his decision, in addition to the trauma he was experiencing after a career of capturing images wrought with suffering.