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 committed suicide, unable to process the horrors he had witnessed in South Sudan. His end adds yet another layer of tragedy to this somber tale.
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.
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 shot. 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 died of malarial fever fourteen years later.
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.
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.