Most people are familiar with this picture from the South Sudan famine, but not everyone knows that the tragedy portrayed goes far beyond the picture itself, extending to the photographer, Kevin Carter. The photo of a starving Sudanese girl struggling while a hungry vulture looks on patiently needs no added context to have an effect on all but the most callous of viewers. However, the details of what happened at the time and after the photograph was taken combine to make it one of the most striking and complex stories of human suffering in the modern era. It may have even led to the suicide of the very man who took it.
Kevin Carter took this photo in South Sudan in 1993 when covering the famine and the international attempts to stop it. When the photo first appeared in The New York Times, it ignited a firestorm of reaction that included both condemnations of Carter and huge congratulations, namely in the form of the Pulitzer Prize. Kevin Carter's suicide not long after adds another layer of tragedy to this somber and twisted tale.
Carter Claimed That He Chased The Bird Away Right After Taking The Picture
The basic details of the photograph are simple. While on the way to a United Nations feeding center, a young girl had stopped to rest, exhausted by starvation. As her parents had likely gone ahead to grab food, the emaciated child lay there, 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. However, this was not the whole truth – or even the partial truth.
In Reality, He Let The Bird Inch Closer And Closer – So He Could Capture The Perfect Shot
Later, another photographer present at the time of the picture revealed that the process was a bit more extended than that. Carter eventually admitted that he watched the scene for about 20 minutes, waiting for the vulture to get closer to the girl and hoping that it would spread its wings for a more dramatic shot. When that didn't happen, Carter finally got up and chased the bird away.
He did not help the girl, nor is anyone sure what happened to her after that. Carter noted that, considering the rampant hardship throughout the country, he did not regard the girl's situation as particularly unique.
The Suffering In South Sudan At The Time Was Blatant And Appalling
Unfortunately, famine is not an uncommon thing in South Sudan. To call the famine that occurred there in 1993 - when Kevin Carter visited on assignment - a singular event is a bit misleading. South Sudan was caught in the grip of famine off-and-on for the entirety of the '90s.
The death rate was high in the country at that time. The situation would have been a lot for anyone to take in, but especially anyone having to look closely at the suffering through a camera lens, like Kevin Carter.
When It Was First Published, The New York Times Got Lots Of Heat From Readers
Carter sold the photo to The New York Times where, upon publication, readers were instantly riled. People hounded the Times, inquiring as to whether or not the girl had survived. This prompted them to insert a note in their next paper stating that she escaped the vulture, but nothing further was known.
From there, critics turned on Carter, wanting to know why he hadn't helped the poor child.