Bearing witness to the unfathomable.
“And we know a little about the cost of being traumatized that drove some to suicide, that, yes, these people were human beings operating under the most demanding of conditions.” Desmond Tutu on the death of Kevin Carter.
When the now famous photo of The vulture and the little girl*, capturing the suffering of the Sudanese famine, was first published in the New York Times on March 26, 1993 countless letters from readers followed. Many considered Carter to be guilty of exploiting human suffering. Others where asking about the fate of the starving child shown in the photo or questioning why the photo was taken in the first place instead of an action taken to help the child. The photo awarded Carter with the Pulitzer Prize.
João Silva, friend and colleague, said the following about the feedback Carter received for The vulture and the little girl:
He [Carter] was highly criticized for that picture. People who had no place in criticizing him — people who had no understanding of the dynamics that it took to make that picture. … Ultimately that image was such a strong message of famine. Suddenly there was this influx of money that came out of nowhere. He saved more lives by taking that picture than he would have by not taking the picture.
Carter was born in 1960 in South Africa during apartheid. He became a photojournalist because he felt the need to document the horrific treatment of people in conflict zones and raise awareness on what was going on around him. He was arrested in South Africa several times for violating the ban on reporting on the domestic conflict.
Carter was part of the group of conflict photographers active during apartheid called the Bang Bang club alongside Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva. The group was famous for putting themselves in harm’s way to document what they thought the world was overlooking. Carter said about his time photographing the conflict “The question that still haunts me is ‘would those people have been necklaced**, if there was no media coverage?” The balance between moral, conscience and professional responsibility seemed to have haunted him for the rest of his life.
On the 27th of July 1994 Carter took his own life. Next to him he had left a note.
I’m really, really sorry … The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.
*The little girl was later found to have been a little boy. He was there with his family attempting to reach a United Nations feeding center in Ayod, South Sudan.
**Necklacing is a form of torture where a tire filled with oil is put around the victims neck and then set on fire.