Kevin Carter – Photography & ethics

My instructor in Socio-Anthropology class asked us to look up who was that “photographer who won a Pulitzer prize for a photo of a young girl struggling on to reach a feeding center somewhere in Africa.”

That photographer is Kevin Carter, born September 13, 1960 in Johannesburg and was an award-winning South African photojournalist and member of the “Bang-Bang Club”.

He became famous when he won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography on May 23, 1994 for this photo of an emaciated Sudanese toddler struggling to reach a feeding center in the village Ayod in southern Sudan. When the girl stopped to rest, a vulture landed behind her, perhaps sensing that death would soon overcome her.

Kevin Carters Pulitzer prize winning photograph that changed his life & the world
Kevin Carter's Pulitzer prize winning photograph that changed his life & the world

When the photo first appeared in The New York Times on March 26, 1993 and drew massive public attention. However, Kevin Carter was criticized for allegedly not helping the girl:

“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.”

Months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Kevin Carter committed suicide on July 27, 1994 by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:

“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.”(source)

Our instructor was right, doing this kind of work – a sort of Ethnographic research which involves direct, first-hand observation of the subject’s daily behavior which can include participant observation – can have a drastic and often times negative impact on the observer/researcher’s life. In this case, it drove Kevin Carter to end his life.

Was Kevin Carter wrong in just taking the photo and allegedly not helping the struggling child? There has been much debate on this issue. I end with sharing this video presentation by four Media Ethics students that took on the ethics case of Photojournalist Kevin Carter and his infamous and award winning photograph “Sudanese Girl”.

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