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The Tragic Story Behind a Masterpiece
The Tragic Story Behind a Masterpiece

By - Adedoyin Shittu

Posted - 10-07-2019

The young boy who history mistook for a girl struggles with his last bout of strength to make it to the United Nations feeding center while a vulture watches keenly waiting to feed on her carcass.

This controversial photo tells a story where professionalism is at the crossroads with morality. While the photographer could have changed the fate of a struggling child, he chose to detach himself and stay behind the lens. In the end, the image came back to haunt him and led to his death.
The man behind the camera is South African photojournalist Kevin Carter and the image was taken on a hot afternoon while on assignment to Sudan in 1993.

In March 1993 Carter headed to Sudan now South Sudan to photograph the rebel movement and famine in the country. Immediately after their plane touched down in the village of Ayod, Carter began snapping photos of famine victims. On the fateful day this image was taken, Carter wandered into the open bush then he heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl (according to him) trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to take her image, a plump vulture landed in view. The emaciated child had stopped to rest, exhausted by starvation and this dying view had attracted the vulture.

Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself and adjusted his lens to take the best view that highlight her suffering. Initially, Carter claimed to have come upon the scene, snapped a few photos, and then chased the bird away. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. Carter and his team had reportedly been advised not to touch the victims because of disease, so instead of helping, he spent 20 minutes waiting for a perfect shot. After the vulture refused to move, he took his shots, chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. A source later said, “Afterward Carter sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried”. At this point Carter probably did not know that he had just shot one of the most controversial photographs in the history of photojournalism. Over 70,000 people died in this famine.

When he returned to Johannesburg, he sold the photo to NewYork Times who were then looking for photos of Sudan and the News outlet ran it on March 26, 1993. The picture immediately became an icon of Africa’s anguish and papers around the world reproduced the photo. People wrote and called the NY Times asking what had happened to the child and why the photographer did not rescue the child from the vulture, though he received some accolades for the perfect shot taken by him.
Sources later revealed that the child died of malarial fever fourteen years later.

Also Read: Child Stigmatisation: Suffer Not A “Witch” To Live

He would later win the highly coveted “Pulitzer Prize for feature photography” for the photo 14 months after it was taken.
On May 23 1994, Carter walked up to the dais in the classical rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library and received his prize. The South African soaked up the attention. “I swear I got the most applause of anybody,” Carter wrote back to his parents in Johannesburg. “I can’t wait to show you the trophy. It is the most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could receive.”
With the prize came glam, major magazines wanted to meet the new hotshot and many fans wanted him to sign their autograph. A photo that epitomised famine, death and pain brought the photographer fame and gain.

2 months afterwards, a death was registered
In July 1994, two months after receiving his Pulitzer, Carter killed himself by carbon-monoxide poisoning in Johannesburg at the age of 33. Using a ducktape to connect a green hose  to the exhaust of his red pickup, he funnelled the gas into his passenger window of his vehicle. In a note left on the passenger seat beneath a knapsack he used as a pillow, he explained his actions, “I’m really, really sorry, the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist.” After reaching the peak of his career at 33, it just does not make sense any longer and images that has propelled him to the top came back to haunt him. In his writing, “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 last words in his suicide note reads; “I have always had it all at my feet, but being me just fit up anyway.”


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Hmmmm sometime we get carried away by out objective, forgetting to do the right thing. but death is not the option.