(photo by Kevin Carter, a South African photographer who committed suicide in 1994, only a year after taking this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo)
Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. “He was depressed afterward. He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter.”
The haunting image made Carter a global celebrity, but it also raised uncomfortable questions about whether he should have helped the girl rather than simply watching her die. To be sure, Carter had plenty of emotional and financial problems, and he drank and used drugs excessively. But’s it’s not hard to imagine that his world-famous photo left him wracked with guilt, contributing to his suicidal state of mind. In his rambling final note, he wrote, “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.” (source)
There’s obviously a moral dilemma here, one which always occurs in disaster journalism: drop the camera and help (but what can you do?), or be a witness and mobilize the world (but will it listen?). What’s best? If you’re interested, we have a blog series going on about moral dilemmas. More on journalism here.
Why is this an iconic image of human rights violations? Isn’t famine just a natural disaster for which no one is responsible, like an earthquake? I explained here why this is not the case, why famines happen because of what people do or fail to do.
UPDATE: a reader, Anthony Ratay, writes:
I wanted to let you know that there is some conflicting information out about the fate of the small Sudanese girl in the photograph. Featured in the documentary “Under Fire” Paul Watson claims that this girl was eventually given medical attention and prevented from an untimely demise. In fact if you look at the photo in its original frame you can see humanitarian workers in the background.