Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (49): Sudanese Girl Dying of Hunger as a Vulture Patiently Waits

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iconic images of human rights violations / intervention / philosophy / photography and journalism / poverty

Sudanese Girl Dying of Hunger as a Vulture Patiently Waits

(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.

More about famines, or about Sudan. More iconic images of human rights violations.

9 Comments

  1. Pingback: Iconic Images of Human Rights Violations (68): But Without the Violations | P.a.p.-Blog | Human Rights Etc.

  2. Stunning picture, but the story is not right. The girl has a plastic bracelet from the UN refugees camp, and was not dying (in fact she died 4 years later from a fever). The photograph just saw the oportunity to take a shocking picture.

  3. Youdontneedit says

    To the person who commented “that girl is so poor” – you are an absolute moron. Do you think she is poor by choice? Or dying by choice? I have come to realize that most of the human population is so ensconced in their own ignorance that they don’t understand the depth of crisis some of the worlds countries are in. Wake the eff up, read a book (if you can read anything other than entertainment tabloids) and have some compassion. The photographer didn’t take this shot to get applause for it. It was taken to show a harsh reality of what is actually happening in third world countries. Regardless of whether she was dying in this shot or not doesn’t matter – the point was to bring attention to the plight of millions of people who suffer like this in third world countries. Also – what could the photographer do to help her? Unless he was also a doctor and was carrying a backpack with IV fluids, nasogastric tubes for enteral feeding and a small hospital room as well.

    • Rodolphe says

      What the photographer could have done to help was: pick her up and carry her light self to the feeding center, instead of waiting for 20 minutes to get a more morbid shot

  4. Rodolphe says

    What the photographer could have done to help was: pick her up and carry her light self to the feeding center, instead of waiting for 20 minutes to get a more morbid shot.

  5. Faisal Awan says

    Pls Start Thinking!
    Feel the need to think for whome and how to live your life for ! Its the time
    Should we wait for another next day? Would you?

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