The photograph “Starving Child and Vulture” made by Kevin Carter is one of the pictures that impress the souls and influence the minds of people. Since 1993, when it has been made, it remains a subject of discussion, referring not only to political issues, but also to deep social, psychological, and ethical problems. It depicts an emaciated and starving child, a victim of civil war in Sudan. The child is nearly dying, collapsed on his way to a feeding center, and a vulture aside is eagerly awaiting his death. I have chosen this photograph, as it has impressed and shocked me by its despair, the cruelty of life, and inevitability of death. Moreover, I immediately imagined the feeling of the photographer at the moment of clicking this picture. I wondered if he was not driven by compassion to help the child, instead of completing his professional duty as the photographer. When I read about this image, I realized I was not alone who was confronted with this question. In this essay, I will discuss how the photograph “Starving Child and Vulture” by Kevin Cartner represent the problems of the photographer’s ethic, professional detachment, and the right to intervene.
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The Photographer: Biography and the Story of Making the Image
Kevin Carter was a South African photographer, who was born and grew up in Johannesburg, in a middle-class white family. Since his childhood, he was facing the implications of apartheid, a policy of racial segregation of the black population of the state. He was a witness of cruelties and injustice performed by police regarding black people, who live in the area considered illegal by the system. After finishing high school, he joined the army and served in the Air Force for several years. During some military operations, he witnessed several actions, such as the Church Street bombing in Pretoria, that impressed him by their cruelty and social inacceptability. After that, he decided to become a journalist and photographer, aiming to contribute to raising people’s awareness, preventing, and combatting such social realities.
In 1984, Carter started to work for the newspaper Johannesburg Star that used to cover in its published material acute social and political problems. During his work, he began to face all the brutalities of apartheid, such as the “necklacing” torture of black people, documenting them in his photographs. In 1990, he joined the team of Bang-Bang Club, a group of four young photographers. Their name “alluded to their daring attitude of shooting photographs in difficult and war-like situations,” as well as taking photos of “real shoot-outs with guns and people getting wounded or killed” (Kesting 45). Proceeding on this way, in 1993, Carter took the opportunity to be sent to Sudan for documenting the challenges of the Civil war and especially of the famine that affects the rebels in South Sudan. There, during this project, Carter made the photograph “Starving Child and Vulture,” which later was published in the New York Times on 26 March 1993. In 1994, Carter won a Pulitzer prize for this image, and the article got resonance among the audience after publishing it with the accompanying article. A year later, Carter committed suicide, ending his life at the age of 33.
The Photograph: View of the Author and the Public Response
The situation in which the photographer found himself at the moment of making it was controversial. As Carter reported later, he was advised not to intervene, particularly not to touch the victims of famine and diseases, as they might be infectious. Thus, at the time of watching the vulture waiting for the child to die, he could not help the young boy, carrying him to the feeding center (“Starving Child and Vulture”). He, however, after seeing that the child stood up and continued his way to the center, “lit up the cigarette, talked to God and wept” (“Starving Child and Vulture”). Thus, he was deeply impressed by the situation, and this, along with other memories about cruelties of the Sudanese war and South African apartheid, became the cause for his suicide a year later.
The publishing of this photo in 1994 was followed by a great discussion about the author’s position as a human and as a professional. On the one hand, Carter was admired for his ability to “portray the evils of poverty and starvation” (Quinn 99). On the other hand, he was accused of not helping the child and bringing him to the feeding center. However, this dilemma, as it appeared during the continuous discussion, was faced by the photographer, mainly not to his moral qualities. Carter was known for his bravery to enter the most dangerous situations without fear and for the determination to document and represent for the wide publicity the cruelties and social injustice. Such a commitment describes his respective personal qualities, and it was known for those involved in the discussion about the photograph. Behind his decision not to intervene, there was the ethics of a professional photographer.
Carter was not just a photographer, but a photojournalist committed to documenting acute social problems. At that time, as well as now, journalists may describe the position expected from them as follows: “As a journalist, you’re trained to be objectiveinvolved98 in the story … to report with accuracy and fairness and to never get emotionally involved in the story” (Quinn 98). In other words, a journalist must not demonstrate his presence, changing the flow of the events by his interventions. A photographer, as well, has to be, ideally, somewhat like a machine for documenting the facts. Detachment is, thus, a part of professional ethics, and Carter could not violate it in his situation. According to the formal instructions, he made the right choice.
However, his suicide soon after the case demonstrates that this choice did not give him a feeling of doing right. He “struggled with the decision between professional convention and humaneness” (Quinn 100). As one of his colleagues claimed Carten, soon after returning from Sudan, said: “he wanted nothing more than to hug his daughter when thinking of the vulture-stalked child,” that was a sign of deep conflict about the “counter-intuitive nature of … professional detachment” (Quinn 100). Among the public involved in the discussion, there were those appealing to morals and, not accepting the presence of the professional restrictions, condemning Carter and disapproving his decision.
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In conclusion, it might be argued that the photograph “Starving Child and Vulture” represented not only significant social issues of the time but raised moral problems as well. This is the reason for its popularity that is not decreasing at present. The dilemma of a human and a professional is indeed a controversial matter, and it will continue to cause different opinions about it. The contribution of Carter in this issue is admirable, though the price for it was nothing less than his life.
Kesting, Marietta. Affective Images: Post-apartheid Documentary Perspectives. SUNY Press, 2017.
Quinn, Aaron. Virtue Ethics and Professional Journalism. Springer, 2018.
“Starving Child and Vulture | 100 Photographs | The Most Influential Images of All Time.” Time, Time. Web.