Corrugated ribs

The young toddler hunches over in the baked dirt in mock-genuflection, the Sudanese sun silhouettes the child’s corrugated ribs. A vulture stands behind, nature’s Grim Reaper, seemingly waiting for the child to die.

Kevin Carter, a member of the infamous South African Bang-Bang Club, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for his 1993 photo that appears to show a young child in Sudan struggling to make its way to a nearby feeding centre – although we never see the centre in question. Carter allegedly took a series of photographs, and then left, leaving the child to an unknown fate. Upon the worldwide publication of the image, The St Petersburg Times criticized Carter:

“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.”

Likening Carter to an opportunistic, carrion-eating vulture brings immediate parallels to Susan Sontag’s critique of photographers. In the opening chapter of On Photography, she compares the camera to a gun – a predatory device with which we can “shoot” and “re-load”.

“One situation where people are switching from bullets to film is the photographic safari that is replacing the gun safari in East Africa. The hunters have Hasselblads instead of Winchesters; instead of looking through a telescopic sight to aim a rifle, they look through a viewfinder to frame a picture.”

Sontag argues a camera can violate a person, steal their likeness, infringe on an individual’s privacy. And looking at Carter’s photograph, we must ask ourselves, what is more private, more personal than our own death?

But Carter’s photograph begs a couple of important questions about the role of the photojournalist, and the very nature of photography.

By taking this image, wasn’t Carter just doing his job? By showing this abandoned child at the mercy of the elements, was he not alerting the world to the extent of the famine in Sudan? Surely he’d have committed an even greater crime by NOT taking the photo?

In her essays Sontag goes on to talk specifically about the dilemma facing photojournalists – when and if do you intervene:

“Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention. Part of the horror of such memorable coups of contemporary photojournalism as the pictures of a Vietnamese bonze reaching for the gasoline can, of a Bengali guerrilla in the act of bayoneting a trussed-up collaborator, comes from the awareness of how plausible it has become, in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.”

And Carter was certainly no stranger to this dilemma. Carter was the first to photograph a public execution “necklacing” by black Africans in South Africa in the mid-1980s – the practice of placing gas-soaked tires around a person’s torso and lighting them. He said later, “I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do.”

Some would argue this was voyeurism plain and simple; Carter would counter he was merely doing his job – recording, documenting, reporting. A more recent example of photographer as non-interventionist is the New York Post freelancer who took a picture of a man seconds before he was killed by a subway train. The photographer, R. Umar Abbasi, later argued he took the photograph in an attempt to alert the driver of the train.

Despite winning the Pulitzer for his photograph of the toddler, Carter was criticized for taking the picture, and not helping the child afterwards.

Just one year later, Carter took his own life.

But as mentioned this image also highlights the pitfalls of photography.

In her 2004 article “Thinking about photography: debates, historically and now”, Liz Wells recounts the naïve optimism of Lady Eastlake in 1857:

“Photography…is the sworn witness of everything presented to her view…her studies are facts.”

Alas, this is not completely true. The magic of Photoshop put aside, a camera will only show what we want it to see. In essence, we see a cropped, a blinkered view of the world, presented to us by a stranger we are supposed to trust.

Years after Carter’s suicide, João Silva, a Portuguese photojournalist based in South Africa who’d accompanied Carter to Sudan, gave a different version of events.

According to Silva, they’d travelled to Sudan with the UN, who told them that they had 30 minutes in that location in which to take their photographs. Silva said Carter never strayed more than a few dozen feet from the plane.

Silva added that the parents of the children were busy taking food from the plane, and that they had left their children only briefly while they collected the food.

This was the case for the toddler in Carter’s photo.

So what we never see in the photo is that the child’s parents are nearby, and that the child is never in any danger.

We see only what Carter wanted us to see. The ethics in this case are up for debate. On the one hand we’ve been misled, but on the other the image grabs the western audience by the lapels so you can’t help but look at the ongoing crisis in Sudan.

This image is also an interesting example to point to when examining Roland Barthe’s central message in his paper, “The Photographic Message”, in which he expounds upon the link between an image and its associated text and caption. Without a caption explaining the nearby presence of the child’s parents, we’d fall into Carter’s “trap”. Furthermore without any accompanying text, the connotational value of this image is severely limited – this could be a shot taken anywhere in Africa.

Lastly, this photo also proves another point addressed by Wells – namely that over time a photograph becomes iconic, a symbol, and becomes leached of reality. By that Wells meant that many have seen this photo, and yet cannot play it in its historical context.