During my senior year of high school, I came across Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of a starving Sudanese girl shadowed by a vulture. The visual impact that this photo had on me was powerful, to say the least. This photo largely influenced my decision to pursue photojournalism in college.
But this is a bittersweet subject, because Kevin Carter, at the age of 33, committed suicide shortly after taking this photo. As far as journalism goes, no one has been able to confirm—for a fact—that Carter took his life because of the consequences surrounding this Pulitzer Prize-winning photo. My personal theory is that he took his own life because he was so so burdened and so so overwhelmed by all of the suffering he had seen throughout his journalistic career.
You see, Carter, a white man, lived in South Africa in the 80’s. And he not only lived there during those times, he was actively involved in documenting anti-apartheid protests, which led to his arrest several times.1 He was part of “The Bang Bang Club,” a group of four white friends who strove to use their photography to show the world the disturbing reality of apartheid.2 He also spent time in southern Sudan photographing the civil war and famine that he knew needed to be exposed to the world.2 And that’s where he took his famous photo of the girl and the vulture.
In addition to all this mind-numbing suffering that Carter documented, in 1993 he witnessed the death of Ken Oosterbroek, one of his “Bang Bang” friends, when he was shot while photographing a gun battle in Thokoza, Johanessburg.1
So my guess is that there is much, much more behind his suicide than we can guess. And while his death is—in many ways—a mystery, and while it is important to understand the weight of his personal suffering and suicide, it is also important to recognize his irreplaceable contribution to society and the tenacity that drove him to expose the suffering and evil of his day. But yeah, let’s be honest here… I can’t help but feel more of the “bitter” part rather than the “sweet” part.
Today would have been his birthday.
1. Keller, Bill. “Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Winner For Sudan Photo, Is Dead.” New York Times, 29 July 1994. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.
2. “Kevin Carter Film: Synopsis.” Director: Dan Krauss. Web. 13 Sept. 2013.