Kevin Carter – Hero or Villan?

Kevin Carter sat in his Red Nissan Pickup and stared out of the windscreen towards the Braamfonteinspruit River where he used to play as a child. Breathing deeply he leaned over onto his side and placing his knapsack beneath his head to act as a pillow he closed his eyes on the world one last time. The garden hose that Carter had attached to the vehicle exhaust protruded in through the passenger side window and slowly filled the interior with deadly carbon monoxide fumes.

Kevin Carter was a documentary photographer who had already achieved some individual success with a series of images he took of a public execution in the mid 1980’s, when he climbed out of a United Nations aeroplane that had landed near the Ayod village in Southern Sudan and was thrust into the public spotlight with the publication of his image, The Vulture and The Girl.

The image brought into perspective the shocking conditions for the people of famine-stricken Sudan when it was first published in The New York Times in 1993. It sparked an outpouring of aid and assistance for Africa but also anger and condemnation at Carter who was heavily criticised for not helping the child and only taking a photo. His death 16 months later was widely reported as the result of his meteoric rise to fame and the condemnation he received from both his peers and friends at his lack of compassion, however, the truth is quite the opposite.

Carter was born and raised in South Africa during the brutal apartheid regime. Unlike his parents who would turn a blind eye to the atrocities, Carter was appalled by the actions of his fellow countrymen and would actively condemn them. During his conscription into the South African Defence Force, fellow colleagues attacked him when he defended a black mess hall waiter. Finding his way into photo Journalism by 1984 he was working for the Johannesburg Star where he met and became close friends with 3 other photographers, Joao Silva, Ken Oosterbroek and Greg Marinovich.

Discovering that they were allied in their aspirations to expose the inhumaneness of apartheid rule they were driven by a collective passion for revealing the extent of its carnage to the world.

As civil war raged this crew would fearlessly travel the violent townships of Tokoza and Soweto in an attempt to capture the vicious fighting that would take place between the Inkatha Freedom Party and Nelsons Mandela’s A.N.C.

American Journalist, James Nachtwey, who would work with them on occasion, said,

“They put themselves in the face of danger, were arrested numerous times, but never quit. They literally were willing to sacrifice themselves for what they believed in”

Over the years, their success grew along with their reputation and eventually became known as ‘The Bang-Bang Club’. As they continued their work they grew ever closer as friends with Oosterbroek and Carter forming a unique bond. Their success reaped its rewards and eventually Marinovich was formally recognised with a Pulitzer Prize, one of the highest recognitions that could be bestowed upon him.

In 1993, Carter joined Silva on the trip North to Sudan where they hoped to photograph the rebel movement. He had to borrow the money to pay his airfare, but it was an investment that would later prove its worth. When they landed, Silva headed off looking for Guerrilla soldiers whilst Carter remained near the aircraft snapping pictures of the starving people when he stumbled across the emaciated form of a little girl squatting in the dirt. Just beyond the girl a vulture had landed and was watching her intently. Taking extra care not to disturb the bird he carefully captured the image that world propel him to fame. After shooting Carter chased the predator away and overcome with emotion secluded himself beneath some nearby trees. He later told a reporter during an interview that he had remained there for a long time “smoking cigarettes and crying”

After the image was published, in addition to the critics he received a tremendous amount of praise and in April 1994 came the phone call telling him he had won the Pulitzer Prize. Carter was now riding on a wave of certainty and self-assurance, he left his job at ‘The Weekly Mail’ and went freelance. He was taken on by Reuters and started making plans to cover the national South African Elections.

Six days after hearing of his award Carter was hit by the most devastating news. His friend and confidant Ken Oosterbroek had been shot and killed whilst covering an outbreak of violence in the Tokoza Township. His other friend, Greg Marinovich had also been shot and was in a critical condition. Distraught over his loss Carter began to blame himself, he had been attending an interview about his Pulitzer Prize otherwise he would have been with his friends and he felt that he should have been the one that got shot.

Despite his loss Carter rallied and attended the presentation ceremony in New York, he appeared joyous and revelled in the attention that came his way but eventually it had to end and depression set in when he returned home

“Jo’burg is dry and brown and cold and dead, and so damn full of bad memories and absent friends,”

wrote Carter in an unsent letter to a friend in New York.

With the euphoria of his win behind him, his life long struggle with the terrors he had witnessed began to weaken his resolve, coupled with mounting financial debts and the absence of the support of his mentor his emotional grip on life gave way.

At 33, four months on from receiving the greatest accolade of his career Kevin Carter had taken his own life. In his final words written on a note left on the passenger seat of his truck, it read

“depressed . . . without phone . . . money for rent . . . money for child support . . . money for debts . . . money!!! . . . 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 . . . ” And then this: “I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

For most Photojournalists covering horrific events around the world develop an emotional detachment from the events they are witnessing but for Carter it was the complete opposite. He was driven by passion and his emotions were vital to his continued success, they were not something he could just put to one side. As a man both blessed and cursed with a seemingly infinite compassion he exposed himself to some of life’s most traumatic incidents and that eventually took its tragic toll.

Carter left a legacy, his iconic image from the Sudan truly opened peoples hearts and minds to the suffering of the people of Africa and brought an outpouring of support that continues today, his other images are still viewed worldwide and remind us of the cruelty of the apartheid regime and brutality of the world around us and his life has been portrayed in books, plays and a documentary as he serves as both a stimulus and inspiration to current and future photojournalists today.

Kevin Carter

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