Let's take a trip to South Africa to learn about a photographer named Kevin Carter. I personally had never heard of Kevin Carter, but quickly discovered that I had seen his most famous piece many times before. The image is of a young starving child in Sudan doubled over from exhaustion with a vulture perched nearby, carefully watching the child.
Due to the sensitive nature of the image, I will not be including it to the post. While many have likely seen various images that are more jarring than this, becoming desensitized to images such as this is something that can cause a great deal of mental anguish on a person. This type of anguish is an integral part of Carter's story. That said, let's dive in.
Kevin Carter was born on September 13, 1960 in Johannesburg, South Africa. His family was English immigrants, and the year that he was born was the same year that Nelson Mandela's African Congress was outlawed.
Growing up during South Africa's apartheid, Carter's parents accepted the apartheid and the actions that went with it, while he was disgusted by it. (If you are interested in learning more about the apartheid, I highly recommend reading Trevor Noah's book Born A Crime.) Carter often found himself arguing with his father as he would watch the police going around arresting black people for not carrying their passes. He would question why they weren't doing anything to try to stop what was happening around them.
As he grew older, Carter expressed to his friends that he loved his parents, but ultimately was unhappy. He looked into other means for happiness, such as riding motorcycles and dreaming of becoming a race car driver. That kind of thrill seeking became an element in his happiness.
Upon finishing high school, Carter went on to school to become a pharmacist. However, a year later he found himself with poor grades and dropped out. Due to his lack of schooling, he found himself enlisted in in the South African Defense Force. As stated before, he strongly opposed the apartheid starting at a young age. So one can only imagine how torturous it was to be stuck holding a position where he had to uphold this apartheid. While serving, he once came to the defense of a black mess-hall waiter. As a result, a handful of his fellow soldiers beat him up.
By 1980, he had absolutely had it. Carter decided to take off and went absent without leave. Riding his motorcycle off, he settled in a city called Durban which is a city along the East coast of South Africa. Upon settling in, Carter decided to become a DJ and called himself David to conceal his identity.
Unfortunately for Carter, this escape to Durban did not prove itself to be as fruitful as he had hoped. He missed his friends and his family, but didn't feel he could return to them. In time, he lost his job which pushed him over the edge. Carter attempted suicide, but ultimately survived. After recovering, he returned to the South African Defense Force to finish out his service.
In 1983, there was an attack now referred to as the Church Street bombing. As a result of this attack, 19 people were killed and Carter found himself injured. However, beyond being injured, that experience inspired Carter to become a photographer and journalist.
Once Carter was finished with his service, he got a job at a camera supply store where he worked his way into the photojournalist world. On the weekends, he worked as a sports photographer for the Johannesburg Sunday Express.
By 1984, riots were rolling into black townships and Carter moved along to work with the Johannesburg Star. There, he found himself partnering up with other young, white photojournalists like himself that all had the mission to shed light on the horrors that were happening around them every day.
Come 1990, the civil war taking place in South Africa was growing more intense. For white people, going to the areas where all of the "action" was taking place was exceptionally dangerous. However, Carter and his friends were passionate about covering what was going on and weren't going to let the rising danger stop them. Instead, they formulated a plan.
Carter, a man named Ken Oosterbroek (also working for the Johannesburg Star) and two free lancers named Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva worked together. They would find themselves going through Soweto and Tokoza right at dawn. They felt it was important to do their work so early in the day because if a murderous gang would be coming through to cause destruction, it was more likely to happen while the citizens of these townships were on their way to work in the dark morning. Due to the violent situations these men found themselves in and the nature of what they were reporting on, they became known as "The Bang-Bang Club."
It wasn't uncommon for these men to find themselves face to face with violent fights using guns, axes, and all different types of weapons. There are even stories of mourners attacking a man and violently killing him during a funeral.
These men found themselves in some of the most horribly inhumane situations. To try and clear their mind and escape from their work, they often would smoke marijuana, which is legal in that area, together. It is also believed that they used the marijuana use to bond with some of the violent fighters in the areas they were covering. In addition, there was also speculation of Carter using a drug that is more dangerous that they call the "white pipe." This is a mixture of marijuana and Mandrax, which is a banned tranquilizer. Carter, however, denied that he had ever used this drug.
In 1991, Marinovich of The Bang-Bang Club found himself winning a Pulitzer for a photograph he had taken in September of 1990. For the rest of The Bang-Bang Club, this was received as a sort of new challenge. Carter especially found himself determined to work harder and try to achieve something just as great.
By 1993, a new opportunity arose for Carter. The people of Sudan had found themselves fighting for their lives as they struggled through a famine. Carter and fellow Bang-Bang Club member Silva took a trip up to Sudan to cover the famine. However, upon their arrival, they found themselves stuck in Nairobi where they arrived. New fighting had broken out in Sudan and suddenly their plans were completely up in the air.
While waiting, they took a quick trip with the UN to Juba in southern Sudan to photograph the food aid in that area. Not long after that trip, the UN finally received word from a rebel group that they could fly food aid to Ayod.
Immediately after landed in Ayod, the men dove in straight away to take pictures of the famine victims. Carter, however, found himself overwhelmed by the sight and chose to step away to take a break. While stepping away, he heard the sound of a young child struggling. When going to look, he found a small child, clearly starving, that was trying to make their way to the feeding center. Overcome with exhaustion, the child had collapsed to the ground on their way to the feeding center. While the child rested, a vulture flew over and landed a short distance away from the child. Carter began snapping away and found himself taking the photograph that he is most well known for. Carter later admitted that he stood there for a considerable amount of time taking pictures and watching the situation hoping for a better shot. Once he concluded that he had gotten what he needed, he chase off the vulture and left the child to continue their journey to the feeding center. Not long after the picture was taken, Carter was back on a plane out of the village.
The infamous photograph was sold to The New York Times. It first ran on March 26, 1993. In no time, people from all around the world had seen the image. While no one could deny the image was incredible and unlike any other, many expressed concerns and criticism. Did the child survive? Did the child make it to the feeding center? And most of all, many criticized Carter for stopping to take the picture rather than immediately shooing the vulture away. It wouldn't be until 2011 that the father of the child would reach out and explain that the child had made it to the food station and went on to live until 2007.
By the following March, Carter found himself struggling more with the heavy material he had been covering. Finding himself photographing Afrikaner Weestandsbeweging members being executed, he was caught between trying to get just the right shot and recognizing that the bullets flying could kill him as well. The pictures he took were spread around the world and while he was gaining recognition, the weight of his work was impacting him more. Both his drinking and drug use increased as a result.
A week after witnessing the executions, Carter went to cover a Mandela rally in Johannesburg. According to those that were also there, he was seen stumbling around as though he had been drinking. Later in the day, he crashed his car into someone's home and landed himself in jail for a 10 hour hold on suspicion of drunk driving. Both his boss and his girlfriend at the time were livid at the situation and seeing how drinking and drug use was becoming and increasingly bigger problem.
On April 12, 1994, Carter received news that he had one a Pulitzer for the photograph of the starving child and the vulture. While this news was meant to be exciting and a positive thing for him, Carter responded by airing out his personal struggles he found himself facing. Nancy Buirski, photographer of The New York Times that had called to share the news, tried get encourage Carter to celebrate and not worry about his personal struggles.
Less than a week later on April 18, the Bang-Bang Club found themselves in the Tokoza township to cover a violent outbreak. By mid day, Carter decided to return to the city since the sun had become too bright to take good pictures. Upon his return to the city, he heard on the radio that one of the member of the Bang-Bang Club, Oosterbroek, was killed. Oosterbroek had become Carter's best friend and his death absolutely devastated Carter. He went on to later tell his friends that he felt he should have been the one killed instead of Oosterbroek.
Shortly after his friend's death, Carter traveled to New York to receive his Pulitzer Prize. His time in New York seemed to be the change in pace that he needed. His mood seemed to improve and things seemed to be turning around for Carter.
However, upon receiving this award came a new wave of critics. Some South African journalists felt he didn't deserve the award. In addition, many people from all over questioned his ethics of taking such a photograph. He had even been referred to as a vulture himself for stopping to take the picture and take the time to get just the right shot rather than immediately shooing away the bird and helping the child. Even his own friends questioned his decision to take the photograph and not help the child. This sort of internal conflict was not lost on Carter. He was painfully aware of the difficult decisions he had to make in order to do the reporting he was doing.
The positive change that New York brought Carter was quickly undone upon his return to South Africa. He found himself almost immediately depressed once he had arrived back home. As a result, his work became sloppy and disorganized. Suddenly he was missing flights to an important photo shoot, sending in his film past the due date, accidentally leaving his film on a flight, etc. He also began talking very openly with his friends about suicide
On July 27, Carter went to the Weekly Mail to drop off a photograph. While there, he talked with former colleagues. In this conversation, he poured out to them about his struggles and turmoil he found himself in. One colleague gave him the information for a therapist and encouraged him to contact the therapist and seek help.
That evening, he went to Oosterbroek's home and spoke with his widow, Monica. He again began to pour out to her that he was having a very difficult time. However, grieving herself, Monica was not in a position to give Carter the support he was seeking.
Around 9 p.m. on that day, Carter drove his truck to the Field and Study Center at the Braamfronteinspruit. This was near where Carter grew up and often played as a boy. Once parked, Carter rigged up a hose from the exhaust pipe into the cab of the truck where he took his life. Next to him in the truck was his bag that contained a note. In it, he expressed his depression, his struggle with money, and how he was haunted by the horrors he had been witness to day after day. Finally at the end, he said "I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky."
Carter had been just 33 when he had died. In such a short amount of time, he had achieved winning a Pulitzer Prize which is an incredibly huge accomplishment. But at what cost? While this had been what he had been working so hard for, it was the path that took him there that brought him to his demise. While he had been witness to horrors day in and day out, he was not immune to the lasting impact those scenes would come to be.