Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist, died exactly 16 years ago.
Before he went to Sudan to take the picture that made him famous, Carter was a member of the Bang-Bang Club, a core group of four South African photojournalists determined to expose the violence and discrimination caused by Apartheid. All had strong senses of justice and a conviction that the world needed to see the violence that they themselves had been witness to since childhood.
n the course of his work with this group Carter became the first person to photograph a public execution by "necklacing," in which the victim is fitted with a rubber tire around his neck or shoulders, which is filled with gasoline then set alight.
His photographs, as well as those of his colleagues were published in the Johannesburg Star, and in other newspapers around the country, and most likely played a great part in finally abolishing Apartheid nearly ten years later. Which perhaps makes it all the more regrettable that Carter is best known, not for the energy and conviction with which he built up the body of his work, but for two things: the photo that won him the Pulitzer Prize (below), and his suicide—by carbon monoxide gas—only a few months after.
It is not exactly known (as is usual with suicides) what drove Carter to it. He had been suffering from depression, mood swings, and a growing drug problem brought on by smoking spiked marijuana to deal with the grim nature of his work. It is quite probable that the death of a close colleague and best friend—also a member of the Bang-Bang Club—was the trigger that finally set off the stress that had built up over the years.
As for the prize-winning photograph, Carter recieved as much blame as praise for having taken it and not done anything to help the child. He was accused of profiting off another's misery, and it was a writer for the St. Petersburg Times who famously accused Carter of being "just another vulture on the scene."
To which Carter replied:
I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man's face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, 'My God.' But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can't do it, get out of the game.
The goal of the chronicler—regardless of the medium—is sometimes incompatible with that one who takes action to change the world, for better or for worse—sometimes, it may be pointed out, for the worse, even despite the best of intentions. Yet it was Carter's job, in a way, that was more difficult than that of the rescue worker... and possibly more influential.
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. [said of the first necklace execution Carter photographed]
I personally wonder if this was the point at which Carter, however unconsciously, first realized how much his work could potentially achieve, even as at the same time he first recognized—and accepted—the thankless nature of the chronicler's task. Carter may have found meaning, as many do, in the task of exposing the wrong in this world, but there were probably also moments in which he developed a profound loathing for the world around him as well as himself. On that winter day, it was that loathing that won out, though I imagine even the loathing would have only been temporary, had he not succumbed.
It's sobering to know what Carter, along with many others, put himself through in his quest to take the images that haunt even the most casual viewer, even from the comfort of our own homes far away from the violence and turmoil. It's even more sobering to think that photojournalists all around the world in conflict regions are putting themselves through the same ordeal, giving up a part of their humanity to remind the more fortunate, as we need to be reminded, that all on Earth is not as it should be.
In any case, I believe the world owes Kevin Carter a homage, as well as all those like him, the anonymous conflict photojournalists who put their lives and souls on the line in the course of their work. Rest in well-deserved peace.
If you'd like to read more about Kevin Carter, there's a collection of articles, comments, and resources, including a biographical article by Scott MacLeod at this website. It offers, I hope, a more complex portrayal of Carter both as a photographer and a person, as well as calling much-needed attention to the problem of depression and PTSD among conflict journalists.