The Vulture, the Little Girl and Kevin Carter, 1993-1994


The image above is captured by South African freelance photographer Kevin Carter. Fourteen months after picturing that memorable scene, Carter walked up to the floor in the classical hallways of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library and received the Pulitzer Prize for feature photography. The photo was published in The New York Times in March of 1993, and sparked a wide reaction. People wanted to know what happened to the child, and if Carter had assisted her. The Times issued a statement saying that the girl was able to make it to the food station, but beyond that no one knows what happened to her. Because of this, Carter was bombarded with questions about why he did not help the girl, and only used her to take a photograph.

What caught the attention of many is the image shot by Carter but what makes it more noteworthy is the toll on the photojournalist’s life resulting to his suicide two months after receiving his Pulitzer Prize. The image aroused thousands of reactions from people all over the globe, yet, only a few may get to create an action. The main purpose of the image, as every journalist would say, is to deliver factual information. In this case, what’s truthful is the actuality at hand in South Africa. This post will also analyze three reports written by different news organizations, namely: The New York Times, The Guardian and lastly, Time Magazine.

The New York Times (United States) introduced Carter as a very emotional man with emphasis on relationships with family and friends. “The police said Mr. Carter’s body and several letters to friends and family were discovered in his pickup truck, parked in a Johannesburg suburb. They said an inquest showed he died of carbon monoxide poisoning.” an excerpt from the article proving Carter’s state thus leading to his sudden taking of his life. On the other hand, The Guardian (United Kingdom), described Carter as a man who, like many other photojournalists sees the “picture as the only important thing.” Lastly and most importantly, Time Magazine (International), is the only published report on him that dwelled on how Kevin Carter actually lived life as a photojournalist. It may also be important to note that among the three, only Time Magazine (International), mentioned the note in his suicide letter:

“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… I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”

The said perspectives may vary due to the different upbringing from the said countries these writers may belong in. In general, Americans are much more open than Britons. Friends and even acquaintances discuss personal thoughts and opinions that might seem private or intrusive in the UK. An American might ask you a seemingly private or presumptuous question. He or she is most likely sincerely curious about your thoughts and feelings and is assuming you would like to share them. Americans tend to believe that individuals control their circumstances by how much they work. The same is true as reflected in American attitudes work ethics towards their academics. Many Americans are very family-oriented (at least those with families). Family life is an endless parade of school musicals, extracurricular sports, birthday parties and the like. Long known for their references for dry wit as opposed to slapstick comedy, the Britons also appreciate smart and biting humour. Europeans tend to be more liberal regarding soft drugs, prostitution, alcohol, abortion, or cloning (but interestingly not so for GM food). Americans, on the contrary, grant greater freedoms when it comes to gun possession, as well as driving a car from a relatively young age (the norm is 18 years old in Europe).

Another angle interesting to look at are comments made by various personalities: The St. Petersburg Times (Florida, United States), Dan Krauss (Filmmaker) and Megan Carter (Daughter of Kevin 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.” The St. Petersburg Times, Florida

– With the Pulitzer, however, he had to deal not only with acclaim but also with the critical focus that comes with fame. Some journalists in South Africa called his prize a “fluke,” alleging that he had somehow set up the tableau.

“In his famous picture of the vulture stalking the Sudanese girl, I began to see the embodiment of his troubled psyche. I believe Kevin did, too. In the starving child, he saw Africa’s suffering; in the preying vulture, he saw his own face.” Filmmaker Dan Krauss

– Dan Krauss’ documentary “The Kill Team”, winner of the Grand Jury Prize at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival, is a compelling and horrifying examination of one soldier’s moral morass in the face of war crimes in Afghanistan.

“I see my dad as the suffering child. And the rest of the world is the vulture.” Megan Carter

– Said Carter’s daughter in an interview which we all maybe considered as a food for thought. There cannot be any conclusion or lucid finality to the question as to why exactly Carter killed himself, the more, to his now abandoned little girl.

The photograph is, as Roland Barthes declares, a ‘message without a code’: while other arts like painting or theatre depend on a code of conventions, styles, connotations and symbols for their signifiers to produce meaning, the photograph—or at least the press photograph—is unique in that it is self-sufficient as a ‘perfect analogon’ of reality. In terms of semiotic theory in the tradition of Charles S. Peirce, the photograph serves not only as an index that points to or correlates with an external object, but also as an icon that bears a direct physical resemblance to ‘the scene itself, the literal reality’. To a large extent, the viewer’s sense of shock and moral outrage derives from the function of the photograph as such an image of reality, confirming the veracity of the horrors witnessed and implying the urgency of action needed to remedy the situation.

A photograph is usually looked at – seldom looked into. – Ansel Adams



2 thoughts on “The Vulture, the Little Girl and Kevin Carter, 1993-1994

  1. A good photograph is knowing where to stand – Ansel Adams.

    In Carter’s case, “where to stand” can be seen figuratively and literally – the latter pertaining to a photographer’s positioning before capturing the photo, and the former is the aftermath of Carter’s controversial fame. It was indeed a stunning yet disturbing photo. The sad truth is that he was able to compose an image with so many interpretations, yet he was not able to take a stand on his purpose of taking that photograph… thus giving media limitless opinions.


  2. I agree with Rastle’s comment. Every picture can be interpreted in a number of ways but what’s tragic is the way people chose to interpret this photo in a bad way. This story also shows how mass media can be a tool for destruction. If only Carter had the support and the will to stand up and voice out the real meaning of the photo he shot, then maybe he wouldn’t have had to commit suicide. Sad to see talent like his go to waste.


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