Interpreting Kevin Cater’s Pulitzer Prize winning image
Kevin Cater’s photo of a collapsed Sudanese girl while a vulture looks on. A photo which gained both universal praise and condemnation from critics and viewers alike when it was first published in the NY Times (Lehigh.edu, 1999) and again after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Over ten years on, the photo today is still used as one of the defining images of the Sudanese Famine and a starting point for discussions on the ethical dilemmas of photographing the human condition during times of suffering.
Featured Image: (Kevin Carter/Corbis Sygma, 1993)
Kevin Cater’s image is compelling an image can be. A vulture staring down the emaciated frame of a young naked child collapsed on the ground. Immediately a photo like this draws an emotional response, trying to make sense of the situation depicted in the photo. Questions and connotations are formed within us while trying to develop a possible backstory to the image.
- Why is the child collapsed?
- Is the vulture stalking the child?
- What happened to the child following the photograph?
The caption attached places further emphasis on the grim outlook of the situation portrayed, stating, ‘A little girl weakened from hunger, collapsed recently along the trail to a feeding centre in Ayod. Nearby, a vulture waited’ (Donatella Lorch, 1993)
Interview of Kevin Cater and his view on the moralities and representation of the image.
(The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club, 2004)
Regardless of the facts and realities behind this image, immediately you start to form your opinion and possible stories. The two most striking elements that form our opinions and thoughts on the image are the collapsed child and the vulture.
The child, generally seen as a universally innocent character in life. One vulnerable, in need of nurturing and care stalked by an on looking vulture, a scavenger bird representing death. These two components of the image work together to form a distressing narrative in our minds.
A third element present that is not normally as discussed when dissecting an image was the human behind the camera. Was It ethical to document such suffering without intervening?
The powerful narrative this photo portrayed consequently led to the NY Times facing public backlash and queries into the fate of the young child resulting in the release of an editor’s note; ‘Many readers have asked about the fate of the girl. The photographer reports that she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away. It is not known whether she reached the centre (NY Times, 1993).’
While the idea of whether the imagine was ethically and morally acceptable is still ongoing today, the fact that the conversation about it has lasted over a decade highlights the impact it had on society and the individuals who viewed it.
Kevin Cater was a South African photojournalist who focused on the social issues and violence surrounding Apartheid South Africa. He committed suicide three months after winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize at age 33 (McCabe, 1994).
Donatella Lorch, (1993). Sudan Is Described as Trying to Placate the West. Nytimes.com. Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/26/world/sudan-is-described-as-trying-to-placate-the-west.html?pagewanted=all>
Geurts, M. (2015). The Atrocity of Representing Atrocity – Watching Kevin Carter’s ‘Struggling Girl’. Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 . <http://www.aestheticinvestigations.eu/index.php/journal/article/view/50>
Kevin Carter / Corbis Sygma, (1993). Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/30/kevin-carter-photojournalist-obituary-archive-1994>
Lehigh.edu. (1999). THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY. Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 <http://www.lehigh.edu/~jl0d/J246-06/THROUGH%20A%20GLASS%20DARKLY%20(full%20text).htm>
McCabe, E. (1994). Photojournalist Kevin Carter dies – obituary: from the archive, 30 July 1994. the Guardian. Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 <https://www.theguardian.com/media/2014/jul/30/kevin-carter-photojournalist-obituary-archive-1994>
Nytimes.com. (1993). Editors’ Note. Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 <http://www.nytimes.com/1993/03/30/nyregion/editors-note-513893.html>
Pulitzer.org. Winners Kevin-Carter. Viewed 9 Mar. 2017 <http://www.pulitzer.org/winners/kevin-carter>
The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club. (2004). Motion Picture. USA. directed by Dan Krauss.