The Human Photographer

Bayfront Park Miami, FL. (Image by Anthony Rampersad)

In 1993 South African photographer Kevin Carter took one of the world’s most famous images. Even without seeing it I’m fairly certain you know it. It was an image of an emaciated Sudanese toddler collapsed and struggling to make her way to a feeding center while a vulture stalked nearby.

The imagery was both shocking and compelling. Published in The New York Times (Friday March 26, 1993), The Mail and The Guardian (Johannesburg), it stirred strong reactions in its day and ultimately became the billboard for all things related to famine, poverty and despair on the African continent.

It won Kevin Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. But, speaking of this particular image, Carter said “This is my most successful image after ten years of taking pictures, but I do not hang it on my wall. I hate it.”

Carter’s feelings about this image which earned him one of the highest international accolades in his field are indeed puzzling. But the veil is partially lifted by considering a few of the peripheral facts associated with the picture.

Kevin was highly criticized for not getting involved, not helping and not caring. Its understandable that emotions would become inflamed at the sight of such a scene; nothing, after all, stirs the human heart more than babies and puppies. By his own admittance, Kevin Carter waited at the scene for 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. This, no doubt, would produce an even more dramatic image. And while he did eventually shoo away the vulture, it was only done after waiting unsuccessfully for his perfect shot.

Further, The New York Times captioned this image labeling the child as a girl when in fact, according to the parents, the child was a boy named Kong Nyong. It is likely that the information for the captioning was provided by the photographer.

Photographers like Carter face harsh criticisms for being purveyors of human suffering for fame and profit. So much so to the extent that some have quipped there were two vultures on the scene that day the image was taken; one had a camera. And many have pivoted this and similar images at the center of debates on whether photographers ought to be mere bystanders or participators in the alleviation of the witnessed suffering.

When I read the backstory to this image I myself could not help but feel anger that a man could wait twenty minutes for the perfect shot while not lifting a finger to help a suffering child. And yet a little more backstory into the life of Kevin Carter makes it hard for us to label him as uncaring or inhuman. To his own peril, long before taking his Pulitzer-winning image, he defended a black mess-hall waiter who was being insulted by some of his then fellow air-force servicemen. Adding to Carter’s defense, journalists in Sudan had been cautioned against making contact with victims of the famine due to risk of contracting and spreading communicable diseases.

There is no guarantee after all that our moral ideals survive every encounter we have with reality

Whether or not photographers should get involved in aiding their subjects is not an easy question to answer. Yet there is a general human expectation that helping ought to be the most natural and immediate response. When faced with an evocative scene, which instinct grips the person most readily, the human instinct to help or the photographic instinct to shoot? Is there, or should there be a separation between the two? Or more simply, which are we first, humans, or photographers?

On this question I cannot presume to be able to answer on behalf of anyone but myself. And worse, I can only answer to what I hope I would do when faced with such choices while roaming in search of stories. There is no guarantee after all that our moral ideals survive every encounter we have with reality.

As a street photographer, people and their natural behaviors in their environments are what interest me. Humans are interesting and our relations to one another are more precious than the images we take away from our encounters. There are days I spend roaming and shooting where I get more fulfillment from connecting with a stranger and hearing his/her story than I get from creating an epic image. And experience on the street has taught me that it helps to be prepared. Keeping a few loose dollar notes in your pocket or a homemade sandwich and bottle of water in your camera bag go a long way in making those meaningful connections or alleviating even a small but immediate need.

“I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain”

Kevin Carter’s iconic image turned 25 years in 2018. And 2019 makes it an equal 25 years since his own story came to an unfortunate end. Three months after receiving his Pulitzer Carter committed suicide in a park where he played as a child. His chilling suicide note portrays him as a man disenchanted with the self-destructive tendencies of our human race and our ability to visit suffering upon those we perceive to be weaker or less equal than ourselves. And shooting one of the world’s most iconic images didn’t seem to help his financial distresses either.

While some internet memes have popularized Carter’s image of the Sudanese toddler as the sole testimony against his conscience which led him to depression and suicide, his final message describes it as just one of the things which haunted him. He wrote: “ The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. …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…”

His work though, was not in vain. At the time that Carter and his fellow photographers landed in Sudan the UN relief efforts were reportedly still struggling to secure funds for aid. Speaking of the publication of Carter’s image, his colleague Greg Marinovich wrote “It was being used in posters for raising funds for aid organization. Papers and magazines around the world had published it, and the immediate public reaction was to send money to any humanitarian organization that had an operation in Sudan”

It can therefore be proposed that in this and many situations, the mere photographing of injustices and suffering contributes, even if indirectly, to aiding the victims by bringing the eyes of the equipped upon the anguish.

Photography is a tool and one that is powerful to inform change in the myriad broken spaces of our planet which cry out for it. I wish that it were possible to quantify the benefits it has bestowed upon humanity but I also fear that those benefits are being offset by the picture-mongering ways of many today who view disaster as just another social media photo op. Carter’s story shows both the power of this tool and the vulnerabilities of the humans which layer the front and back ends of the camera. Carter’s story also demonstrates that these layers are ultimately entwined and are able to affect each other despite being separated by a sliver of technology. And while this sliver — a fabrication of lens and sensor — is the product of great technological advancement and mass manufacturing excellence, its not cameras that shoot humans but rather humans that shoot humans.