vultures

23 May

The photo seen above was taken in March 1993 in southern Sudan. South African photographer Kevin Carter took it outside of a United Nations feeding center, which had been set up in response to widespread famine in the region. According to Carter, he found the girl in a field, with the vulture behind her, struggling to reach the feeding center. He waited about 20 minutes for the vulture to spread its wings, and when it didn’t, he took a few photographs and chased the vulture away. Then he left.

A few weeks later, the image appeared in The New York Times, drawing widespread attention to the Sudanese famine. It also brought on a slew of inquiries as to what happened to the girl in the photo, and along with that, widespread criticism of Carter for not helping the child, who presumably died. A year later, in April 1994, Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Three months later, back in South Africa in a field he used to play in as a child, Carter committed suicide by asphyxiating himself in his car.  He was 33.

This is a story of two tragedies.  It has been widely examined, questioned, mulled over.  There is a documentary film about it.  There is a book about it.  Most people who have spent time learning about this story have concluded that Carter’s suicide cannot be attributed solely to his guilt over this particular photograph.  He struggled with depression and drug addiction. He began his career as a photographer exposing the brutality of the apartheid regime in South Africa, which included some of the first-ever published photos of public executions by right-wing vigilantes.  His best friend, a fellow photographer, was killed while photographing an outbreak of violence in the Tokoza township.

Likewise, the famine in Sudan in the early 1990s (and all consequent famines) was not simply the product of a lack of food, or even rain.  Famines are something termed “complex emergencies” in the development field, meaning they are the result of political, environmental, social, organizational, economic, and health factors.  Providing food to victims only addresses one immediate element of famine.  (For a long but nearly comprehensive discussion on famine visit http://morealtitude.wordpress.com/2010/04/30/back-in-the-headlines-niger/).

One of the things I find most disturbing about the story of this photograph, is that, after months of trying, I have been unable to find a way to settle with it.  I first saw it, and read about Carter’s death, a few months ago when my sister visited DC and we went to an exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning photos, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since.  I have not been able to come up with a lesson, or a moral, or a resolve.  The photograph is unsettling to an extreme, it’s also unsettling to not know what I would have done had I myself taken it.

The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times flung this criticism at 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.”  My instinct is to agree, and then I remember an emaciated, dying little girl in Benin, brought to my neighbors’ house.  I remember wondering if I should offer to pay to take her to the health center.  I didn’t, and she died the next day.

Carter had been told by UN officials not to touch the people he saw in Sudan, as many of them were sick and diseased.  This reminds me of the warnings I’d received by veteran Peace Corps volunteers to avoid trying to fix problems with my wallet – to avoid setting a precedent of handouts.  At the same time, it makes me think of the many stupid aid schemes designed by well-intentioned people, which throw simplistic solutions at complex situations, and actually end up screwing things up more.  It makes me think about those who focus on short-term band-aids to the detriment of long-term recovery.  And more than anything, it makes me think about how it’s possible to do both harm and good at the same time.

This story scares me.  It makes me question whether or not it’s possible to discern how to act and when.  Looking forward to a career in international development, and most likely humanitarian response, this story reminds me that like Carter, in my work to alleviate suffering I will be living off of it.  And, as many of my classmates and colleagues and I like to try to protect ourselves from being affected by that with good academics and policy and planning and programs and projects, there will be times when we will cause irreparable damage by both what we do and what we don’t do, whether out of ignorance, or misinformation, or fear, or just by accident.  Other than despair and cynicism, what options do we have for dealing with those times? Is there a time and a season for both? How do you move forward without knowing if you did “the right thing”?

I don’t expect to gain answers to these questions, or to ever find a way to resolve the tragedy of famine with the tragedy of suicide.  That’s probably not even the objective.  And I know I will not be faced with this story or stories like it everyday, or even every other day.  But I hope I can grapple with complexity and ambiguity. When I know a spade is a spade, I hope I will have the courage to call it that.  And when I don’t know whether a spade is a spade, or whether it’s actually an AK-47 or a book or a spoon, I hope I will have the wisdom to admit that as well.

(TIME magazine’s obituary for Kevin Carter: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,981431-4,00.html)

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3 Responses to “vultures”

  1. I Am The Iced Lightning May 23, 2010 at 9:58 pm #

    This and other photos by this fellow have been a constant source of soul-searching for me; journalists are the ultimate source of tension when they do their job right because anybody with a head on their shoulders must have an opinion when the sun sets. A part of the quote from Kevin Carter includes the fact that he went and cried while smoking a cigarette under a tree after he chased the vulture away (apocryphal, I know, I usually source things I say online but I can’t find the particular link at this point, and I do feel bad about it, just take it on faith). And presumably the girl still died as we all do eventually. Crying, of course, does not make the objective sadness of that girl’s suffering go away, nor does the fact that we invest our own time and sensibility in development. I don’t even know whether taking an interest in someone else’s suffering qualifies you for a “better-human-being award” which I, like most other folks, would like to lock up in my trophy case. I think exactly what you’re doing should be the point of photos like this, settling on a tried and true answer to something like that would be more depressing than struggling with a question of tension like this. In a sense, that’s what things should be like and that’s why life should be hard, having hard questions asked every day, no wasting of time. And that’s a selfish response, because this little girl still died, probably.

    And to be really debased about it; here’s the IMDB link to the movie about the Bang Bang Club that’s coming out. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1173687/

    Also, because I live by association http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppJAkN4m9bY&NR=1

    Keep up the posts B-Live

  2. belist May 25, 2010 at 9:27 pm #

    Thanks, Iced Lightning. Carter’s story about sitting under a tree, smoking, and crying is found in the link at the bottom of my post… This is also one of the things I can easily picture myself doing, had I been in his place.

    You brought up a lot more points that I come back to over and over again – the idea that committing to this kind of work automatically makes me a better person (something I just do not believe, as much as I wish it were true), the worry that I have over asking questions when I don’t really want an answer, and also the likely possibility that no amount of lessons-learned or morals I can glean from this story will outweigh the sadness of it.

  3. SP95 December 21, 2012 at 10:01 am #

    I thank all the photographers for bringing this in our knowledge i mean the real picture of African countries. I will definitely do something for them Insha Allah.

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