By taking this picture of a dying girl, a South African photographer was catapulted to international acclaim. Some say it also hastened his death. Tanya Farber looks at a documentary which explores the turmoil of his life, the photo and his suicide
February 24, 2006 Edition 1
His face is captured by the unsteady lens of a hand-held camera. He says to the cameraman: “I feel great. Overwhelmed.”
Why wouldn’t he? He holds one of the most coveted awards in the world: a Pulitzer Prize. But something in photographer Kevin Carter’s eyes betrays a feeling which seems more complicated than that. There is something manic about his happiness, he seems uncomfortable in his own skin.
This footage forms part of a Oscar-nominated short documentary entitled The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club.
It tells the story of someone for whom the peak of achievement was mirrored in magnitude by the depth of his depression. His tragic suicide came soon after the stamp of international approval in the form of the award for his image of the emaciated Sudanese girl collapsing on her way to a feeding station with a vulture hopping closely behind.
Carter’s fate is synonymous with one of the most conten-tious issues in the world of journalism. Is the role of the journalist merely to observe and then portray what he has seen to the public, or should he become involved in the situation in which he has placed himself?
“Carter’s death provoked questions about the consequences of witnessing bloodshed,” says the film’s American director, Dan Krauss, “and the responsibility of the journalists: whether to document or intervene.”
Krauss first heard about Carter when he himself began working as a photojournalist a decade before. “What interested me most about Kevin, he says, “was his astonishing humanity, his introspection, his sense of mission.”
To explore Carter’s life, his character, and the controversy around his picture, Krauss began speaking to people who had been close to Carter, personally, professionally, or both. The end result is a rich tapestry of opinions and emotions.
Fellow photo-journalist Paul Velasco, in one of the interviews, describes what he felt was a very weird situation.
“It was extreme violence married to this marshmallowy existence in suburbia,” he says, describing how they would be facing death, violence and brutality in the pocket of chaos in the townships in the early morning, and then, “by 9 or 10am, we would be eating croissants at a bakery in Melville before filing the pictures by midday”.
Carter and Ken Oosterbroek, along with Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva, had been dubbed the Bang Bang club by the media. Chris Marais, a magazine editor interviewed in the documentary, describes them as four guys doing exceptional work, going into the townships to cover the conflict .
Alf Kumalo, veteran photo-grapher and founder of the Alf Kumalo Museum and Photographic Institute, cannot sep-arate his fond memories of Carter from the anguish surrounding the picture.
“I was one of the first people he told about that great picture he took of the vulture and the child,” he recalls, “and I know he felt so bad about it because everyone wanted to know if he had saved her. I don’t know what he said to them.”
He recalls how he used to sit down with Oosterbroek and Carter, and tell them not to rush in. But, he remembers, they were so emotional and so impulsive.
The despair and emotional turmoil which Carter experienced is explored in some detail in the documentary. Many of his fellow journalists talk about how they used drugs to deal with the emotional backlash of what they covered.
Marinovich, who wrote about his experiences with co-author Silva in The Bang Bang Club, writes extensively about this problem. He describes the first time that Carter admitted being addicted to buttons, and how, upon hearing that he had won the Pulitzer, was so stoned that he started babbling about how bad things were in his life.
His former girlfriend, Julia Lloyd, tells a story in the documentary which, she says, made her realise something was wrong. She describes how she came home one day to find that Carter had drowned their kitten in the swimming pool for urinating behind his backdrop.
Colleague and close friend Judith Matloff, an American war correspondent, describes how, when he had won the Pulitzer and Oosterbroek had been killed, “people were calling him for assignments and he just couldn’t get out of bed.”
Eventually, his agency, Sygma, had secured an assignment for him to Mozambique where he would cover Nelson Mandela’s first state visit to another country in his capacity as president.
On Carter’s return from the assignment, he visited his good friend Reedwan Vally. In the documentary, Vally explains how Carter, after going to his car to get his equipment, discovered that he had left all his rolls of film on the plane. Vally describes how this had devastated Carter.
“This is it, I can’t live, I can’t do it anymore,” Carter said to him.
“But,” says Vally, “I didn’t believe him.”
Two days later, Carter gassed himself to death in his red pick-up truck. He had been outlived by his vulture picture which still maintains a type of iconic status, one which holds in its frame the litany of questions around ethics.
Carter’s mother says in the documentary that she responded to the photograph in the same way most people did.
“Kev, what did you do? Did you help the child?” she asked him. This seems a natural reaction, one which had also been the response of the hundreds of people who contacted the New York Times after they published the picture on March 26, 1993.
But it doesn’t easily account for the labyrinthine nature of the dilemma. Velasco and Lloyd defend Carter passionately in the documentary.
Velasco says the photograph had, more than anything else, acted as a catalyst for incredible awareness for change. Lloyd argues that, as a photo-journalist, Carter had to keep his emotions in check and do his job. She says there are many such children in Carter’s photographs from his assignment in Sudan, and that he could not possibly have helped them.
In Carter’s own words, he recognised a powerful set of symbols, and wanted to be sure that he got the shot . As Krauss says: “I think the film sends the message that people need to understand the context in which an image is made and the full benefit of its message before they criticise the photographer. It is a very complex issue.”