The vultures that stalked Kevin Carter

By Time of article published Feb 20, 2006

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His face is captured by the unsteady lens of a hand-held camera. He turns to the cameraman and says, "I feel great. Overwhelmed."

Why wouldn't he be? He holds in his hand one of the most coveted awards in the world: A Pulitzer Prize. But something in 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 one of South Africa's most important photographers, 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 in the desert.

That is the story of his life and death.

But, Carter's fate is synonymous with one of the most contentious issues in the world of journalism. Is the role of the journalist merely to observe the world and then portray what he has seen to the public, or should he become involved in the situation in which he has placed himself?

"Kevin'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 prior. "What interested me most about Kevin," he says, "was his astonishing humanity, his introspection, his sense of mission".

He adds that, "every filmmaker has at least one story that he or she is born to tell. For me, this is it. It has been an immensely meaningful journey."

In order to explore Carter's life, his character, and the controversy around his award-winning picture, Krauss began speaking to people who had been close to Carter, either personally, professionally, or both.

The end result is a rich tapestry of opinions and emotions. "Kevin's family, friends and colleagues were incredibly passionate and generous in our discussions," says Krauss, "I feel honoured that the people close to him trusted me to do this in a respectful and truthful way."

What emerges in the documentary is a life of paradoxes. Fellow photojournalist 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 imagery of 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 conflicts".

Karen Sandison, current deputy pictures editor at The Star, had been working in the newspaper's photographic department at the same time as Oosterbroek and Carter. Krauss had spoken to Sandison about "those days" as research for his documentary.

"This film brings back amazing memories of that era, which was so difficult," she says, "it shows how far this country has come." She recalls how Carter and Oosterbroek were sometimes really difficult to work with, and on other days, "absolute gentlemen".

She adds, "This documentary is an important story, it shows the times that we've come through and how we've changed. People are taking notice, it's a type of acknowledgement of our history."

Alf Kumalo, veteran photographer and founder of the Alf Kumalo Museum and Photographic Institute, cannot separate his fond memories of Carter from the anguish surrounding the award-winning picture. "I was one of the first people he told about that great picture that 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".

For Kumalo, the documentary brings back terrible memories of when Carter had died. "We got a very rude shock when he heard he had taken his own life," he says. "A lot of people didn't realise how bad it was in the townships. It gets into you gradually, it only affects you afterwards."

That 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 went on to pen his experiences with co-author Silva in The Bang Bang Club, also 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 on about how bad things were in his life".

In the documentary, New York Times photo editor, Nancy Buirski, also speaks about his strange reaction, but makes no reference to him being stoned.

His former girlfriend, Julia Lloyd, tells a story in the documentary which, she says, made her realise there was something "very 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, says on camera that Carter reminded her of a child. "There was no cover," she says, describing how he could express extreme joy or anger just as easily. Later, she says, when he had already 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 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 seat of the aeroplane. 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 had gassed himself to death in his red pick-up truck, not far from his former family home. He had been outlived by his vulture picture which still today maintains a type of iconic status, not just as a visually shocking photograph, but 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 that most people did. "Kev, what did you do? Did you help the child?" she asked of him. This seems a natural reaction, one which had also been the response of the hundreds of people who wrote and called 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. Both Velasco and Lloyd defend Carter passionately in the documentary. Velasco says that the photograph had, more than anything else, acted as a "catalyst for incredible awareness for change". Lloyd, in reaction to the accusations levelled at Carter, says, "I have never heard such rot."

She argues that, as a photojournalist, 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. He was there to expose what was going on. She describes how "shattered" he was by the accusations.

In Carter's own words, he recognised "a powerful set of symbols", and wanted to be sure that he "got the shot".

Marinovich, after describing the world-wide reaction to the photograph, writes, "The Japanese had fallen under the spell of the vulture picture like no other society. The image had clearly struck some deep chord there... programmes on the picture were aired. Schoolchildren discussed it in classes on ethics. They wanted to understand his actions and his thoughts when he photographed that Sudanese child."

At the time, Time magazine (September 12 1994) published an article by its Johannesburg chief bureau Scott MacLeod. Carter's sister sent a letter of complaint to the magazine shortly afterwards. "The Pulitzer Prize certainly didn't send Kevin 'deeper into anguish'," she wrote, "if anything, it was confirmation that his work had all been worthwhile. Your version of Kevin's death seems so futile."

The convoluted nature of the whole story, from Carter's personality, to the life he led, to the photograph which sent his fate on a journey of parabolas, to his tragic suicide, is one not easily unravelled.

As Krauss himself 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."

- The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club has to date not been scheduled for broadcast or theatrical release in SA. The Oscars are on March 5.

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