Vulture Stalking a Child


In March 1993, photographer Kevin Carter made a trip to southern Sudan, where he took now iconic photo of a vulture preying upon an emaciated Sudanese toddler near the village of Ayod. He had been invited by a former photographer friend who was then working as the information officer for the UN Operation to relief the famine conditions in the country.

Carter was part of a group of adrenaline-junkie war correspondents based in South Africa called the Bang Bang Club (Carter, Greg Marinovich, Ken Oosterbroek, and João Silva). He made his way to Sudan, saying he needed a break from the turmoil in his native South Africa, instead trying to photograph a civil war and famine he felt the world was overlooking. Carter said he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (The parents of the girl were busy taking food from the same UN plane Carter took).

Silva was in the same camp with Carter. Carter confided in him: “You won’t believe what I’ve just shot! … I was shooting this kid on her knees, and then changed my angle, and suddenly there was this vulture right behind her! … And I just kept shooting – shot lots of film!” He said he was shocked by the situation he had just photographed, saying, “I see all this, and all I can think of is Megan”, his 5-year old daughter.


Later in the month, when The New York Times was seeking an image to illustrate a story about the Sudan famine, the picture editor on the foreign desk called up Greg Marinovich, who told her about Carter’s photo. The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993 as ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’.

Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run an unusual special editor’s note on 30th March: “A picture last Friday with an article about the Sudan showed a little Sudanese girl who had collapsed from hunger on the trail to a feeding center in Ayod. A vulture lurked behind her. 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 center.”

The following week, the photo was in Time Magazine in color. The magazine’s report on Sudan in its The Week section (April 5th, 1993) was pithy with just a single sentence: “IN EXTREMIS: A million Sudanese face starvation. Here a child falters en route to a feeding center, while a vulture hovers.” Like the Times, the magazine would later have to print a response to the flood of correspondence it had received.

Journalists in the Sudan were told not to touch the famine victims, because of the risk of transmitting disease, but Carter came under criticism for not helping the girl. “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,” read one editorial.

Carter eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo, but he couldn’t enjoy it. “I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up,” he confided in a friend. Consumed with the violence he’d witnessed, and haunted by the questions as to the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide three months later. He was 33.

As for other members of the Bang Bang Club, they went on to unhappy careers. Oosterbroek was killed in a friendly fire incident in Johannesburg during the final days of Apartheid. Silva stepped on a landmine in Kandahar and lost both of his legs. Only Marinovich survived, retiring to academia.

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Now that you are here: I am doing something crassly commercial here. I just signed up for Patreon. Patreon is a fundraising platform. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” As you may notice in last few years, I have been posting very infrequently. But I want IP to go on for a long time and be sustainable. Linking a monetary value to a new post (not a ‘monthly salary’ — which is another way of doing Patreon) should give me a marginal incentive to write more. As far as the blog is concerned, nothing will change. No paywalls. Patreon is more useful for YouTubers and podcasters, but let’s see how it goes for me: https://www.patreon.com/iconicphotos 

 

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