The vulture in the frame

Blessy Augustine | Updated on January 08, 2018

Show and tell: Kevin Carter, a South African photojournalist, won the Pulitzer Prize for this photograph in 1994 and committed suicide three months later. For many, that affirmed his guilt for not helping this Sudanese girl reach a feeding centre

Blessy Augustine   -  BUSINESS LINE

Images help us channel our rage and push us towards action. What this action will be depends on the questions we ask

Kevin Carter’s iconic photograph of a starving Sudanese girl, who collapsed on her way to a feeding centre while a vulture waited nearby, will always remain controversial because of the unintended suspense it creates. Both the child and the vulture are still, but it’s a throbbing stillness, one that makes the viewer desperate for a second frame. Logically, the composition suggests only two possibilities — either the vulture feasted on the child, which the viewer feels certain was only a matter of time when the photo was taken, or it did not. But these possibilities don’t exist just as possibilities, they become loaded with emotion and turn into haunting questions.

In 1993, when the image was first published in The New York Times, most people turned to Carter, a South African photojournalist, for answers. The questions were not limited to the fate of the child but extended to Carter’s ethics. Why did he stand around taking pictures instead of helping the child? The questions then turned into accusations. The St Petersburg Times (Florida) condemned him saying, “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.”

Southern Sudan’s famine caused by a complex set of factors that involved civil war and floods, followed by drought and disease, became distilled to that one image. In fact, for most people growing up in the ’90s, that image came to represent all of Africa, its hunger and the callousness of photojournalists. It’s an attitude fuelled by the oft-repeated expression: a picture is worth a thousand words. Of course, it is, but it also is not.

Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for the photograph in 1994 and committed suicide three months later. For many, that affirmed his guilt. Carter’s statement — given in an interview following his Pulitzer win — that after taking the photograph he “lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried” was seen as evidence. His close friends and family knew that he was disturbed by the people he saw dying, whether it was in southern Sudan or in South Africa, and that the crouching child in the photograph was not an exception. The question of what happened to that child did not haunt him as much as what would happen to all those starving and dying around him. But for most, far removed from the scene, that singular question became more important because the horror one felt could be contained to and within that frame.

Where is Sudan? Somewhere far away. What do days and days of hunger feel like? We can safely assume that we are unlikely to experience it. Because we cannot see, and have not seen, beyond that frame, our questions at most extend to the person behind the frame. On some level, this turns the child and the vulture’s tableau into an unfortunate accident. Why else would we think that it was Carter’s duty to carry her to the feeding centre? There would have been a hundred other people crawling around him; should he have carried all of them? He could have, but that is besides the point.

What we don’t see in the photograph is an ethnic and religious war, forces of nature, volunteers trying to help and falling short of resources — that is, the many complex factors that were responsible for the child’s emaciation. The image allows us to focus on a few elements that we understand and can deal with. This is true of the photograph of Alan Kurdi, the three-year-old Syrian whose body was washed ashore on a Turkish beach in 2015. Many three-year-olds continue to die crossing the Mediterranean Sea but Kurdi’s isolated body lying face down and motionless on the beach made for a more dramatic image. Such images make us feel connected to what is happening elsewhere, without actually understanding what is happening. And so, on another level, by reducing a complex situation to a few accessible elements, the image helps us channel our horror and rage. It has the capacity to push us towards action.

What this action will be depends on the questions we ask. If we focus on the vulture in the image, we will seek answers from Carter. Instead, if we consider the child’s hunger — the true protagonist of that image — we will seek answers from a government that actively contributed to southern Sudan’s famine in 1993.

In the last few months, we have been surrounded by several horrific images, from that of dead infants and their wailing parents at the Baba Raghav Das Medical College hospital in Gorakhpur to the more recent pile of bodies on the foot overbridge at Elphinstone Road in Mumbai. Carter’s haunting photograph offers us clues on how we should process these images. The vulture in the frame can derail the conversation, but at every given opportunity we need to yank the focus back to where it belongs — in both instances, appalling governmental inefficiency and a greater governmental apathy.

Blessy Augustine is an art critic based in New Delhi; @blessyaugust

Published on October 13, 2017

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