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The Power of a Little Girl’s Photo

The picture from Sudan, which won Kevin Carter a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, is memorable because it shows the seriousness of the situation in Sudan during that time; reflects the role of photographers in conveying the unknown circumstances to us; and  tells the impact of covering such events on photographers as manifested by Carter’s suicide.The winning picture depicts a pitiful, starving little Sudanese girl with her head bowed to the earth; obviously very weak and dying.Behind her back is a vulture which seems to be waiting for her to die so it could have something to eat.

The story behind the picture is related by Mac Leod Scott in his article, The Life and Death of Kevin Carter.

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Mac Leod wrote how Carter was able to shot the photograph. Carter went to Sudan to photograph the rebel movement in the country. When he reached the country, he started taking pictures of famine victims. He saw lots of people who are starving. They were so thin and terribly malnourished. In his attempt to find another view, he went to an open bush. While in the bush, he heard a soft whimpering sound and found a little girl trying to walk her way to the feeding center. He came nearer to photograph her.

As he tried to shoot, a vulture landed just behind the girl. He captured the scene. Carter later confessed that he waited for another 20 minutes expecting the vulture to spread its wings but it did not. After taking all the shots that he needed, he chased the vulture away. He saw the helpless little girl attempting to walk toward the feeding center. Carter remained in his position under the tree. He smoked and cried. He became depressed afterwards.

To stress why the Pulitzer-prized picture is memorable, four supporting claims are written below.

Firstly, the picture itself shocked the world. According to Scott’s words, the photograph “made the world weep”. The emotional impact of the photograph is hard to forget.  In the picture, the vulture is just waiting for the girl to die so it could eat her. Imagine a big bird is preying on the flesh of a child for its food. Many find it gruesome as they don’t usually such kind of pictures and news in the headlines. The photo got many reactions from different people around the world. When someone sees it, there is something in the emotion that makes one feel more than pity for the little girl.

Further, Scott reported how the picture was seen by millions of people.  The New York Times was looking for pictures about Sudan back then when Carter sold the photograph to the famous newspaper in March 26, 1993. The NY Times published the picture and many readers were overwhelmed by it. Many papers also published the picture and were stared by millions of people around the globe.

The media picked up on the story and the picture. Those who saw the picture pity the Sudanese girl and wondered what have become of her. Hundreds of readers called the NY Times office to inquire what happened to the girl. The NY Times said it did not know if she reaches the feeding center. The paper said that no one knows the fate of the poor little girl. Likewise, the readers also wanted to find out if Carter was able to help her in her struggle.

Secondly, the picture reveals the real condition of Sudan during that time. The world came to know Sudan because of the picture. Sudan is a large country in North Africa. Until now, the political unrest in the country continues and the civil war is killing many people. On top of that, famine has been ravaging the land regularly. Based on an article by Bruce Nelan, published in Time Magazine on July 27, 1998, the country experiences famine every three or four years.

Both the civil war and the famine resulted to the death of hundreds of thousands of Sudanese. The year 1994 marked the most devastating famine – the year when the picture was taken. Nelan added that hunger is always a threat in the country of roughly 40 million people. In 1989 alone, 250,000 died. In a related article, written by another Time reporter, Maryann London in 2001, about 1.5 million of people have already died either in the civil war or in famine. Sadly, the famine affects everyone most especially the children who are the most vulnerable segment of the population.

Nelan further wrote that, usually, the only way to get to a feeding center is by walking which usually takes days or weeks to reach these centers run by international relief agencies. Mostly die along the way as what might have happened to the girl in the picture. According to Bill Keller, in his article in the Time Magazine published on July 29, 1994, the girl collapsed as she was on her way to the feeding center.

Thirdly, the photographer who took the picture committed suicide by carbon poisoning three months after receiving his prize. Carter is from Johannesburg, South Africa. He won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography that year together with Paul Watson who took a picture from Somalia (Gordon, 1994).

But, as Keller reported, the people blamed him for not helping the dying little girl. Carter’s action was criticized. Many suggested that he should have decided to help the little girl by giving her something to eat or by carrying her to the feeding center. He has the chance to help one starving little girl but he walked away after taking her picture.

Moreover, as Scott said, Carter was haunted by what he had seen during his career- the violence, famine, dying people and war. Maybe he could not take it any more. Presently, there is a documentary film that seeks to explain Carter’s suicide, entitled as The Death of Kevin Carter: Casualty of the Bang Bang Club by Dan Krauss.

On a personal note, I do not want to judge Carter as many have already blamed him in the past. However, I am one with others in saying that he should have somehow helped the dying girl by offering food or water. I do not know what was in his mind then. Blaming is the readers’ reaction on Carter which I think had much effect on him and his decision to end his life.

Lastly, the picture highlights the role of photographers in showing the unknown to us. Before Carter took the picture, many people were not aware of the gravity of the situation in Sudan. Most people in the West are not even familiar with the country.

Through the picture, the world suddenly realized that there is so much happening in many countries that we are not aware of. It is the photographers who connect us to the unfamiliar sufferings around the globe. They give us pictures which tell stories. As Susan Sontag wrote, “to collect photographs is to collect the world” and photographs provide evidences. More so, Nathan Thornburgh of Time Magazine penned that photography has the power to trap moment in time and he ascribed photojournalism as the perfect medium for showing stories. I say, without photographers, there would be no pictures to behold.

Nevertheless, capturing the scenes of a war-torn area or other violence-related activities is tough. From here, one can infer that covering such violence and heart-wrenching events have impact on the photographers as evidenced by Carter’s suicide. The drama and the difficulty of recording such delicate situations may have its negative influence on the photographers. It can be noted that Carter sunk into depression before he committed suicide. The violence, famine, and dying children- Carter remembered while he lived- and made him more depressed. He maybe was too sad. He might have remembered the dying little Sudanese girl from time to time.

In conclusion, I guess the picture is powerful enough that’s why it is too memorable. My reasons are all cited above. Pictures show us reality. And the photographers who took them for us deserved to be affirmed as they serve as our link to many realities around the world. As what the picture of the dying Sudanese girl tells us, we can say that photographers are very important as they show us the different situations in the world. Without them, there will be no pictures which will show us how blessed we are because we have more than enough food to eat and how other people in the world are suffering because of famine. Without the pictures and the photographers, we will never know what is really happening. We will remain ignorant of the people who need our help – even just for a piece of food.

Works Cited

Gordon, Jim. “Judges have a difference of opinion….” News Photographer 49.n5 (May 1994): 4(1). General OneFile. Gale. Northern Virginia Community College Annandale campus. 21 Apr. 2008

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Keller, Bill. “Kevin Carter, a Pulitzer winner for Sudan photo, is dead at 33.”

The New York Times 143 (July 29, 1994): C16(N) pB8(L). Expanded Academic ASAP. Gale. Northern Virginia Community College Annandale campus. 21 Apr. 2008 <http://find.galegroup.com.ezproxy.vccs.edu:2048/itx/start.do?prodId=EAIM>.

London, Maryann B. “Baroness who Frees Slaves”. 19 March 2001. Time Magazine. 30 April 2008 <http://edition.cnn.com/2001/WORLD/africa/03/29/sudan.famine/index.html.

Mac Leod, Scott. . “Lightning from the lens Powerful photos foment change, experts believe; [Final Edition]”Journal – Gazette. Ft. Wayne, Ind ( Aug 18, 2006) pg. 9.A. Proquest. Northern Virginia Community College Annandale campus. 21 Apr. 2008

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Mac Leod, Scott. “The life and death of Kevin Carter.” Time 144.n11 (Sept 12, 1994): 70(4). General OneFile. Gale. Northern Virginia Community College Annandale campus. 21 Apr. 2008

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Nelan, Bruce. “Sudan”. 27 July 1998. Time Magazine. 30 April 2008. <http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,103088,00.html>.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Farrar, Anchor Books, 1990.

Thornburgh, Nathan. “The Best Photos of the Year”. 18 December 2006. Time Magazine. 30 April 2008< http://www.time.com/time/yip/2006/>

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