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Kevin Carter: The Prize Winning Photograph

The objective is to promote reflection on the photographic image and it understands of reality, encouraging discussion and confrontation of the concepts of reality and aesthetics, so present in everyday photography. Through analysis of the photograph that became the symbol of famine in Africa, written by South African Kevin Carter, we want to see how the spectacularization reality and stimulates based perception of a human being as an object, disconnected from any feature that hinders your understanding as art object.

Kevin Carter was born in apartheid, South Africa.

Kevin was destiny to become an inspiration, he began his career as a weekend sports photographer, he then moved on to work for the Johannesburg Star, enjoying the afford of other photojournalist to expose the brutality of Apartheid.

Carter was the first to photograph a public execution by “necklacing” in South Africa.

Carter became a member of “The Bang Bang club” which consisted in a group of four photographers active within the townships of South Africa during the Apartheid period, Carter was playing a dangerous, suffering, horrible with no justice game which became part of his everyday life, exposing the brutality of Apartheid. They have published famine, war, misery and death to the world in an unknown perspective.

Carter said: “I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures… then I felt that maybe my actions hadn’t been at all bad. Being a witness to something this horrible wasn’t necessarily such a bad thing to do”.

In 1993 his life has changed forever, he made a trip to Sudan to photograph the famine. The impacts of the conflicts there were happening imposed by government troops and after shooting the hungry and malnourished, he saw a thin girl and started shooting, then he noticed that a vulture was behind her getting closer to the girl who was dying from hunger. This picture was very important to Carter, because through it he was consecrated in the photograph, even not having enjoyed much of this good.

Few months later he killed himself due to depression and psychological problems.


There are different sources saying that before the picture that gave carter an award, took plenty different angles of the girl.


This image was chosen because of the incredibly power that the image has, it graphically illustrates the terrible conditions of those inflicted by desperate poverty, is such a strong photo that even the most hard-hearted individual is likely to be affected by the photograph.

The photograph (Image.1), which later has been recognized worldwide as the emblem of famine in Africa, showed a Sudanese child dying before the threatening look of a vulture, patiently waiting for the death of his prey.

The photo shows a little Sudanese girl, naked skeletal, completely stripped off of any particular codes that would produce alternative readings. The nakedness, used as an indexical sign, somehow transcends the singularity of the girl malnourished unable to walk, too weak in the legs, crawling and supporting her body under her knees, the hot sun, hunger and thirst make her lower her head and force her to surrender to fatigue and dejection. All these expressions refer us to an environment of war and conflict, where there are people in need, hunger and misery.

In the background is the image of a vulture waiting quietly from a distance, for her death or fainting girl to get hold of the remains, the double metonymy that is in play here, uses the vulture as a representation of death, but, at the same time, as a symbol of the “vulture culture”, confines the message of the photograph, not only by selecting a “preferred reading”, but by a systematical exclusion of every possibility of a different reading.

The environment proves to be dry weather which from this perspective you could state the poverty of the field, and a sad scene of wars and conflicts, where many people died of hunger, the image can also be described as aggressive which makes us responsive face of so much misery and it also shows the neglect of the photographer.

In Carter’s photograph, the “scene” is constructed through it’s systematic emptying. The symbols are isolated perfectly, reducing the polysemy of the photograph to a minimum. The “space” is cleared from any possibilities elements that would disrupt the “flow” of meaning by producing a redundancy or an equivocal “reading”. It becomes poverty and famine, but, at the same time, it becomes nature, a universality that erases the specificity of the event. In that sense, the perfect communication empties out the photograph from the denoted message. Here, we are not dealing with a particular girl, a singular traumatic event that would shatter the representational systems.

Faced with the disturbing force of Carter’s photograph, one is tempted to ascribe its power to this denotative perfection. But, a careful examination would challenge this initial “feeling”. The magnetic, yet distressing appeal of the photograph is not a result of the flawless “copying” of reality. On the contrary, the “traumatic” character of the photograph is an effect of its compositional perfection, of the linguistic excellence that structures and confines the production of meaning. Paradoxically, the “trauma” does not emerge from the blockage of meaning, but from the perfect functionality of language. It is not the “real” that disturbs us, but the incredible efficiency of the cultural in producing the effect of realization

Accordingly, the unsettling force of the photograph is not in the analogical plenitude, but in the connotative perfection, in the smoothness of the communication. The use of “clear” symbols (the nakedness and the vulture) empties out the composition of any polysemy that would challenge the “disturbing” reading.


The fact is that the girl had stopped to rest while struggling to a feeding center, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby waiting for her death, Carter said that he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. Carter snapped the hunting photograph and chased the vulture away and he didn’t help the little girl.

After being purchased by The New York Times, this picture won the Pulitzer and the world, bringing fame and recognition to a photographer without much expression development of photography and from this perspective you could state that, the character in the photograph succeeded to get the world’s attention on the problems of hunger, misery, disease, unemployment and poverty that exist in Africa. The image of the girl can certainly thrilled, because it is a reflection of the actions of an irresponsible government, hypocrites totalitarian dictator and who acts without thinking forever.

A few months after receiving the Pulitzer, Kevin Carter took his own life, it is too simplistic to suggest that he committed suicide as a direct result of his experience with this child as implied in the message.

This was found on his diary:

“I am depressed … without phone … money for rent … money for child support … money for debts … money!!! … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners…I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek if I am that luck”-

“Dear God, I promise I will never waste my food no matter how bad it can taste and how full I may be I pray that He will protect this little boy, guide and deliver him away from his misery. I pray that we will be more sensitive towards the world around us and not be blinded be our own selfish nature and interests.”

On another level, it is possible to understand that at the time that Carter took the photograph, he was a deeply troubled man, haunted by the things he had seen during his career, plagued by personal problems, and battling a drug habit but is it fair to take advantage of the little girl?

However, it is not surprising that the photograph won such a prestigious award, this image has rocked the journalism world and held a discussion on value of the human face of aesthetics, a concern that the invention of photography

as mere record did not raise, but was brought up with the perception of

image as plastic construction also look at the photo.

Finally it is very enough to say that the image left some concerns and questions and after the examination it’s very enough to ask: “What is the fate of the girl? What happened next?

Every human being is unique, with their beliefs, their character, their choices, their dreams and their nightmares. “And if you were you him, what you have done?”. The answer is always the same: I do not know.




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The Bang-Bang Club BOOK- Snapshots from a Hidden War: The Making of the New South Africa.

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