Here’s why Kevin Carter was a Sudanese Civil War hero.

Kevin Carter

This Pulitzer-winning photograph (right) named “The Vulture and the Little Girl” is doing the rounds of the social media with an undue criticism for Kevin Carter (left) and a lesson on love and humanity. Here’s the compelling truth behind the actual turn of events.

The picture was taken in March, 1993 at the time of the Second Sudanese Civil War. The war, that had started in 1983, had already pushed the country into a grave famine which was further aggravated by the fighting groups that hindered the relief work and distribution of food by global organizations including the UN.

In such conflict zones, Kevin Carter must have needed permission of the rebel soldiers to go to any area and click photos. Not only this, he must have been even accompanied by some of these gunmen when he was clicking these pictures.

The point to be noted here is that the previous September, a UNICEF employee, two private relief workers, and a Norwegian journalist were murdered near a rebel outpost in Southern Sudan. This must have been there at the back of Carter’s mind when he was out doing this field work. Even one of his friends Ken, also a photojournalist, was shot dead a few months after Carter won the Pulitzer. He even mentioned him in his suicide note. Although Ken was murdered after Carter clicked this picture, the idea of a similar fate must have been racking his mind when he was on the field.

The conversation reported in this social media message is misrepresented. A person asked him what had happened to the child. Actually, many people had asked this question through their responses to The New York Times after the picture was published. In this social media message, it is mentioned that Carter replied, “I didn’t wait to find out after this shot as I had a plane to catch.” No doubt he had a plane to catch, but he had repeatedly said in his interviews that he had waited for about 20 minutes for the vulture to fly away, but when it didn’t, he finally chased it away. He was also reported saying that the girl had recovered and had resumed walking in the direction of the UN aid center.

According to the media post, the same person on the phone went on to say, “I put it to you that there were two vultures on that day. One had a camera.” To the people who agree with this statement, let me make it clear to them that there were of course more than just one vulture out there, but the others had guns in their hands. Those were the real vultures, not the one with the camera. With armed soldiers hovering around him, and at a place where a gunfire or any assault could spark any moment, the idea of dropping the girl to the feeding center did not strike his mind. Isn’t that understandable? And further, she might not have been the only one approaching the center which was only a 100 meters away. It would have been even pointless carrying the child to the center if the parents of the child were already collecting the packages. The UN feeding center would have been a crowded place at such moments when the plane carrying food had just arrived, and in fear of not getting their packages, the parents must have rushed there leaving their children behind for a while.

Moreover, the photojournalists were specifically instructed not to touch the famine victims as they would run the risk of contracting a disease. The photographers did not carry aprons, gloves and masks with them like the relief workers would have. Although many people may fail to acknowledge it, Carter’s heart was deeply moved at the scene. He regretted not being able to help these people, but there was very little he could have done at the moment.

The photograph went on to be published in hundreds of other newspapers. It became a global symbol of the suffering of Sudan’s people. After this revelation, help from international agencies poured in.

If only people had been more generous, and if a few members of the common public had appreciated Carter for exposing this evil to the world and making it an international affair, and thereby creating a channel for help at a time when even the UN was running short of funds to power their efforts, he would have been alive today. Imagine if he had got into a conflict with the armed soldiers over helping the little girl. Imagine if, due to this conflict, he would have never been able to share this picture with his editors. To put it into the words of one of his colleagues – “If it weren’t for that photo, we wouldn’t know how to spell Sudan.”

Kevin Carter was a courageous and compassionate photojournalist. He risked his own life to bring this ugly truth to the fore and trigger some serious action on the parts of others. He could have just gone to some quiet forests in some other African countries and captured wildlife away from all this turbulence. But he was a photojournalist, and recording the truth, howsoever ugly it might be, was his duty. He was just doing his job, and he already had his life at stake. One cannot question his humanity or compassion for his helplessness in the situation.

The said message circulating in the social media tries to teach us about love and humanity, but it was because of this photograph, the world came and stood together for the Sudanese people in the name of love and humanity. If Carter had been killed there by the rebels, none of his criticizers would have attended his funeral that is for sure, not even out of humanity. And probably just because of Carter’s photo, hundreds of thousands of Sudanese people received a much-needed relief before it was too late.

And yes, for the record, it was later discovered that the photo was in fact of a “boy” who had actually received attention from the UN aid station and was able to survive. However, the boy succumbed to fever in 2007. The fact that he had survived the vulture will at least take some burden off of the shoulders of our friend Kevin Carter wherever he is.

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