Kevin Carter - Photojournalist
Created | Updated Aug 8, 2007
He was the photographer who saw too much. His was a cautionary tale that we whispered among ourselves about the dangers of becoming too sensitised to your subjects and to witnessing extreme violence.
- Dan Krauss, who made the 2004 film The Life of Kevin Carter.
Kevin Carter was a South African Pulitzer Prize-winning1 photographer and member of the Bang-Bang Club, a group of four photojournalists working in the last years of apartheid in that country. His work drew praise and condemnation in almost equal measures until finally, haunted by the horrors of the scenes he had witnessed, and beset by financial problems, he committed suicide at the age of 33.
The Apartheid Era
It is worth prefacing Carter's tale with a brief history of South African politics. From 1948 to 1994, South Africa was ruled by an ideology called apartheid, which sought to separate the whites from the non-whites in order to give whites a social and economic advantage. Various laws enshrined apartheid as a way of life. Blacks had few rights outside of areas known as 'homelands' and 'townships', which were set up for them to live and work in; and transport, education, healthcare and even beaches were strictly segregated. Blacks were forcibly relocated to homelands through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, and these areas became largely autonomous. Of course, in these areas the land was invariably poor, and there was little or no infrastructure.
Opposition was suppressed, often brutally. Opposition parties such as Nelson Mandela's African National Congress were banned, and their leaders imprisoned. By the 1980s, opposition had become violent, and President PW Botha oversaw bloody retaliation in the later years of the decade. Under his rule, police and army units would patrol the townships, often firing indiscriminately at civilians. There was also tension and violence between the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom Party and the ANC, often at crucial times in negotiating processes. It was not until the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was established to find the truth about the apartheid years that it was confirmed that the government had engineered some of this discord.
Apartheid was officially dismantled at midnight on 26/27 April, 1994. Undoubtedly, other nations had influenced events through years of sanctions and political pressure, and there can be little doubt that the steady stream of horrific photographs appearing in the Western media helped to bring about that change.
Though he didn't live to see the end of apartheid, Kevin Carter is a part of that story.
The Young Carter
The police used to go around arresting black people for not carrying their passes. They used to treat them very badly, and we felt unable to do anything about it. But Kevin got very angry about it. He used to have arguments with his father. 'Why couldn't we do something about it? Why didn't we go shout at those police?'
- Rosa Carter, Kevin's mother.
Carter was born on 13 September, 1960 in Parkmore, a suburb of Johannesburg, the year that the ANC were banned in South Africa. His life would track the worst excesses of apartheid almost to its political end. His parents were staunch Roman Catholics, and had grown up with apartheid; Kevin, however, grew to disagree openly. In future years, he would describe his childhood as an unhappy one. The family were descended from English immigrants and so were not part of the Dutch-descended Afrikaaner elite. Carter felt little connection with them. After leaving school, he studied pharmacy for a year before dropping out and being conscripted into the South African Defence Force. Here he had his first brush with the regime; while standing up for a black waiter who was being abused, he was beaten up by other soldiers and upbraided as a k****r-boetie (n*****-lover)2. At the age of 20, he ran away from the army, changed his name to David and briefly became a disc jockey. Suicidal at having to support a regime he despised, the day after he was fired from his DJ job he took an overdose of painkillers washed down with rat poison, but survived.
He returned to the SADF and was allowed to complete his duty, surviving an ANC bomb blast in Pretoria, before finally leaving in 1983. He began working in a camera shop and got a part-time job at the weekends reporting on sports matches for the Johannesburg Sunday Express. A year later, he met and married a photographer called Julia Lloyd, with whom he had a daughter, Megan. Although they were living together within a fortnight of meeting, the marriage didn't last long.
In 1984, major riots began across South Africa's black townships. For the first time, white photojournalists were starting to expose apartheid's brutality, and Carter moved to the Johannesburg Star to join them.
Carter's first famous shot was of man being 'necklaced' by a mob. Necklacing was a method of execution whereby a rubber tyre filled with petrol was hung around a person's neck, then ignited. It was a particularly gruesome way of killing, and initially Carter had grave reservations about taking the shots:
I was appalled at what they were doing. I was appalled at what I was doing. But then people started talking about those pictures, [and] 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.
By 1990, a virtual civil war had begun between supporters of the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha parties. Buses and trains were frequently attacked, and violence at weddings and funerals was common. The authorities were little better, opening fire at the first signs of trouble. Vigilante gangs roamed the townships, targeting commuters in particular.
Carter became close friends with Ken Oosterbroek, a colleague on the paper. With freelancers João Silva and Greg Marinovich, they formed an ad-hoc group that would often head into the townships to cover events. This was very risky:
They put themselves in face of danger, were arrested numerous times, but never quit. They literally were willing to sacrifice themselves for what they believed in.
- James Nachtwey, contemporary American photojournalist.
The four would move among the workers at dawn, mingling to capture the violence as it happened. It was an intensely dangerous business, and there was little safety in numbers. Whites simply could not enter the townships. These white photojournalists - Carter, Oosterbroek, Silva and Marinovich - did enter though, risking their lives daily. Silva later recalled that 'at a funeral some mourners caught one guy, hacked him, shot him, ran over him with a car and set him on fire. My first photo showed this guy on the ground as the crowd told him they were going to kill him. We were lucky to get away.' A photograph of Carter, huddled with his camera as a man looks on in disbelief from the relative cover of a dustbin, perfectly illustrates the risks they took. At times, it seemed that wherever there was an incident, the four were there to cover it. They became notorious for getting the shots that showed the violence in all its inhumanity. They even acquired a nickname, becoming known as the Bang-Bang Club, a name coined by a Johannesburg magazine.
I had to think visually. I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the sand. The dead man's face is slightly grey. You are making a visual here. But inside something is screaming, 'My God.' But it is time to work. Deal with the rest later. If you can't do it, get out of the game.
- Kevin Carter.
The pictures taken by the Bang-Bang Club hold an immense power, managing to be disturbing yet somehow intimate. Marinovich's stark image of a man drenched in petrol and ablaze, as an ANC supporter hacks at him with a knife3. Oosterbroek's image of a sweet, innocent little white girl standing in front of an Afrikaner Student Federation4 flag, putting on an ASF armband as her blonde pigtails blow in the breeze. Silva's wide-angle shot of dead men being loaded into an open trailer by police after a night of violence. Often shot from close range, the images give a real sense of the horror of the time, and the often brutal realities of everyday life. There is, however, no panic in the shots; composed with a steely nerve, they seem fearless and toe a very fine line between an intense humanity and a cold lack of emotion for what they are witnessing. Many believe Carter eventually crossed this line.
What is certain is that the images taken by the Bang-Bang Club, distributed into homes around the world, brought intense pressure on the South African government to finally force change and end apartheid. The pressure also told on the photographers; they calmed their nerves with marijuana, which was frequently mixed with tranquillisers for a longer 'hit'. This was known as 'the white pipe' or 'dagga', and Carter became a frequent user.
Hi Time magazine, hi Pulitzer Prize
Vulture stalked white piped lie forever
Wasted your life in black and white
- 'Kevin Carter', Manic Street Preachers, 1996.
In 1991, Greg Marinovich won a Pulitzer Prize for his harrowing photographs of a Zulu being stabbed to death by ANC supporters. The Bang-Bang Club were gaining international recognition, and the photographers started covering conflicts outside South Africa. On the run from the Army, to which he was due to be conscripted, Marinovich went to Serbia to cover the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Two years later, Carter (now working for the South African anti-apartheid newspaper Weekly Mail) and João Silva headed north into Sudan to cover the famine there. Carter was especially keen to get away from South Africa. He had recently spent months in a romantic chase after a woman who was clearly not interested in him, and his personal life had been re-invigorated on meeting a teacher, Kathy Davidson. The trip gave him an opportunity to make a name for himself and put the past behind him.
It didn't take long for Carter to get the notorious shot for which he is remembered. Landing near the village of Ayod, Carter and Silva began work at an overwhelmed feeding centre. Carter found the scene distressing and took a stroll in the bush to calm his nerves. A soft whimpering sound caught his attention. It was a pitiful, animal-like sound. He moved towards it until he found the source. A young African girl was crawling weakly towards the centre of a clearing. She didn't have the energy to stand and, emaciated, stood little chance of survival. If the plight of this little girl couldn't stir the world into action nothing would, as Carter knew instinctively and immediately. He crouched with his camera, ready to frame an eye-level shot. As he did so, a vulture landed behind her, obviously awaiting the moment of death. He carefully framed the photograph, being careful not to disturb the bird, and clicked. He waited about 20 minutes, waiting for the bird to fly off, and when it didn't, he chased it away.
Carter sat under a tree, watched her struggle for a while, smoked a cigarette and 'talked to God'. He did not help the girl. Utterly depressed, he went back to Silva and explained what had happened, wiping his eyes and saying 'I see all this, and all I can think of is Megan. I can't wait to hug her when I get home.'5.
The two stayed in Sudan for another day before returning to South Africa, where he gave his work to the Mail. It would be his last work for them; he went freelance, then signed up with the Reuters news agency. Carter received acclaim from critics and friends for his work in the Sudan, but the scene had disturbed him profoundly. He began using drugs more heavily, and his work began to falter. In March, he was in the black homeland of Bophuthatswana, which was seen as a bastion of apartheid, being a semi-autonomous African state within South Africa. In fact, it was more of a massive reservation in the Native American style, and when its people railed against its government to demand democracy, white supremacists from the paramilitary Afrikaaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB) moved in to prop up the government. They were repelled, and Ontlametse Bernstein Menyatsoe, a black policeman, executed three of them just yards from where Carter was sitting. While his colleagues around him got photographs of the scene, Carter himself was re-loading his camera at the time and got good, but not great, shots. He was genuinely scared, perhaps for the first time:
Lying in the middle of the gunfight, I was wondering about which millisecond next I was going to die, about putting something on film they could use as my last picture.
Meanwhile, the New York Times, looking for photographs of the Sudan famine, bought Carter's shot and ran it on 23 March. The newspaper was swamped with letters and telephone calls, many asking what had happened to the child. Within days, the photograph was a global icon. Syndicated around the world, it was an image that was worth a thousand telethons. However, Carter faced fierce criticism for abandoning the child.
His job as a journalist to show the plight of the Sudanese had been completed, exceeded, in fact. The bottom line was that Lifeline Sudan had not flown in Kevin and João to pick up or feed children - they were flown in to show the worst of the famine and generate publicity.
- Greg Marinovich.
The irony was that American forces had been sent to nearby Somalia just months before. The American President, George Bush Senior, had specifically mentioned the 'shocking images' coming out of Somalia when explaining his decision to send the troops in. Rather than being seen as simply turning a cold, glass lens on the child, perhaps Carter's image could focus the world's attention on the Sudan as well. After all, in South Africa, the Bang-Bang Club were successfully turning the spotlight on the country's leaders and helping to force change. Now, they were beginning to do the same elsewhere.
The End of the Bang-Bang Club
If only I could reach
The homestead of Death's mother
Oh, my daughter
I would make a long grass torch
I would destroy everything utterly utterly...
- Traditional Acholi tribe funeral song.
Back home, Carter struggled to keep his life together. With failed personal relationships strewn behind him, an increasing drug habit and an uncertain future with Reuters, he cut a very different figure to that of his best friend Oosterbroek, who was settled with a wife and family and was financially secure. Reuters eventually fired Carter after a drunk-driving incident, which resulted in his boss having to collect his films from him in a police station and bail him out. Over Easter, Kathy threw him out, and he slept in his pick-up. When the New York Times's picture editor Nancy Buirski called on 12 April to give him the news that his Sudan photo had won the Pulitzer Prize, she was astonished to find him telling her all his personal problems.
Worse was to come. Less than a week later, on 18 April, 1994, the Bang-Bang Club went to Tokoza, ten miles from Johannesburg, where an Inkatha sniper was taking pot-shots at passers-by. Shortly before noon there was a lull in the action, and the light was not good for photography. Despite Silva's insistence that trouble was brewing, Carter left the group to talk to a local journalist over lunch about the Pulitzer. The meeting turned into a celebration, and while Carter was tucking into a good steak and dessert, things were getting serious back in Tokoza. Driving back, Carter heard on the radio that Oosterbroek had been shot dead and Marinovich was seriously injured. The violence had caught up with them and a devastated Carter, racked with guilt at leaving the group, told friends that the bullet was intended for him, not Oosterbroek. In true Bang-Bang Club style, Silva had captured shots of the dying man being attended to in vain and carried away; he and Marinovich would go on to greater things, and both are still working as photojournalists in war zones around the world today.
The boys were no longer untouchable, and, before the bloodstains faded from the concrete beside the wall, another of us would be dead.
- Greg Marinovich, from his own account of the shootings.
In the meantime, apartheid was being dismantled. Free democratic elections were just weeks away. Many believe that the Bang-Bang Club had an influential role in bringing the inhumanity of apartheid to the world's attention.
Getting Out Of The Game
Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make themselves feel good. It is very hard to continue.
- James Nachtwey.
So many of these guys, after what they've seen, they become so tormented and they don't know where to put all this horror.
- Amy Eldon, filmmaker and sister of Dan, a young photojournalist who was beaten to death by a mob in Somalia.
In June, Carter flew to New York as a guest of the New York Times to receive his Pulitzer. At first, he loved the place, and members of his family have described it as the happiest time of his life. Some critics did not share in the celebration, and criticism of his actions in getting the winning photograph soon wore him down. Even the shot itself was derided in some quarters; some called it a fluke, or claimed it had somehow been set up. The St Petersburg Times went so far as to say that the photographer 'adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene'. Carter's morality was being called into question by people who could not have understood what it was like to be there in the Sudan. According to filmmaker Dan Krauss, who made an Oscar-nominated 2004 film about the Bang-Bang Club, Carter's daughter had a very different perspective:
She said that in the photograph of the vulture and the child she actually saw Kevin as the child and the world as the vulture. It was a very interesting perspective because a lot of people envisioned Kevin as the vulture, if you apply the symbolism of that picture to Kevin Carter's particular circumstance.
He returned to South Africa in a state of despair and depression. Not only did he have to deal with the horror of the scene he had photographed, he was now at the centre of an ethical debate. The messenger was being shot at in a different way now. Had he done enough by bringing the plight of the children of the Sudan to the world's breakfast tables? He told friends that if he had the opportunity again, he would have helped the girl. It was too late. Carter began talking openly about suicide, and missed out on important and well-paid work covering a visit by France's President Mitterand. Despite having made good contacts with various photographic agencies in New York, Carter was simply becoming too erratic in terms of delivering good photographs, and well-paid work began to dry up. The final straw was a disastrous assignment for Time magazine in Mozambique; after sleeping through three alarm clocks for his first flight out, he then left the crucial films on the return flight and lost them.
On 27 July, 1994, Carter stayed in bed until lunchtime before going to the Weekly News offices to drop in a photograph. A colleague was so concerned for his welfare that she gave him the number of a psychiatrist, urging Carter to call him. Instead, he went to Ken Oosterbroek's widow's house and tried to discuss his problems with her. She was the last person to see him alive.
That evening, he drove his car to a pretty spot in the suburb of Parkmore, where he grew up. By a riverside, where he used to play as a boy, he attached a garden hose to the exhaust pipe of his Nissan with duct tape, ran the tube through the window and got in. He started the engine, put his Walkman on and turned onto his side.
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 if I am that lucky.
- Carter's suicide note.