Take a look at this man. Yes, that handsome rogue, the Dave Grohl lookalike at the top of this post. That is not Dave Grohl. That man’s name is Kevin Carter. He was a photographer from South Africa, who worked on exposing the sheer brutality of the racial segregation in the 80s. Nelson Mandela was still incarcerated at the time. His past bears no relevance to the story I’m about to tell. The one of “that picture”.
This is the picture the title refers to. Taken in Sudan in March 1993, the photo depicts a small, severely malnourished child, stalked by a vulture, a symbolic photo of how bad things were at the time. The child’s parents had gone off to a nearby helicopter that was supplying aid, and had left the child alone for a few moments, at which time the vulture touched down and gazed over its potential dinner. Joao Silva, a fellow photographer that was with Carter at the time, gave his account of the event in Akio Fujiwara’s book “The Boy Who Became A Postcard”, but of course that was not published until a few years later, and everyone saw this picture in the New York times and thought “Why did this man take a picture of this helpless child, and not save their life instead?”
The truth is, we don’t know. We never will know. Carter could have scared off the vulture afterwards for all we know. He was a photographer, and his job was to take photos first, not to save lives. That was the job of the aid workers he and Silva had travelled with. After all, this was photography, not filmography, and a still picture can never tell the entire story, no matter how relevant the thousand words it paints are.
This picture is one of 8 that the Boston Globe featured earlier this week for its Big Picture. A Brown Pelican, mired in oil, trying to escape the oily waters at East Grand Terre Island, just off the coast of Louisiana. It speaks a lot for the damage the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is doing for the natural habitat in the Gulf of Mexico, that even birds, no matter how much they’re largely maritime based, are caught up in this mess, let alone fish and other underwater wildlife. Again though, the picture brings the question up for debate: what happened next?
Did Charlie Riedel, the photographer that snapped these photos (more at the link in the caption), make any attempt at saving these birds from the wreckage? Or did they move on in the hope of finding a better shot? Again, as above, it could be years before we know the truth, but since this is America, it was probably tweeted about a few moments later by the same person. Such technology certainly didn’t exist back in 1993, but eyewitness accounts did, and perhaps if Joao Silva had spoken up sooner to defend Carter, maybe he wouldn’t have felt the guilt and shame that drove him to his suicide only a year after the same photo won him a Pulitzer Prize for Feature photography.
I certainly hope the same doesn’t happen of Mr Riedel, both feeling shameful for (possibly*) not helping out these animals, and getting wrapped up so much by guilt at (possibly*) not helping in this situation, even a little, that he’d ever feel the need to take his own life. These pictures put a huge exclamation mark on the damage done, and serve to instil a better sense of urgency into the world, to do any little something to change the situation. It’s a small price to pay for one person to highlight the need for change, and millions collaborating in it, than for one man to help and not encouraging others to do so, no matter how harsh that may seem.
*I say possibly because I don’t know what happened behind the scenes of these photos, and don’t know if aid was offered to these birds after the photos were taken.