Kevin Carter's picture

Written by Pablo Zareceansky in the category FAM project

In 1993, the infamous photo of the boy—a Sudanese famine victim by the name of Kong Nyong—and the vulture was taken by photojournalist Kevin Carter, on the outskirts of the boy’s tribe with a vulture on his tail. Carter, who observed the scene, photographed it. He waited for a better shot, one with the vulture’s wings outspread, without success. According to him, the boy managed to recover and continue on his journey.

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On the 26th of March, 1993, The New York Times published the photo and it won the Pulitzer prize. Public opinion took the photo to as an allegory for what was then happening in Sudan: Kong represented the problem of hunger and poverty, the vulture capitalism and Carter the indifference felt by the rest of society. As criticism began to loom over the image, the photographer attempted to justify himself, aleging that the boy was dying, that there was a distance of around twenty miles between him and the tribe, and that the animal was already close upon him.

Nobody ever witnessed the boy’s death, but the image itself- at least in part- helped deny this inevitable destiny due the fact that on the emaciated boy’s right wrist is a plastic bracelet from a United Nations food station. Carter was criticized for not having helped the boy, with almost everyone assuming that he died shortly after (despite the fact that Carter himself did not see him die, having simply taken the photo and left). 18 years later, in 2011, a team of journalists traveled to the place of the photo’s origin and managed to confirm that the little one survived the famine, but succumbed to fever four years prior to said investigation.

But behind this iconic photo lies another story.

Photo-reporter João Silva, who accompanied Carter to Sudan, gave a different version of the facts during an interview with Japanese writer and journalist Akio Fujiwara, which Fujiwara published in his book Ehagaki ni sareta shōnen—The Boy Who Became a Postcard.

According to Silva, he and Carter landed in southern Sudan with the United Nations on March 11, 1993. The UN personnel told them that they would be taking off in 30 minutes, the necessary time to distribute the food, and so they wandered off in order to take a few photos. The United Nations began to distribute corn and the women of the village came out of their wooden huts and went towards the plane. Silva went in search of guerillas, whereas Carter did not stray more than a few meters away from the aircraft.

According to Silva, Carter was shocked by the scene, given the fact that it was his first time encountering a real situation of famine, which is why he took many photos of the hungry children. Silva began taking photos of other boys on the ground, who were crying, that were not published. The boys’ parents were busy collecting the food from the airplane, meaing they were momentarily apart from their young ones. This gave Carter a perfect opportunity for a great photo. In order to fit both figures in the shot, Carter approached them very slowly so as not to startle the vulture, and snapped a picture from 10 meters away. He took a couple more of them and the vulture went away.

José María Arenzana and Luis Davilla, two Spanish photographers who were there on the same day as Carter, also captured a similar image, not knowing anything then about Carter’s photograph. As they would later relate on several occasions, it was of a group of vultures that had gathered around the scraps in a dung heap in a feeding station. He and Pepe Arenzana had been taken to Ayod, at a feeding station, where they spent almost all of their time and where people from that region would gather. On the far edge of this area the dungheap, in which people would defecate and get rid of other waste.

“As these children are so week and malnourished, to the viewer it may already seem that they are dead. A common feature of the fauna in this area are the vultures, who regularly look for any scraps that the humans leave behind. And so if you use a zoom lens, with a close-up of the boy and with the birds behind him, it gives the impression that they are going to eat him—but this is a complete illusion. The animal is perhaps twenty meters away from the child.” (Extracted from wikipedia)

And so this image, while taking form in our collective immagination as a representation of the concept of a society that allows for terrible famine to occur, is not an accurate portrayal of what was really happening. This boy has family, he’s in his village, and the vulture is not trying to eat him—unless “vulture” is just another name for “capitalism”.

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