The Story Behind the Starving Girl and the Preying Vulture

Andrei Tapalaga

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Kevin Carter's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a vulture watching a starving child in Sudan, 1993; Original Title: Struggling girl;Rare Historical Photos

A photograph that has made humanity question its ethos on the way that society has become and one that should never be forgotten. On March 26, 1993, this photograph had been published in The New York Times newspaper under the title “Struggling Girl”.

The photograph represents a Sudanese girl that is starving to death whilst a vulture is waiting for her to die so it can feast itself. The photo was taken by Kevin Carter who won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. The photo was taken in order to raise awareness in the western world of how the population of third world countries is literally starving to death whilst the western society was complaining about not affording the latest fashion trends.

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Copy of The New York Times newspaper from March 26, 1993, that represents the story about the photo.New York Times Archive

Despite the prize won by Carter, he also received a lot of hate for this controversial photo. Many people who had negative comments about the photo questioned Carter’s ethics for not helping the little girl but instead taking a photo of her desperate situation. There have even been reports stating that Carter did not even help the girl even after taking the photo.

St. Petersburg Times in Florida had written: “The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might well be a predator, another vulture on the scene”.

Not only that, but Carter admitted that he actually waited 20 minutes before taking the picture so that the vulture could get close enough to be captured in frame with the helpless girl. Carter tried to defend himself from all the criticism received by saying he had been working during a time when photographers were told not to touch famine victims for fear of spreading the disease.

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Photo of Kevin CarterFamous Photographer

An article that had been published Cat Witko, entitled “Pulitzer prize photograph brings awareness-at a price” offers a better explanation behind the meaning of the photograph, not only from an artistic but also sociological perspective. He also describes that the situation in Sudan was caused by its own government after trying to invest in “profitable ventures” and also suffering from reparations caused by decades of civil war.

“It depicts a young, starving girl crawling toward a feeding center set up by the United Nations. However, there are many subtle details in the piece that make the boldness of its message powerful.” (Quote by Cat Witko)

Witko had tried to give the world a better understanding whilst offering Carter some sort of justice for his work as a photojournalist. This may arguably be the most controversial photograph taken by Carter, but it is not the only one. He had taken in some opinion even more terrible photos depicting the atrocities taking place in Sudan and other third-world countries.

Barely four months after accepting his Pulitzer at New York’s Columbia University, Carter took his own life as he could not bare the atrocities he had photographed and lived through, or at least that is what the suicide note which he had written stated:

“I am really really sorry… the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… I am depressed…without phone money or 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…” and he ends with this “I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.” (Death note of Kevin Carter)

On July 27, 1994, Carter parked his red pick-up truck in a field, went on to use silver gaffer tape to attach a garden hose to the exhaust pipe, and run it to the passenger-side window. After turning on the engine he laid on his side using the knapsack as a pillow while listening to music as he waited for death to come.

Despite his controversial work, it has raised a lot of attention about the starvation in Sudan which indirectly raised a lot of funds that have helped the UN create more food banks to support those in dire need. Such a devastating picture will never leave the scene of controversy.

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