The Vulture and The Starving Child: The Most Iconic Photograph of the Century

The Vulture and The Child

In March 1993, photographer Kevin Carter made a trip to southern Sudan, where he took now iconic photo of a vulture preying upon an emaciated Sudanese toddler near the village of Ayod. Carter said he waited about 20 minutes, hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. It didn’t. Carter snapped the haunting photograph and chased the vulture away. (The parents of the girl were busy taking food from the same UN plane Carter took to Ayod).

The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993 as ‘metaphor for Africa’s despair’. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run an unusual special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Journalists in the Sudan were told not to touch the famine victims, because of the risk of transmitting disease, but Carter came under criticism for not helping the girl. ”The man adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the scene,” read one editorial.

Carter eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for this photo, but he couldn’t enjoy it. “I’m really, really sorry I didn’t pick the child up,” he confided in a friend. Consumed with the violence he’d witnessed, and haunted by the questions as to the little girl’s fate, he committed suicide three months later.

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Kevin Carter (13 September 1960 – 27 July 1994) was an award-winning South African photojournalist and member of the Bang-Bang Club. He was the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph depicting the 1993 famine in Sudan. He committed suicide at the age of 33. His story is depicted in the 2010 feature film, The Bang-Bang-Club in which he was played by Taylor Kitsch.

Prize-winning photograph in Sudan

In March 1993, while on a trip to Sudan, Carter was preparing to photograph a starving toddler trying to reach a feeding center when a vulture landed nearby. Carter reported to taking the picture, because it was his “job title”, and leaving. He came under criticism for failing to help the girl:

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

Sold to the New York Times, the photograph first appeared on 26 March 1993 and was carried in many other newspapers around the world. Hundreds of people contacted the Times to ask the fate of the girl. The paper reported that it was unknown whether she had managed to reach the feeding center. In 1994, the photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography.

Alternative account of the photograph

João Silva, a Portuguese photojournalist based in South Africa who accompanied Carter to Sudan, gave a different version of events in an interview with Japanese journalist and writer Akio Fujiwara that was published in Fujiwara’s book The Boy who Became a Postcard (絵葉書にされた少年 – Ehagaki ni sareta shōnen).

According to Silva, Carter and Silva travelled to Sudan with the United Nations aboard Operation Lifeline Sudan and landed in Southern Sudan on 11 March 1993. The UN told them that they would take off again in 30 minutes (the time necessary to distribute food), so they ran around looking to take shots. The UN started to distribute corn and the women of the village came out of their wooden huts to meet the plane. Silva went looking for guerrilla fighters, while Carter strayed no more than a few dozen feet from the plane.

Again according to Silva, Carter was quite shocked as it was the first time that he had seen a famine situation and so he took many shots of the children suffering from famine. Silva also started to take photos of children on the ground as if crying, which were not published. The parents of the children were busy taking food from the plane, so they had left their children only briefly while they collected the food. This was the situation for the girl in the photo taken by Carter. A vulture landed behind the girl. To get the two in focus, Carter approached the scene very slowly so as not to scare the vulture away and took a photo from approximately 10 metres. He took a few more photos before chasing the bird away.

Two Spanish photographers who were in the same area at that time, José María Luis Arenzana and Luis Davilla, without knowing the photograph of Kevin Carter, took a picture in a similar situation. As recounted on several occasions, it was a feeding center, and the vultures came from a manure pit waste:

“We took him and Pepe Arenzana to Ayod, where most of the time were in a feeding center where locals go. At one end of the enclosure, was a dump where waste and was pulling people to defecate. As these children are so weak and malnourished they are going head giving the impression that they are dead. As part of the fauna there are vultures go for these remains. So if you grab a telephoto crush the child’s perspective in the foreground and background and it seems that the vultures will eat it, but that’s an absolute hoax, perhaps the animal is 20 meters.”
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