Suicide Memorial of Kevin Carter (27 July 1994)
Kevin Carter was born in apartheid South Africa and grew up in a middle-class, whites-only neighborhood. As a child, he occasionally saw police raids to arrest blacks who were illegally living in the area. He said later that he questioned how his parents, a Catholic, “liberal” family, could be what he described as ‘lackadaisical’ about fighting against apartheid.
After high school, Carter dropped out of his studies to become a pharmacist and was drafted into the army, which he hated. To escape from the infantry he signed up for the professional air force, mistakenly trapping himself into four years of service. In 1980, he witnessed a black mess-hall waiter being insulted. Carter defended the man, resulting in his being badly beaten by the other soldiers. He then went AWOL, attempted to start a new life as a radio disk-jockey named “David”. This, however, proved more difficult than he had anticipated. Suffering from depression, he attempted suicide. Soon after, he decided to serve out the rest of his required military service. After witnessing the Church Street bombing in Pretoria in 1983, he decided he wanted to become a news photographer.
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 later said that he waited 20 minutes to see if the vulture would flare its wings. He finally took a picture and then chased off the vulture. However, 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 March 26, 1993. Hundreds of people contacted the newspaper 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.
On 27 July 1994 Carter drove to the Braamfontein Spruit river, near the Field and Study Centre, an area where he used to play as a child, and took his own life by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the passenger-side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning, aged 33. Portions of Carter’s suicide note read:
“I am depressed … without phone … money for 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 … I have gone to join Ken [recently deceased colleague Ken Oosterbroek] if I am that lucky.”