Friday, September 12, 2008

The Vultures

Snopes: Kevin Carter Photograph

If ... the most talented members of the advertising industry were tasked with creating an image to illustrate the concepts of poverty and famine, quite possibly none of them would come up with anything nearly as grippingly and devastatingly effective as this 1993 picture by South African freelance photographer Kevin Carter. His poignant photograph of an emaciated toddler who collapsed from hunger on her way to a feeding center in famine-ravaged Sudan while a vulture ominously loomed in the background was originally published in the New York Times ... and earned Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in the Feature Photography category....

How did Carter get the shot?

Seeking relief from the sight of masses of people starving to death, he wandered into the open bush. He heard a soft, high-pitched whimpering and saw a tiny girl trying to make her way to the feeding center. As he crouched to photograph her, a vulture landed in view. Careful not to disturb the bird, he positioned himself for the best possible image. He would later say he waited about 20 minutes, hoping the vulture would spread its wings. It did not, and after he took his photographs, he chased the bird away and watched as the little girl resumed her struggle. Afterward he sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried. "He was depressed afterward," Silva recalls. "He kept saying he wanted to hug his daughter."

It never occurred to Carter during those twenty minutes he spent there to comfort the child, to give her a sip of water, to take her to the feeding center, to alert anybody else to her plight. And Carter was attacked for that:

Though the photo helped draw enormous attention to the humanitarian crisis that was engulfing Sudan, it was criticized by others who felt that Carter should have helped the girl and was instead exploiting her suffering for his gain. The real vulture, they said in vitriolic hate mail, was Carter himself. Some photojournalists might have easily dismissed such criticism, but it hit Carter hard and fed his self-doubts.

On 27 July 1994, barely two months after having received his Pulitzer Prize, 33-year-old Kevin Carter could shoulder that burden no more and took his own life....

Granted, Carter had other problems in his life besides the horrors he saw in Sudan and any guilt he might have felt over his failure to at least comfort the dying child. But one can't help but think that it was a burden he didn't need. A burden he could have avoided had it only occurred to him to help the girl. But it didn't.

I'm not going to join in attacking Carter. I just want to point out a dynamic.

Carter had training as a photojournalist to stay out of the story, to just shoot the picture, and this no doubt contributed to his decision to sit there for twenty minutes watching a vulture wait for a child to die. And no doubt seeing so many other people he couldn't help just languish and die must have added a feeling of helplessness and futility to the "just shoot, don't intervene".

Training: "Don't intervene. Just get the picture."

Overexposure to death. Every day an endless vista of famine victims, dying one after the other.

Do we want to do to our fellow human beings whatever it is that happened to Kevin Carter, that allowed him to just sit there for 20 minutes, watching a whimpering child, waiting for a better shot of the vulture in the background?

Do we really want our health care professionals to get to where their natural urge to help a child becomes as deadened as Carter's became?

Training: "Don't intervene. Just get the picture." Or "Don't judge. It's her choice."

Overexposure to death. Every day an endless vista of famine victims, dying one after the other. Or every day an assembly-line of fetuses to be pulled out, piecemeal or whole, dead either way by your hand.

Until we deaden them to where they can put a live baby in a soiled utility room and wait for it to stop breathing. To where they can toss it in a bedpan. To where they think nothing of strangling a baby in front of multiple witnesses.

This is what abortion does to those who practice it. And what some abortion advocates choose to do to themselves.

Do we want to do to them what Kevin Carter's training and experiences did to him?

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WKen said...

I've never been a believer in the supreme morality of this "Don't intervene" thing. I can understand journalists' need to maintain neutrality in spots events, war situations, pie bake-offs, and such. I can understand not interfering while doing a documentary about whaling or something.

But it's not like there's another side to the dying-of-poverty story. Who was he afraid of offending if he saved her ... the Devil?

Your point, though, is brilliant. We use sanitized terms like "terminate a pregnancy."

Christina Dunigan said...

I think that he was trained that once he picked up the camera, he role in the entire universe was Observer. And by habit such things become second nature. It's not that he thought there'd be any specific bad consequence to helping the child. It's that he had lost the ability to see himself as a participant in any situation he was in or near when he had on his press badge.

Just as the training to "not judge her choice" deadens you to what the choice actually is. And let me tell you, they drum it in.

I once listened to a tape of a National Abortion Federation session in which direct care staff were venting their frustrations about "repeaters". One small group of staff from a clinic in New England lamented that they had a regular customer who had come to them for something like 20 abortions over the years. This customer had openly chosen abortion as her preferred method of birth control.

The staff were scolded for being shocked, dismayed, and outraged. They were taught that to have any reaction at all was to "be like the antis". That once you embrace "it's her choice", ALL reasons for abortion become equally valid. "Being pro-choice is a morality that takes you morally out of the picture."