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June 27, 2008

The Anguish of a Photographer

By: Bernard Chazelle

I was reading in a French newspaper about a controversial photo exhibit that will open its doors some time next year at the Bibliotheque de France in Paris. It is scheduled to travel to the US later that year. The theme of the exhibit is the ethics of photography.

It will feature this famous picture some of you will remember from the mid-90s. It may well be the most shocking photo I've ever seen. It's delayed shock because it's not immediately clear what's going on. A vulture is waiting for a young Sudanese girl to die, as she crawls in agony toward a feeding center. The photo doesn't tell us what happens next.

Here is what happened next. The photographer, Kevin Carter,

waited for 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 did not help her. For that picture, Kevin Carter won a Pulitzer Prize.

Three months later, he committed suicide.

He left a note:

I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain ... of starving or wounded children...

I am confident I would not behave in such inhumane fashion.

But I'd rather not pass judgment. I believe that the life of a war photographer is one of great moral complexity.


— Bernard Chazelle

Posted at June 27, 2008 06:51 PM

That is why, the only solution to the horrible consequences of war is, NO MORE WARS.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 27, 2008 10:02 PM

Rupa: I couldn't agree more.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 27, 2008 10:12 PM

When I was a young lad back in prehistoric days I can still recall the pictures being published in the major periodicals of the Vietnam War. There was the infamous picture of a young girl running from napalm bombing for one. I also recall a picture of a grinning South Vietnamese man holding a decapitated human head by the hair as he walked along. One picture was of a kid about ten sitting on a blanket selling human body parts, legs, arms, hands, etc. and I believe it was pictures like those that helped to generate opposition to that war. The story those pictures told dispelled much of the mythology of the glories of war, whatever those are.

Posted by: Rob Payne at June 27, 2008 10:41 PM

This pictures is used multiple times in photography classes to highlight our ethical responsibilities to subjects. It asks the questions of how much obligation journalists and photographers have. Do they observe or should they become involved in the story? At a distance, it seems inhumane to leave a starving child and only use it for a photograph. But this photo woke people up to the crisis in Sudan, increasing public dialogue and perceptions about the famine and war in Sudan. Does it excuse his actions? Probably not. But it does beg the question of how much all journalist should get involved with their subjects, and to what extent.

Also, the Wiki article on Mr. Carter lists an alternate account by Joao Silva that paints a different picture, that the child was only temporarily separated from its parents during the period Carter got the shot. Either way, that's a hell of a thing to have on your back.

Posted by: Constantine at June 27, 2008 10:41 PM

Well, the real question is, "Why are there wars?"

An easy answer is, "There are wars because powerful people start them; they believe that they can gain by conflict, and not suffer."

But I am not sure that answer is helpful, first because it externalizes the problem, thus making each of us relatively helpless (excepting naturally the occasional CALL to Nancy Pelosi); and second, because it may mistake the symptom for the disease.

Wars spring from destructive ambition based on a fantasy--"When I have x, it will fix y." Of course this is false, the important "y"s aren't fixable outside yourself, but there is something about the human animal that makes it fall prey to these kinds of delusions. They are so powerful that even good actions (stopping Hitler) lead to a furtherance of the same old conflict (the Cold War).

Maybe the way to make this better is to stop those kinds of ambition/fixing fantasies inside our own heads. Maybe that will slowly but surely re-set the group dynamic.

Or maybe it won't, but it will help you here, now, so it's not totally useless. That's what I'm trying. I have no great hopes for it extending beyond the boundaries of my own skin, but what the fuck, it can't hurt.

Anyway, just thinking out loud. Impossible not to write SOMETHING after that photo.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 27, 2008 10:44 PM

I think the war photo that I still find most disturbing is the one of the guy being executed by a shot to the head in Vietnam. The girl running with the napalm burns mentioned in a previous comment is up there too. Oddly enough, I don't remember ever seeing this photo before. I recently read "House of Leaves," in which a central character, a photojournalist, has taken a picture clearly based on this one. I was struck by the level of detail and level of symbolism the author was able to confer upon a photo that I had simply assumed was fictional. It's a little disconcerting to discover that the photograph at least is based firmly in reality- however surreal reality can sometimes become.

Posted by: Lockwood at June 27, 2008 11:54 PM

Or is it that powerful people start wars because they can and certainly Bush isn’t going to suffer much unless there are depths to his person that have hither to been unplumbed. Of course we shouldn’t let Congress off the hook by calling it Bush’s war either. In any case I think the answer to ending wars lies in a huge cultural change but as to whether that will ever occur I have no idea.

I don’t know about the complexity of being a war photographer not having ever been one but it sounds like this guy just collapsed mentally and emotionally. At any rate I don’t see how complexity enters into the case of this picture. How could anyone in their right mind not help this little girl if they were there? There does not seem to be anything complex about that.

Posted by: Rob Payne at June 27, 2008 11:58 PM

Mike of Angle: When one says no to one's leadership about war it says that ONE person will not support those kind of actions. But one person doesn't stop a war, only a MAJORITY of the aggressor side can stop a war, or complete surrender of the defenders side. While the war is on its a CONSTANT STRUGGLE to survive for ALL concerned. Its EASIER, less costly, and simpler for that MAJORITY to stop a war before it starts, BUT they must dedicated to keeping the peace. One person is NOT a majority. When I call Pelosi, I'm saying that I will NOT by my silence be apart of of what is happening. That I am NOT their friend, NOT their partner in these crimes. When one stays silent, I mean to them not one's friends, when one FAILS to tell them NO, they can only, they WILL only assume agreement. EVEN fearful agreement works JUST AS WELL as joyful agreement.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 28, 2008 12:10 AM

I think you have to turn this one around. Starting from the supposition that this man was sane, why *wouldn't* he have helped this little girl? How many little girls dying would I have to see before I began to think that helping the next one isn't worth it? An infinite number? I won't even entertain the fantasy. How long could I hold out in the Sudan, really?

I think we need to realize that past a certain point, morality just stops functioning, and that our task is to prevent that point from being reached in the first place. It's kind of absurd, really, to make moral judgments about a situation and a context that left morality behind long ago. There is such a thing as too late, and whole peoples reach that point all the time.

Posted by: Guest at June 28, 2008 12:11 AM

Thanks, all of you, for such thoughtful reflections. Reading comments like yours is really what makes blogging so rewarding.

Rob P: My understanding is that Kevin Carter started doing drugs, then heavier drugs, while on assignment. He was a war photographer in the truest witness-to-horror sense, and perhaps doing drugs was his way of coping. Maybe his astonishing inhumanity had to do with his addled state of mind. I am not sure.

When I say I would never behave like that, I am thinking of myself parachuted into that place. But being a war photographer means developing an ability to cope with that kind of horror day in and day out. I simply cannot put myself in such a person's shoes.

I am not making excuses for Kevin Carter. I am just saying it's a bit too easy for me, from the comfort of where I live, to call him a monster.

Having said that, it's true that I don't extend that courtesy to soldiers who volunteer in wars. To join a war to bear witness is one thing; to join it to kill is something else.

I remember the TV footage of that girl (in Peru, Columbia?) dying in a mud slide live in front of us. I was revolted at the time. I thought it was sick voyeurism. I still do. But yes the Vietnamese girl running from napalm bombing helped change the course of the war. That photojournalist deserved a medal.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 28, 2008 12:36 AM


I never thought you were making excuses, my bad for not expressing myself clearly. And I wasn’t trying to pass judgment on Kevin Carter either which is why I said anyone in their right mind because it sounded to me like Carter just fell apart. I also agree with what the anonymous poster said which was said very well.

On the soldier by choice topic it is certainly a different thing. In my readings on accounts of the Iraq War I have certainly come across too many instances where some soldiers seem to be enjoying what they do as sickening as it is. But many Americans have always been a violent bunch though it is always difficult to speak in generalities. Clearly some may have joined the military for a way out of poverty not understanding what they were signing up for after having their heads stuffed with oatmeal by propaganda. It is a mistake to underestimate the power of culture and even more difficult to be immune to it. I’m not trying to make excuses for them just trying to make sense of the madness like everyone else.

Posted by: Rob Payne at June 28, 2008 01:18 AM

I am just saying it's a bit too easy for me, from the comfort of where I live, to call him a monster.

Indeed. However, when you so grandly (and unnecessarily) declare "I am confident I would not behave in such inhumane fashion," that is exactly what you are doing.

Posted by: LarryE at June 28, 2008 02:11 AM
Having said that, it's true that I don't extend that courtesy to soldiers who volunteer in wars. To join a war to bear witness is one thing; to join it to kill is something else.

I'm an ex-soldier and volunteer, but never took a job that involved killing anyone (or standing by indifferently). There are military jobs where one tries to help others if one is inclined to look around. Sometimes at personal risk.

A strong case can be made that any job in the military acts as an enabler for the system and a consumer of the military-industrial complex product. I've done jobs that can certainly be called whoring oneself out, but I hear there are whores with a heart of gold out there, and that way I can rationalize it away. When I chose to suck the establishment's dick, it was mostly at the peril of my dignity, not at doing wrong to someone else.

I take comfort that I introduced Chomsky and Blum and some Zinn to people that I used to work with and still got promotions and awards -- a relatively unique ability to keep politics and utility separated.

Posted by: Labiche at June 28, 2008 09:36 AM

I'll fumble this, but your post does demand acknowledgement and participation.

This photo condemns us, because we know as long as one is hungry or in pain, we're all starving and in pain. I've been to some of these places, struggled insignificantly to help, and been overwhelmed and numbed.

I do rebuke America for being a wealthy gated community, awash with moderate weather, that subsidizes the hell out of agriculture. The Farm Bill alone, let alone the rogue behemoth of our conjoined economic and military policy, plays a horrible part in the export of suffering.

Yet I must also rebuke myself, for I too have a self-made fort inside me, in which I struggle to maintain my peace in a world I've made without peace, and limit how much I let in, take responsibility for, and do something about.

"Thank you" may seem inappropriate here. I don't think so. Today I will do more.

Posted by: ehj2 at June 28, 2008 10:03 AM

@Constantine: Do they observe or should they become involved in the story? At a distance, it seems inhumane to leave a starving child and only use it for a photograph. But this photo woke people up to the crisis in Sudan, increasing public dialogue and perceptions about the famine and war in Sudan.

In these ethics discussions, does anyone ever suggest that the photographer take the shot and then carry the suffering child to the feeding station?

Why on earth would it be an either/or?

Posted by: Nell at June 28, 2008 10:08 AM

LarryE I'm afraid you're missing my point.

1. Kevin Carter's behavior was inhumane. There is no question about it. He was under no danger and his cruelty appeared to be gratuitous. As Nell said, he could have taken the shot and then picked up the child. He didn't.

2. What to make of that? We buy newspapers with war photos in them, and so we subsidize such behavior. It is therefore our responsibility to think about such things.

3. My starting point is that your average person, parachuted into such a place from the comfort of their homes, would not behave like that. I used myself as evidence because of that I am sure: the rest is speculation. But what you dismiss as a "grand" statement is an essential component of my point. My lack of equivocation is key to my argument. I say why below.

4. Having therefore characterized Carter's behavior as exceptional and monstrous, does that give me the right pass judgment on him (not on his action: I've already done that)? My answer is no.

5. I do believe there is an attraction to war porn that most war correspondents succumb to (ask Fisk, Hedges, Danner, etc). But the fundamental motivation is morally good: in fact it is heroic. And before I can transfer a moral judgment from the action to the actor, I need to factor that in. The point of my post is that I can't. There is a context to war photography I know nothing about: in his case, heavy drug use among other things.

6. Now please notice how crucial to that argument was my own exculpation. If, after all, I stated that I would probably do the same thing, then passing a moral judgment would be not just easy but obligatory. I would have no choice but conclude that he is a monster. What excuse could I possibly have not to? It is only because I know I would not do such a thing (as me, not as "me as a veteran war correspondent") that I must think twice about passing judgment. This is a necessary condition for withholding judgment (but not a sufficient one: I do pass judgment on Waffen SS -- hence point 5). But I hope you appreciate the necessity of that position. And also the point of my post: the great moral complexity of a war witness.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 28, 2008 11:31 AM

Is it possible that looking at the horrors of war day in and day out, one is overwhelmed to the point of being numb and one does one's job totally mechanically ( morality being shelved for the moment ) without even thinking? Only when one is away from that environment that one has a chance to look back and realize the gravity of perceived moral lapses by the individual and those images haunt one and one can not live with them and the individual ends his/ her life?

This incident may not be comparable but a dutch physician who had worked at the Sabra/Shatila refugee camps during the massacre gave a talk at my hospital and he said, 'We had to play Gods--who to let live and who to let die'. Since that day, I have always wondered, as a physician, faced with that kind of situation, what I would have done if I was in that physician's shoes and I still do not have an answer.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 28, 2008 12:34 PM
'We had to play Gods--who to let live and who to let die'.

Try not to take offense, but what rubbish is that?

Deciding who lives and who dies has very often been the domain of man. It would be helpful to think in those terms daily, and not to insulate ourselves, leaving that decision to the hands of the power elite. It is indeed a convenient firewall that we have constructed.

Suddenly we believe that this is the domain of God? Talk about being naive and self-deluding in the extreme.

Posted by: Labiche at June 28, 2008 12:41 PM

Labiche: No offense taken. They are not my words. I was quoting a physician working in massacre ravaged refugee camps.
I do not attribute everything that is wrong to the so called 'power elite'. I take responsibilty for my actions and I was just wondering what I would have done in a similar situation, leaving God out of the equation. If there were two very ill patients with life threatening situtions and I was the only physicain, who would I go and see first? I do not have an answer till faced with that situation.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 28, 2008 01:16 PM

BTW, my previous comment goes to reinforce Bernard's point #1 above.

Posted by: almostinfamous at June 28, 2008 01:20 PM

UR looking for something that ain't there. Morality, rhyme or reason, right or wrong, its just not there in a war. Survival or not that's all there is that's ALL YOU will find. Kevin Carter may have made it out of the Sudan, but like many, I suppose, he didn't find survivsl. That's all YOU find, all YOU get, all there is. If YOU desire morality, then YOU'd better look before hand, 'cause YOU sure as hell won't find it afterwards. Those that made it and those that didn't, but that's EVERY WAR.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 28, 2008 01:33 PM

For people who want to resolve everything by going to war, "In war, innocent civilials die. It is part of the war". NO. Because WE KNOW innocent civilians die in a war, NO WAR IS ACCEPTABLE.
And I agree, because we know morality is always a casualty of war, war is not a solution to resolving differences.

Posted by: Rupa Shah at June 28, 2008 02:14 PM

Thanks for the link, AI. It's excruciating to watch. One never gets "used" to those pictures.

Posted by: Bernard Chazelle at June 28, 2008 03:21 PM

In these ethics discussions, does anyone ever suggest that the photographer take the shot and then carry the suffering child to the feeding station?

Nell, in our ethics discussions we tended to agree overall that this was the best possible way. i think that shot be damned, one should take the child to the nearest relief centre...

Posted by: almostinfamous at June 28, 2008 11:02 PM

makes me think of this excerpt from Basho's The Records of a Weather-exposed Skeleton:

"As I was plodding along the River Fuji, I saw a small child, hardly three years of age, crying pitifully on the bank, obviously abandoned by his parents. They must have thought this child was unable to ride through the stormy waters of life which run as wild as the rapid river itself, and that he was destined to have a life even shorter than that of the morning dew. The child looked to me as fragile as the flowers of bush-clover that scatter at the slightest stir of the autumn wind, and it was so pitiful that I gave him what little food I had with me.

The ancient poet
Who pitied monkeys for their cries,
What would he say, if he saw
This child crying in the autumn wind?

How is it indeed that this child has been reduced to this state of utter misery? Is it because of his mother who ignored him, or because of his father who abandoned him? Alas, it seems to me that this child's undeserved suffering has been caused by something far greater and more massive - by what one might call the irresistible will of heaven. If it is so, child, you must raise your voice to heaven, and I must pass on, leaving you behind."

I lost my taste for Basho needless to say...

Posted by: shockley at June 29, 2008 10:53 PM

Some documentarians and photographers do face these questions all the time. I'd recommend the fairly recent Oscar-nominated doc War Photographer, if you haven't seen it.

Posted by: Batocchio at June 30, 2008 04:53 PM