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The Struggling Girl: The Story Behind one of the Most Recognizable Pictures of all Time

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To what extent can you go to take the perfect picture? This is the story behind The vulture and the little girl, also known as “The Struggling Girl”, a famous photograph by Kevin Carter, a South African Photojournalist which first appeared in The New York Times on 26 March 1993. It is a photograph of a frail famine-stricken boy, initially believed to be a girl, who had collapsed in the foreground with a vulture eyeing him from nearby. The child was reported to be attempting to reach a United Nations feeding center about a half mile away in Ayod, Sudan (now South Sudan).

The Struggling Girl: The Story Behind one of the Most Recognizable Pictures of all Time

In March 1993 Robert Hadley, a former photographer and at this time the information officer for the UN Operation Lifeline Sudan, offered Kevin Carter to come to Sudan and report about the famine in southern Sudan. It was an offer to go into southern Sudan with the rebels. To Carter, taking photos in Sudan was an opportunity for a better career as freelancer.

In that same March, Kevin Carter made a trip to Sudan. Near the village of Ayod, Carter found a girl who had stopped to rest while struggling to a United Nations feeding centre, whereupon a vulture had landed nearby. Careful not to disturb the bird, he waited for twenty minutes until the vulture was close enough, positioned himself for the best possible image and only then chased the vulture away. At this point Carter was probably not yet aware that he had shot one of the most controversial photographs in the history of photojournalism.

The photograph was sold to The New York Times where it appeared for the first time on March 26, 1993. Practically overnight hundreds of people contacted the newspaper to ask whether the child had survived, leading the newspaper to run a special editor’s note saying the girl had enough strength to walk away from the vulture, but that her ultimate fate was unknown. Because of this, Carter was bombarded with questions about why he did not help the girl, and only used her to take a photograph.

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As with many dramatic photographs, Carter came under criticism for this shot. The St. Petersburg Times in Florida wrote: “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”. The attitude that public opinion condemned was not only a that of taking the picture instead of chasing the vulture immediately away, but also the fact that he did not help the girl afterwards –as Carter explained later- leaving her in such a weak condition to continue the march by her self towards the feeding center.

However, Carter was working in a time when photojournalists were told not to touch famine victims for fear of spreading disease. Carter estimated that there were twenty people per hour dying at the food center. The child was not unique. Regardless, Carter often expressed regret that he had not done anything to help the girl, even though there was not much that he could have done.

In 1994, Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer prize for the disturbing photograph of a Sudanese child being stalked by a vulture.

The Struggling Girl: The Story Behind one of the Most Recognizable Pictures of all Time

At the Pulitzer reception, some audience made their complaints known. While some African journalists believed he staged the shot, Others blamed Carter for not doing enough to stop the girl’s suffering. Carter had already blamed himself for that one. His depression started when he clicked his camera. The ultimate fate of the photo’s subject is unknown, but Carter could not shake the belief that he could have saved her. These thoughts followed him as he watched policemen execute protestors and again when he heard his friend Ken Oosterbroek was murdered.

His life and career began to slip. His relationship with his long-term girlfriend fell apart. Absentmindedly, he routinely abandoned reels of film in random locations. He no longer cared about photography. His only interest was a drug called “white pipe,” a mix of marijuana and tranquilizers. It was all he had left. Two months after winning the Pulitzer, he took his own life in his truck by taping one end of a hose to his pickup truck’s exhaust pipe and running the other end to the driver’s side window. He died of carbon monoxide poisoning at the age of 33. Carter’s suicide note read:

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I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… 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 if I am that lucky”.

Authorities discovered Kevin Carter’s body and his suicide note which showed that he suffered from depression and was haunted by the horrifying memories and nightmares that came with his career. Carter who always struggled with the horror of his work, left behind his parents, a young daughter, and two sisters.

Capturing the bleakness of the 1993 Sudanese Famine, Carter’s image brought mass awareness to the hunger in the land. As publications ran around the world, so did donations. His picture established awareness within the public but the public wrought outrage in heaps and bounds towards the fact he left the girl alone there without aiding her survival. Some said ethically he was both right and wrong, he had created public awareness with his picture which is the main goal of any photo-journalist but in his cause, his own in-humanity and compassion was morally incorrect.

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