Were his priorities out of focus?

Published April 14, 1994|Updated Oct. 6, 2005

It was a long trek to food that might help her live for at least another day. The little girl collapsed in a tired heap outside the feeding center in famine-stricken southern Sudan. A vulture settled expectantly nearby.

A man walked out of the feeding center, a photographer. He saw the girl and captured her agony on film. Then, he walked away.

No one knows her name, or even whether she lived.

This week, the photograph won a Pulitzer Prize for the New York Times and was reprinted in newspapers across the country.

To many people who see the picture, they can only ask: Did the photographer stop and help this suffering child?

The answer is no. He moved on.

To many who see the picture, there is only one way to respond to such a tragedy: Go, pick up the girl, make sure she's safe, make sure she's fed. Otherwise, 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.

After he won the Pulitzer on Tuesday, Kevin Carter, the South African freelance photographer who took the picture, said this: "I knew I had a good picture then. I had absolutely no idea how big it would be."

Carter also published it in Time magazine last year. Readers wanted to know if the photographer had helped the little girl.

The magazine offered this brief explanation:

"Carter is not sure what happened to the little girl, who was moving toward the nearby relief center when he saw her, but he is hopeful that she received food and treatment. Says Carter: "This is the ghastly image of what is happening to thousands of children. Southern Sudan is hell on earth, and the experience was the most horrifying of my career.' "

Hundreds of malnourished children crowded the feeding center that Carter visited moments before he took the picture. A year has passed, and now that the photo has won the Pulitzer, people are curious again about the girl. In Sudan, the only difference a year has made is that there is yet another famine, and tens of thousands more people have starved.

Photojournalists chronicling wars witness more gory scenes in a day than an average person would in a lifetime. Should they stand on the sidelines recording the tragedy, as their job demands? Should they toss aside their cameras and become professional rescuers and social workers?

Is there a quick and conscientious way to do both?

In Carter's case, would people elsewhere in the world care about the famine had he not captured that fleeting moment that became a metaphor of the helplessness of Sudan, of Africa, while death loomed just feet away?

Flash back to the news we were watching at the time Carter shot the picture. Then, American attention was focused on Somalia, where the Marines had landed a few months earlier. There were scenes of emaciated children finally being fed, of smiling Marines handing out candy to excited children.

In neighboring Sudan, famine has visited regularly for the past 10 years, almost as though it were another season. War has made it impossible for people to grow their own food or get food aid.

For the past decade, Sudan's Arab government has waged a campaign to kill or convert southerners _ who are black and Christian. They have made the country a fortress, keeping out foreign aid workers and journalists so the south is starved into submission.

Africa's other civil wars, publicized by journalists, have kept the United Nations and international aid workers busy elsewhere. Hardly anyone has taken notice of Sudan.

Kevin Carter's callous pause on that plain made us look. And it held us.

"That image is captured for eternity," said Bob Steele, director of the ethics program at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "There were, ideally, lots of other people there to give aid, medicines, care, but nobody is going to replace the role of the journalist.

"The military, the aid workers, the Red Cross _ no one filled the role Kevin Carter did. He was the one who got the message out to the rest of the world."

Carter's photo also ended up as a poster for Amnesty International, the human rights organization.

Often, people are drowned in reams of newsprint analyzing conflicts. They change channels when they see another talking head. But a riveting photograph can transport them into a simple, universally felt tragedy.

The picture from the Vietnam War of a captured Viet Cong officer being shot in the head at point blank range galvanized American revulsion against the war. In China, a lone man standing in front of rolling army tanks is all many people remember of the Tiananmen Square uprising, when tens of thousands of students clamored for democracy.

In Somalia late last year, a picture of a dead American soldier dragged through streets by rejoicing Somali clansmen spurred angry demands by Americans to get U.S. troops out of Somalia. (That photograph also won a Pulitzer Prize this week.)

Tragedy can unfold in a far-off land for months, or in Sudan's case, for a decade, and be ignored. A perfect picture can be composed long after a tragedy already has killed millions.

Pictures of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia were broadcast a year later, when people who could have been saved already were dying. There was an outpouring of assistance. People bought Live Aid T-shirts and sent help to Ethiopia. Attention faded, the famine continued.

Maybe pictures like the one of the starving Sudanese girl tell us more about ourselves as citizens of the world than they do about the indifference of a single photographer. The Sudanese girl would not get a second look from most of us had she been alone in a tiny photograph. She would look emaciated, no different from thousands of others.

The vulture landing near her made us hold our breath.

_ Researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report.