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Kristen Gyles | When a camera costs a life

Published:Friday | September 29, 2023 | 12:08 AM
In this file photo, a motorcyclist clutches his cell phone as he lies on the road following a collision in Portmore, St Catherine,
In this file photo, a motorcyclist clutches his cell phone as he lies on the road following a collision in Portmore, St Catherine,

In 1993, Kevin Carter, an award-winning South African photojournalist, shot what might be the world’s most controversial photograph, today known as ‘The Vulture and the Little Girl’. The image is a chilling reminder of the famine that blanketed South Sudan in the early 1990s, on account of scorching drought, the results of which were exacerbated by political unrest.

The photograph shows an undernourished and emaciated Sudanese little girl, crouched over with her face down to the ground. A short distance behind her stood a vulture, which eerily appeared to be awaiting her death. Apparently, the little girl was en route to a nearby United Nations feeding shelter but collapsed due to her overwhelming state of energy deprivation.

Kevin Carter approached the scene of the little girl and was about to take his shot when the bird landed behind her. He reportedly waited an approximate 20 minutes to see if the bird would open its wings so he could get a better shot. After enough time spent waiting, he positioned himself and took his photo.

A few things are worth noting:

First, Kevin Carter’s photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in 1994. The image received international acclaim for its stark depiction of the harsh realities of famine and conflict in Africa, and would have undoubtedly helped to raised awareness to the humanitarian crisis in Sudan at the time.

Second, Carter is reported to have chased the bird away after taking his iconic photograph but left the child on the scene.

Last, Carter met his tragic end when he took his own life by carbon monoxide poisoning, just months after winning the Pulitzer Prize. Once his photograph was widely published, he became the centre of scathing criticisms regarding the ethics of photojournalists in Africa and he battled with severe depression and substance abuse for some time leading up to his death.


This story, which unfolded three decades ago, seems almost prophetic. We have seen this ethical ‘dilemma’ play out quite often in recent times. When angry mobs beat and chop alleged criminals to their death, or deadly fights break out in schools, or heavy floods and other natural disasters threaten lives, if anyone or anything is guaranteed to make it out the ordeal alive, it’s a picture or video captured on someone’s phone which will inevitably go viral in hours. After consuming the viral content and sharing it many times, the society then looks on and lambastes the photographers who should have done more than just sit around holding a camera.

Virtually the entire country was able to adjudicate over the heart-wrenching stabbing incident which led to the murder of Michion Campbell, a 16-year-old student at Kingston Technical High School. The video that was captured of the incident helped to contextualise what turned out to be a deadly attack. Much of what we know for certain about the incident can be attributed to that widely shared video.

When there is conflict, it is good to know that evidence will be around that can help to incriminate the perpetrators. But when there is conflict, it is even better to know that bystanders, including would-be photographers, are willing to intervene, even in a mildly impactful way, to quell anger, resolve conflicts or do anything that could potentially save a life. How aligned are our minds to helping injured or hurting victims of crimes or other disasters when we already have a phone camera in hand that we are trying to steady to get the perfect shot?


The truth is that the ability to pull out a camera and capture, in real time, any activity taking place within our field of vision, is an amazing advancement which has helped to transform the way we live. The ability and freedom of the average citizen to share information at the snap of a finger helps to keep us all more informed. But, as with any and all advancements, we have to keep evaluating whether the intended purpose is getting lost with the passage of time.

Crimes aren’t the only negative incidents we can be more helpful in preventing. Time after time, video clips of rude, belligerent customers abusing workers and recordings of nasty verbal exchanges between strangers surface on the World Wide Web, for us to sit and opine on who should have said or done what differently. Sometimes there is a clear need for someone to step in and pacify what could easily become a deadly exchange. But it might be easier to sit comfortably and watch the thrilling action movie unfold.

Are the cameras the problem or is the problem a culture that stipulates that we all mind our own business even when someone is being killed right under our noses?

During his lifetime, Kevin Carter would have witnessed brutal beatings, executions and some very barbaric forms of punishment which he would have photographed. Many of these incidents he might have felt he could do nothing to prevent, especially at a time when racial tensions were high and standing in defence of a black man or woman could have made him a martyr. Back then, photographers were forced to make daily decisions about when it was safe to intervene and when to just shut up and take the photo.

Thirty years later, do we still do that? Or is pulling out a camera now just another reflex action? Hopefully, in the next case of impending disaster, our first instinct will be to ask ourselves whether there is anything at all we can do to help. That might mean not getting a pic.

Kristen Gyles is a free-thinking public affairs opinionator. Send feedback to