As TIME's Johannesburg bureau chief for the past five years, Scott MacLeod
has seen more than his share of tragedy. But nothing prepared him for the
devastating news in July that a colleague, 33-year-old South African
photojournalist Kevin Carter, had killed himself. Carter was famous in South Africa for his fearless coverage of deadly township
violence, and he had become internationally known for his Pulitzer prizewinning
photo of a vulture coolly eyeing an emaciated Sudanese child struggling toward
a feeding station. "Few journalists saw as much violence and trauma as he
did," says MacLeod. Shocked by Carter's suicide, MacLeod determined
"to understand as best I could the complexities behind his tragic
The result is this week's unusual tale of a
troubled man's life and death. In any given issue of TIME, we include, of
course, many stories that are driven by news headlines - this week's account of
the I.R.A. cease-fire in Northern Ireland, for example. Other stories, like our cover on the
ominous resurgence of infectious diseases, reflect broader trends that we may
have been tracking and developing for weeks. Occasionally we go back to a
seemingly small event of months ago, briefly noted at the time, that strikes us
as ripe with human drama and moral implications, worthy of detailed digging and
sober reflection. The suicide of Kevin Carter was such an event.
In researching the article, MacLeod
interviewed Carter's family, close friends and colleagues, as well as experts
on suicide; in the process he encountered several other journalists in pursuit
of the mystery of Carter's self-destruction. But the subject eluded easy conclusions
and assumptions. Says senior editor Howard Chua-Eoan: "It's tempting to
call this a straightforward story of a man who couldn't handle fame, but in the
end, it was a lot sadder and more complicated than that." Observes
MacLeod, who worked with Carter in Mozambique in July: "Ambition and a search for glamour and
excitement were clearly part of Carter's makeup. But to go into that kind of
danger over and over again requires a strong sense of mission or
MacLeod also sees Carter's story as representative
of a darker side of middle-class white South Africa and as a warning about the lingering effects of
apartheid on all of that country's people. "The lives of some whites too
were disrupted and even destroyed by the social experiment," he notes.
"I wanted to show that side of the apartheid story as well."
September 12, 1994 Volume 144, No. 11
THE LIFE AND DEATH OF KEVIN CARTER - Visiting
Sudan, a little-known photographer took a picture that made
the world weep. What happened afterward is a tragedy of another sort.
BY SCOTT MACLEOD/JOHANNESBURG
The image presaged no celebration: a child
barely alive, a vulture so eager for carrion. Yet the photograph that
epitomized Sudan's famine would win Kevin Carter fame - and hopes for
anchoring a career spent hounding the news, free-lancing in war zones, waiting
anxiously for assignments amid dire finances, staying in the line of fire for
that one great picture. On May 23, 14 months after capturing that memorable
scene, Carter walked up to the dais in the classical rotunda of ColumbiaUniversity's Low Memorial Library and received the Pulitzer
Prize for feature photography. The South African soaked up the attention.
"I swear I got the most applause of anybody," Carter wrote back to his
parents in Johannesburg. "I can't wait to show you the trophy. It is the
most precious thing, and the highest acknowledgment of my work I could
Carter was feted at some of the most
fashionable spots in New
Restaurant patrons, overhearing his claim to fame, would come up and ask for
his autograph. Photo editors at the major magazines wanted to meet the new
hotshot, dressed in his black jeans and T shirts, with the tribal bracelets and
diamond-stud earring, with the war-weary eyes and tales from the front lines of
Nelson Mandela's new South Africa. Carter signed with Sygma, a prestigious picture
agency representing 200 of the world's best photojournalists. "It can be a
very glamorous business," says Sygma's U.S. director, Eliane Laffont. "It's very hard to
make it, but Kevin is one of the few who really broke through. The pretty girls
were falling for him, and everybody wanted to hear what he had to say."
There would be little time for that. Two
months after receiving his Pulitzer, Carter would be dead of carbon-monoxide
poisoning in Johannesburg, a suicide at 33. His red pickup truck was parked
near a small river where he used to play as a child; a green garden hose
attached to the vehicle's exhaust funneled the fumes inside. "I'm really,
really sorry," he explained in a note left on the passenger seat beneath a
knapsack. "The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does
How could a man who had moved so many people with his work end up a suicide so
soon after his great triumph? The brief obituaries that appeared around the
world suggested a morality tale about a person undone by the curse of fame. The
details, however, show how fame was only the final, dramatic sting of a death
foretold by Carter's personality, the pressure to be first where the action is,
the fear that his pictures were never good enough, the existential lucidity
that came to him from surviving violence again and again - and the drugs he
used to banish that lucidity. If there is a paramount lesson to be drawn from
Carter's meteoric rise and fall, it is that tragedy does not always have heroic
dimensions. "I have always had it all at my feet," read the last
words of his suicide note, "but being me just fit up anyway."
First, there was history. Kevin Carter was
born in 1960, the year Nelson Mandela's African National Congress was outlawed.
Descended from English immigrants, Carter was not part of the Afrikaner
mainstream that ruled the country. Indeed, its ideology appalled him. Yet he
was caught up in its historic misadventure.
His devoutly Roman Catholic parents, Jimmy and Roma, lived in Parkmore, a
tree-lined Johannesburg suburb - and they accepted apartheid. Kevin, however,
like many of his generation, soon began to question it openly. "The police
used to go around arresting black people for not carrying their passes,"
his mother recalls. "They used to treat them very badly, and we felt
unable to do anything about it. But Kevin got very angry about it. He used to
have arguments with his father. "Why couldn't we do something about it?
Why didn't we go shout at those police?"
Though Carter insisted he loved his parents,
he told his closest friends his childhood was unhappy. As a teenager, he found
his thrills riding motorcycles and fantasized about becoming a race-car driver.
After graduating from a Catholic boarding school in Pretoria in 1976, Carter studied pharmacy before dropping out
with bad grades a year later. Without a student deferment, he was conscripted
into the South African Defense Force, where he found upholding the apartheid
regime loathsome. Once, after he took the side of a black mess-hall waiter,
some Afrikaans-speaking soldiers called him a kaffir-boetie ("nigger
lover") and beat him up. In 1980 Carter went absent without leave, rode a
motorcycle to Durban and, calling himself David, became a disk jockey. He
longed to see his family but felt too ashamed to return. One day after he lost
his job, he swallowed scores of sleeping pills, pain-killers and rat poison. He
survived. He returned to the S.A.D.F. to finish his service and was injured in
1983 while on guard duty at air force headquarters in Pretoria. A bomb attributed to the A.N.C. had exploded,
killing 19 people. After leaving the service, Carter got a job at a camera
supply shop and drifted into journalism, first as a weekend sports photographer
for the Johannesburg Sunday Express. When riots began sweeping the black
townships in 1984, Carter moved to the Johannesburg Star and aligned himself
with the crop of young, white photojournalists who wanted to expose the
brutality of apartheid - a mission that had once been the almost exclusive
calling of South
black photographers. "They put themselves in face of danger, were arrested
numerous times, but never quit. They literally were willing to sacrifice
themselves for what they believed in," says American photojournalist James
Nachtwey, who frequently worked with Carter and his friends. By 1990, civil war
was raging between Mandela's A.N.C. and the Zulu-supported Inkatha Freedom
Party. For whites, it became potentially fatal to work the townships alone. To
diminish the dangers, Carter hooked up with three friends - Ken Oosterbroek of
the Star and free-lancers Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva - and they began
moving through Soweto and Tokoza at dawn. If a murderous gang was going to
shoot up a bus, throw someone off a train or cut up somebody on the street, it
was most likely to happen as township dwellers began their journeys to work in
the soft, shadowy light of an African morning. The four became so well known
for capturing the violence that Living, a Johannesburg magazine, dubbed them "the Bang-Bang Club."
Even with the teamwork, however, cruising the
townships was often a perilous affair. Well-armed government security forces used
excessive firepower. The chaotic hand-to-hand street fighting between black
factions involved AK-47s, spears and axes. "At a funeral some mourners
caught one guy, hacked him, shot him, ran over him with a car and set him on
fire," says Silva, describing a typical encounter. "My first photo
showed this guy on the ground as the crowd told him they were going to kill
him. We were lucky to get away."
Sometimes it took more than a camera and
camaraderie to get through the work. Marijuana, known locally as dagga, is
widely available in South Africa. Carter and many other photojournalists smoked it
habitually in the townships, partly to relieve tension and partly to bond with
gun-toting street warriors. Although he denied it, Carter, like many hard-core
dagga users, moved on to something more dangerous: smoking the "white
pipe," a mixture of dagga and Mandrax, a banned tranquilizer containing
methaqualone. It provides an intense, immediate kick and then allows the user
to mellow out for an hour or two.
By 1991, working on the dawn patrol had paid off for one of the Bang-Bang Club.
Marinovich won a Pulitzer for his September 1990 photographs of a Zulu being
stabbed to death by A.N.C. supporters. That prize raised the stakes for the
rest of the club - especially Carter. And for Carter other comparisons cropped
up. Though Oosterbroek was his best friend, they were, according to Nachtwey,
"like the polarities of personality types. Ken was the successful
photographer with the loving wife. His life was in order." Carter had
bounced from romance to romance, fathering a daughter out of wedlock. In 1993
Carter headed north of the border with Silva to photograph the rebel movement
in famine-stricken Sudan. To make the trip, Carter had taken a leave from the
Weekly Mail and borrowed money for the air fare. Immediately after their plane
touched down in the village of Ayod, Carter began snapping photos of famine victims.
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."
After another day in Sudan, Carter returned to Johannesburg. Coincidentally, the New York Times, which was
looking for pictures of Sudan, bought his photograph and ran it on March 26, 1993. The picture immediately became an icon of Africa's
anguish. Hundreds of people wrote and called the Times asking what had happened
to the child (the paper reported that it was not known whether she reached the
feeding center); and papers around the world reproduced the photo. Friends and
colleagues complimented Carter on his feat. His self-confidence climbed.
Carter quit the Weekly Mail and became a
free-lance photojournalist - an alluring but financially risky way of making a
living, providing no job security, no health insurance and no death benefits.
He eventually signed up with the Reuter news agency for a guarantee of roughly
$2,000 a month and began to lay plans for covering his country's first multiracial
elections in April. The next few weeks, however, would bring depression and
self-doubt, only momentarily interrupted by triumph.
The troubles started on March 11. Carter was
covering the unsuccessful invasion of Bophuthatswana by white right-wing vigilantes intent on propping up
a black homeland, a showcase of apartheid. Carter found himself just feet away
from the summary execution of right-wingers by a black "Bop"
policeman. "Lying in the middle of the gunfight," he said, "I
was wondering about which millisecond next I was going to die, about putting
something on film they could use as my last picture."
His pictures would eventually be splashed across front pages around the world,
but he came away from the scene in a funk. First, there was the horror of
having witnessed murder. Perhaps as importantly, while a few colleagues had
framed the scene perfectly, Carter was reloading his camera with film just as
the executions took place. "I knew I had missed this f--- shot," he
said subsequently. "I drank a bottle of bourbon that night."
At the same time, he seemed to be stepping up
his drug habit, including smoking the white pipe. A week after the Bop
executions, he was seen staggering around while on assignment at a Mandela
rally in Johannesburg. Later he crashed his car into a suburban house and
was thrown in jail for 10 hours on suspicion of drunken driving. His superior
at Reuter was furious at having to go to the police station to recover Carter's
film of the Mandela event. Carter's girlfriend, Kathy Davidson, a
schoolteacher, was even more upset. Drugs had become a growing issue in their
one-year relationship. Over Easter, she asked Carter to move out until he
cleaned up his life.
With only weeks to go before the elections,
Carter's job at Reuter was shaky, his love life was in jeopardy and he was
scrambling to find a new place to live. And then, on April 12, 1994, the New York Times phoned to tell him he had won the
Pulitzer. As jubilant Times foreign picture editor Nancy Buirski gave him the
news, Carter found himself rambling on about his personal problems.
"Kevin!" she interrupted, "You've just won a Pulitzer! These
things aren't going to be that important now."
Early on Monday, April 18, the Bang-Bang Club headed out to Tokoza township, 10
miles from downtown Johannesburg, to cover an outbreak of violence. Shortly before , with the sun too bright for taking good pictures,
Carter returned to the city. Then on the radio he heard that his best friend,
Oosterbroek, had been killed in Tokoza. Marinovich had been gravely wounded.
Oosterbroek's death devastated Carter, and he returned to work in Tokoza the
next day, even though the violence had escalated. He later told friends that he
and not Ken "should have taken the bullet."
New York was a respite. By all accounts, Carter made the most
of his first visit to Manhattan. The Times flew him in and put him up at the Marriott
Marquis just off Times Square. His spirits soaring, he took to calling New York "my town."
With the Pulitzer, however, he had to deal
not only with acclaim but also with the critical focus that comes with fame.
Some journalists in South Africa called his prize a "fluke," alleging that
he had somehow set up the tableau. Others questioned his ethics. "The man
adjusting his lens to take just the right frame of her suffering," said
the St. Petersburg (Florida)
Times, "might just as well be a predator, another vulture on the
scene." Even some of Carter's friends wondered aloud why he had not helped
Carter was painfully aware of the
photojournalist's dilemma. "I had to think visually," he said once,
describing a shoot-out. "I am zooming in on a tight shot of the dead guy
and a splash of red. Going into his khaki uniform in a pool of blood in the
sand. The dead man's face is slightly gray. You are making a visual here. But
inside something is screaming, "My God.' But it is time to work. Deal with
the rest later. If you can't do it, get out of the game." Says Nachtwey,
"Every photographer who has been involved in these stories has been
affected. You become changed forever. Nobody does this kind of work to make
themselves feel good. It is very hard to continue."
Carter did not look forward to going home.
Summer was just beginning in New York, but late June was still winter in South Africa, and Carter became depressed almost as soon as he got
off the plane. "Joburg is dry and brown and cold and dead, and so damn
full of bad memories and absent friends," he wrote in a letter never
mailed to a friend, Esquire picture editor Marianne Butler in New York.
Nevertheless, Carter carefully listed story
ideas and faxed some of them off to Sygma. Work did not proceed smoothly.
Though it was not his fault, Carter felt guilty when a bureaucratic foul-up
caused the cancellation of an interview by a writer from Parade magazine, a
Sygma client, with Mandela in Cape Town. Then came an even more unpleasant experience. Sygma
told Carter to stay in Cape
Town and cover
French President Francois Mitterrand's state visit to South Africa. The story was spot news, but according to editors at
Sygma's Paris office, Carter shipped his film too late to be of
use. In any case, they complained, the quality of the photos was too poor to
offer to Sygma's clients.
According to friends, Carter began talking openly
about suicide. Part of his anxiety was over the Mitterrand assignment. But
mostly he seemed worried about money and making ends meet. When an assignment
in Mozambique for TIME came his way, he eagerly accepted. Despite
setting three alarm clocks to make his early-morning flight on July 20, he
missed the plane. Furthermore, after six days in Mozambique, he walked off his return flight to Johannesburg, leaving a package of undeveloped film on his seat.
He realized his mistake when he arrived at a friend's house. He raced back to
the airport but failed to turn up anything. Carter was distraught and returned
to the friend's house in the morning, threatening to smoke a white pipe and gas
himself to death.
Carter and a friend, Judith Matloff, 36, an
American correspondent for Reuter, dined on Mozambican prawns he had brought
back. He was apparently too ashamed to tell her about the lost film. Instead
they discussed their futures. Carter proposed forming a writer-photographer
free-lance team and traveling Africa together.
On the morning of Wednesday, July 27, the
last day of his life, Carter appeared cheerful. He remained in bed until nearly
and then went to drop off a picture that had been
requested by the Weekly Mail. In the paper's newsroom, he poured out his
anguish to former colleagues, one of whom gave him the number of a therapist
and urged him to phone her.
The last person to see Carter alive, it seems, was Oosterbroek's widow, Monica.
As night fell, Carter turned up unannounced at her home to vent his troubles.
Still recovering from her husband's death three months earlier, she was in
little condition to offer counsel. They parted at about
The Braamfonteinspruit is a small river that
cuts southward through Johannesburg's northern suburbs - and through Parkmore, where the
Carters once lived. At around ,
Kevin Carter backed his red Nissan pickup truck against a blue gum tree at the
Field and StudyCenter. He had played there often as a little boy. The
Sandton Bird Club was having its monthly meeting there, but nobody saw Carter
as he used silver gaffer tape to attach a garden hose to the exhaust pipe and
run it to the passenger-side window. Wearing unwashed Lee jeans and an Esquire
T shirt, he got in and switched on the engine. Then he put music on his Walkman
and lay over on his side, using the knapsack as a pillow.
The suicide note he left behind is a litany
of nightmares and dark visions, a clutching attempt at autobiography,
self-analysis, explanation, excuse. After coming home from New York, he wrote, he was "depressed . . .without phone
. . .money for rent . . . money for child support . . . money for debts . . .
money!!! . . . I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings & corpses
& anger & pain . . .of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy
madmen, often police, of killer executioners . . ." And then this: "I
have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky."
TIME Time Domestic October
3, 1994 Volume 144, No.
Suicide of a Pulitzer Winner
- It is tragic that the world has lost a
photographer with the talent and skill of Kevin Carter. But it should come as
no surprise that he found it difficult to reconcile the peaks and valleys of
his career with the suffering and violence upon which it was built. It disturbed
him, as it should have. By embarking on a career in photojournalism, Carter set
himself apart from the lives of the people he photographed. He chose to be an
observer rather than a participant. Carter opted for a moral detachment that
most of us cannot achieve and that I would not want to have. Though I can
admire his work and courage in the face of danger, I cannot imagine witnessing
such violence and human suffering without trying to intervene. Perhaps, in the
end, Kevin Carter could not either.
Andrew W. Hall Galveston, Texas AOL: Tigone
- As Kevin Carter's sister, I am sad that
TIME has stooped to such sensationalist reporting concerning my brother's
death. Scott MacLeod did not interview me or my sister or two of Kevin's very
close friends. His "detailed digging" resulted in the presentation of
a series of negative issues through which he attempted to explain a suicide.
Suicide is obviously the result of the negative outweighing the positive, in
the victim's mind, but this does not mean that there were not hundreds of
positive aspects to the particular individual. Kevin was a person of passion
and presence; he left his mark wherever he went. He was an incredible father to
Megan and a man who grappled deeply with issues most people just accept. In
many ways he was ahead of his time. The pain of his mission to open the eyes of
the world to so many of the issues and injustices that tore at his own soul
eventually got to him. The year 1993 was a good one for him, but at the end of
it he told me he really needed a break from Africa,
that it was getting to him. He knew then that he was losing perspective.
Unfortunately, the pressure only got worse, with the increased violence leading
up to the elections and, worst of all, the loss of his friend Ken Oosterbroek.
The Pulitzer Prize certainly didn't send Kevin "deeper into anguish."
If anything, it was a confirmation that his work had all been worthwhile. Your
version of Kevin's death seems so futile. What is anyone going to learn or gain
from reading it?
Patricia Gird Randburg, South Africa
- It is ironic that Kevin Carter won the
Pulitzer for a photograph which to me is a photograph of his own soul and
epitomizes his life. Kevin is that small child huddled against the world, and
the vulture is the angel of death. I wish someone could have chased that evil
from his life. I'm sure that little child succumbed to death just as Kevin did.
Both must have suffered greatly.