Captured by photographer Kevin Carter in 1992, it came to be known as the Waiting for Death photo and went on to win the 1994 Pulitzer Prize. The graphic picture shows a starving Sudanese child collapsed on the ground, kneeling, waiting for death as a wide-eyed vulture sits patiently in the background, waiting for its next meal. When the picture was published in the New York Times on March 26, 1993, the international community was horrified – and awakened – while the toll from the horrors he witnessed led Carter down a path of destruction.
Kevin Carter travels with Operation Lifeline Sudan
Kevin Carter traveled to Sudan in 1993 alongside a United Nations group tasked with assisting starving Sudanese under the umbrella of Operation Lifeline Sudan. Sudan already had a long and storied history of instability and three years’ prior, radical Islamist’s had taken control of the government. They quickly implemented anti-Western controls (i.e. limited exports) which obliterated Sudan’s already-fragile economy. As a result, the country ran out of food.
During the catastrophe, Operation Lifeline Sudan provided food for starving Sudanese via “feeding stations” throughout the country. UN personnel flew supplies to each feeding station, stopping only long enough to unload food (typically corn) before flying to the next station. It was during one of these stops on March 11, 1993, that Carter captured the infamous photo.
Carter and UN personnel had landed at a remote location in Southern Sudan to distribute food to starving villagers. As UN personnel unloaded the corn, local residents rushed from their huts to the waiting airplane, jostling each other in an attempt to secure a position in the line. Carter was told that the stop would only take 30 minutes, so he moved quickly about the scene looking for shots. Those present recall that it was the first time Carter had witnessed a scene like this – and he was horrified.
The Waiting for Death photo
As the families moved toward the plane, Carter noticed a small, weak child making her way to the feeding station. The girl’s mother had run ahead to collect food while the child trailed behind. The toddler shuffled along, trying to keep up, when without warning, she dropped to the ground, too weak to continue. Carter had been told that he was forbidden from touching the people for fear of transmitting disease and thus, was forced to watch helplessly when a vulture spotted the child and landed nearby. The child was only thirty feet from Carter when he took the historical shot. Witnesses say he took a few more photos, then chased the vulture away.
The photo was sold to the New York Times and appeared first on March 26, 1993. Readers were at the same time horrified and awakened by the tragedy revealed within the Times’ pages. In April 1994, Carter was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography. Less than three months later, Carter committed suicide.
A tragic end
A close friend explained how the events Carter photographed took a deadly toll on his emotional state in the months that followed:
“He would talk about the guilt of the people he couldn’t save because he photographed them as they were being killed. It was beginning to trigger a spiral into depression. You could see it happening. You could see Kevin sink into a dark fugue.”
Friends of Carter say he never fully recovered from the event nor the unexpected attention he received from his devastating photo. Although the picture provoked much-needed thought from the public, some blamed Carter for not helping the dying child. Carter was racked with guilt.
On July 27, 1994, Carter drove to Parkmore’s Field and Study Center, an area near Johannesburg (South Africa) where he used to play as a child. He ran a hose from the tailpipe of his truck into the cab, climbed inside, closed the doors, and died from carbon monoxide poisoning. His suicide note read in part:
“I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist… depressed … 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 [a fellow photographer who had recently been killed in action] if I am that lucky.”
As for the dying child captured in Kevin Carter’s photo – the New York Times reports that her identity, and fate, remains unknown.