Pictures of Pain

In 1993, photographer Kevin Carter took a photo of a young, unfortunately malnourished Sudanese child being watched by a vulture. The next year, Carter received the Pulitzer prize for that same photograph, a very coveted award in the journalism industry. Three months later Carter ended his own life. This tragic story highlights an issue in journalism, a sort of images of suffering paradox.

Witnessing Suffering Paradox

In an age where there are so many ways to access news visual media such as; newspapers, magazines, the internet, it’s not uncommon to run into confronting imagery of people at war, under oppressive regime, suffering from famine and other negative situations. On one hand these images are important for raising discourse towards the issues depicted and the contexts in which these issues exist. Alternatively, these images can be said to be exploiting the subjects of the images.

Vulture Watching Starving Child March 1, 1993 Sudan
Vulture Watching Starving Child March 1, 1993 Sudan

Kevin Carter’s Vulture watching a starving child depicts a child in a situation many of us in western countries have ever experienced. Bold pictures such as this one raise discourse around the topic, in this case not only was this picture talked about in the context of the conflict and famine in Sudan but whether the photographer should have taken the photo or not. Carter was criticised for ‘exploiting the young subject of his photo’ by taking a photo of the girl being stacked by a predator instead of helping her. In her article in the ethical limitations of photojournalism, Paula Gortazar looks at four ethics photojournalists need to consider

“· The ethical position in the discourse of their photograph

· The aesthetic representation of such ethical position

· The ethical practice in the production of their photographs

· The way in which their work is displayed and presented to the public.” (Gortazar)

Gortazar concludes that Carter is unethical in all these aspects but it would seem that he is genuine in his intentions because he was clear about the events leading up to and following the photograph which suggests he showed little to no compassion for the girl.

A dilemma exists in that photo journalism plays the important role of showing audiences  situations that we wouldn’t otherwise face but more often than not, at the cost of trivialising the issue when the context of the image or the article it’s attached to creates the wrong kind of discourse or potentially exploiting victims of an issue when an image is used with an agenda.

Other Ways

Alternatives to raising awareness are often being developed such as songs and games. e.g this Sanitation Hackathon project aims to raise awareness on sanitation issues and educate on proper toilet usage. While these approaches may be more engaging (especially games) it’s at an even greater cost of the message. It would seem that photojournalism is a necessity to really portray issues of the world in an easily accessible way.


One thought on “Pictures of Pain”

  1. I found your post detailing the debate regarding photo-journalism very interesting. As you said, the issue is very contentious, whereby the photographs do raise awareness of various social and political issues. But at the same time, is it fair to reward these photographers for framing such issues?

    The film ‘Salt of the Earth’ was recently released to independent cinemas in Australia. The film depicts the life of Sebastiao Salgado, a world-famous photographer of the human condition. Likewise, Salgado has received criticism for his poverty/war-porn photographs that arguably stylizes the issue. But nonetheless, photographers such as Salgado travel to these dangerous destinations to record the devastating events of the people involved.

    I particularly liked that you included other methods of raising awareness, such as through songs or games. But personally some of these alternatives are just not as effective as a photograph.

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