The Life and Death of Kevin Carter

  • 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 Columbia University'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 receive."

    Carter was feted at some of the most fashionable spots in New York City. 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 not exist."

    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 Africa's 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 noon, 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 the girl.

    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 noon 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 5:30 p.m.

    The Braamfonteinspruit is a small river that cuts southward through Johannesburg's northern suburbs -- and through Parkmore, where the Carters once lived. At around 9 p.m., Kevin Carter backed his red Nissan pickup truck against a blue gum tree at the Field and Study Center. 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."