How Photographer Kevin Carter’s Work During The Sudan Famine Drove Him To Suicide

Published November 7, 2023
Updated March 4, 2024

The photographer behind "The Vulture and the Little Girl," depicting a starving child during Sudan's 1993 famine, Kevin Carter killed himself the following year.

Warning: This article contains graphic descriptions and/or images of violent, disturbing, or otherwise potentially distressing events.

Kevin Carter Photo The Vulture And The Little Girl

Kevin CarterKevin Carter’s most famous photo, The Vulture And The Little Girl, captured during the Sudan famine of 1993.

When this photograph capturing the horror of the Sudanese famine was published in The New York Times on March 26, 1993, the reader reaction was intense to a level scarcely seen before or since. Many people said that Kevin Carter, the photojournalist who took this image, was downright inhumane and that he should have dropped his camera to run to the child’s aid.

The controversy only grew when, a few months later, Kevin Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for the photo. But by the end of July 1994, Carter was dead by his own hand, haunted by what he saw and photographed in Sudan.

Kevin Carter

YouTubeA Pulitzer-prize winner associated with the “Bang Bang Club” of photojournalists in South Africa, Kevin Carter killed himself following his work during Sudan’s 1993 famine.

For years, emotional detachment allowed Kevin Carter to witness countless tragedies and still continue to do his job. But the vulture photo and the subsequent public outcry ultimately proved too much to bear.

In the end, it became painfully clear that Kevin Carter hadn’t been detached at all. He had been deeply and fatally affected by the horrors he had witnessed.

Kevin Carter And The Bang-Bang Club Capture The Horrors Of Apartheid-Era South Africa

Kevin Carter grew up in South Africa during apartheid. He became a photojournalist because he felt he needed to document the sickening treatment not only of blacks by whites but between black ethnic groups as well, for instance the Xhosas and Zulus.

Joining ranks with only a few other photojournalists willing to do such dangerous work, Carter would step right into the action to get the best shot. A South African newspaper nicknamed the group the Bang-Bang Club. At that time, photographers used the term “bang-bang” to refer to the act of going out to the South African townships to cover the extreme violence happening there.

Bang Bang Club

WordPressKevin Carter and the other members of the Bang-Bang Club.

In a few short years, he saw countless murders from beatings, stabbings, gunshots, and necklacing, a barbaric practice in which a tire filled with oil is placed around the victim’s neck and lit on fire.

Kevin Carter’s Famous Photo Of “The Vulture And The Little Girl”

In 1993, as famine ravaged Sudan, Kevin Carter took a special assignment to travel there, and that’s where he shot the famous vulture photo. He spent a few days touring villages full of starving people.

All the while, he was surrounded by armed Sudanese soldiers who were there to keep him from interfering. Even if he decided to help the little boy in the famous vulture photos (mistakenly labeled as a girl initially), the soldiers wouldn’t have allowed it.

Kevin Carter With Soldiers In Sudan

VimeoKevin Carter accompanied by soldiers while shooting during the Sudan famine.

Helpless to do anything but use his camera to document the event, Kevin Carter photographed the little boy, later identified as Kong Nyong from the hamlet of Ayod, who, according to his father, actually survived the famine but died of an unrelated illness much later, in 2007.

The photograph, known as “The Vulture and the Little Girl,” instantly attracted the world’s attention like few images before or since.

After receiving a number of phone calls and letters from readers who wanted to know what happened to the little girl, The New York Times took a rare step and published an editor’s note describing what they knew of the situation. “The photographer reports that she recovered enough to resume her trek after the vulture was chased away. It is not known whether she reached the [feeding] center.”

The Aftermath Of The Sudan Famine Takes Its Toll On Carter

1993 Sudan Famine

Kevin CarterAnother haunting image captured by Kevin Carter during the Sudan famine.

How Kevin Carter and the rest of the Bang-Bang Club did this kind of work day after day remains unthinkable. Of course, it took its toll on them, and in Carter’s case, fatally so.

Kevin Carter’s daily ritual included cocaine and other drug use, which would help him cope with his occupation’s horrors. He often confided in his friend Judith Matloff, a war correspondent.

She said 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. Another friend, Reedwaan Vally, says, “You could see it happening. You could see Kevin sink into a dark fugue.”

And then his best friend and fellow Bang-Bang Club member, Ken Oosterbroek, was shot and killed while on location in April 1994. Kevin Carter felt it should have been him, but he wasn’t there with the group that day because he was being interviewed about winning the Pulitzer for the vulture image.

Nelson Mandela

Wikimedia CommonsNelson Mandela served 27 years in prison before assuming the presidency of South Africa in 1994.

The following month, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa. Kevin Carter had focused his life on exposing the evils of apartheid and now, in a way, it was over. He didn’t know what to do with his life. On top of that, he felt a need to live up to the Pulitzer he’d won. Soon after, in the fog of his depression, he made a terrible mistake.

The Devastating Suicide Of Kevin Carter

Photographer Kevin Carter

Wikimedia CommonsAfter capturing the haunting image of a starving Sudanese boy being stalked by a vulture in 1993, South African photojournalist Kevin Carter took his own life.

On assignment for Time magazine, Kevin Carter traveled to Mozambique. On the return flight, he left all his film–about 16 rolls he had shot there–on the plane. It was never recovered. For Carter, this was the last straw.

Less than a week later, Kevin Carter was dead. He drove to a park, ran a hose from the exhaust pipe into his car, and died of carbon monoxide poisoning.

Yes, winning the Pulitzer Prize put pressure on him, but it didn’t lead directly to his death. Rather, it only added to the pile of stress and guilt he had accumulated while documenting some of the most gruesome corners of the world. But thanks to his brain-searingly memorable photo, the famine in Sudan became internationally known. Carter left an indelible mark on the planet’s consciousness.

Kevin Carter In Action

LightRocketKevin Carter shooting in the midst of conflict, doing what he did best.

As Kevin Carter said soon after taking the photo, “This is the ghastly image of what is happening to thousands of children,” Time quoted him as saying. “Southern Sudan is hell on earth, and the experience was the most horrifying of my career.”

After this look at Kevin Carter, see more of the most influential photos in history and learn about the horrific practice of necklacing in apartheid-era South Africa.

Leslie Maryann Neal
Leslie Maryann Neal is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. She received her BA in English from California State University, Long Beach.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
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Maryann Neal, Leslie. "How Photographer Kevin Carter’s Work During The Sudan Famine Drove Him To Suicide.", November 7, 2023, Accessed May 23, 2024.