A Pulitzer-Winning Photographer's Suicide Farai Chideya talks to the director of The Death of Kevin Carter, an Oscar-nominated documentary about the life, work and suicide of a Pulitzer-prize winning South African photojournalist haunted by an image of a starving child.
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A Pulitzer-Winning Photographer's Suicide

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A Pulitzer-Winning Photographer's Suicide

A Pulitzer-Winning Photographer's Suicide

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ED GORDON, host:

More than a decade ago, a group of four fearless photojournalists known as the Bang Bang Club traveled throughout South Africa, capturing the atrocities committed during Apartheid. One of its members, Kevin Carter, also documented the suffering of the famine in Sudan and received the Pulitzer Prize for his work.

Carter committed suicide in 1994, soon after receiving the award. Now, more than a decade later, a new documentary entitled, The Death of Kevin Carter explores the photojournalist's life, work and death.

NRP's Farai Chideya spoke with Dan Krauss, the director of the Oscar-nominated film about what compelled him to tell this story.

Mr. DAN KRAUSSS (Director of The Death of Kevin Carter): I worked as a news photographer for the better part of a decade before I made this film. And so we all knew about the photographer who had seen too much, who had taken this photograph of the vulture and the child, and shortly thereafter took his own life. And that's initially what drew me to his story was that mystery, why would Kevin take his life so soon after the winning the Pulitzer, that Holy Grail of journalism.

And from there I delved into the story much more deeply and found that it was this huge moral parable about the internal conflict that journalists face in terms of whether it is better to intervene or to document the suffering that they witness.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

So why did you decide to focus on Kevin in particular, instead of the entire Bang Bang Club. Obviously he had a tragic end. But the whole breadth of people who you talked to in this film are fascinating.

Mr. KRAUSS: Kevin was appealing to me as a person because of his intense humanity. The depth of his anguish and his sense of mission were also very compiling traits. And so the fact that he took his own life, I think, was a challenge in terms of deriving some sort of meaning from his life and death. And so I was very compiled by the fact that he had identified so closely with the people that he was photographing. And so that's what drew me into Kevin as a character.

CHIDEYA: You talk about the concern that he felt, and it was actually ironic in a way that he was lambasted for being uncaring, because of the picture he took of the toddler in the Sudan who was struggling to walk through the desert. She looked as though her last breath was imminent; she rested and vulture stood in the background watching her. You have a clip in your film of Kevin talking about the controversy that photograph caused. Let's take a listen.

(Soundbite from "The Death of Kevin Carter")

Mr. KEVIN CARTER (Photojournalist): It may be difficult for people to understand, but as a photojournalist, my first instinct was to make the photograph. As soon as that job was done and the child moved on, I felt completely devastated. I think I tried to pray; I tried to talk to God to assure Him that if He got me out of this place I would change my life.

CHIDEYA: What did it meant to you that he was so heavily criticized for taking this Pulitzer Prize winning photo?

Mr. KRAUSS: When Western audiences saw that photograph, they saw all of Africa encapsulated within that small frame. The thing that struck me the most was the lack of understanding of the context in which that photo was made and the benefit of its message. People were very quick to label Kevin Carter a vulture, but they didn't take the opportunity try to understand the complexity of the situation in the Sudan and the complexity of being a journalist faced with that degree of suffering.

CHIDEYA: Do you think that it was the controversy over the photo that ultimately caused him to take his life, or was it just the end of a long stream of disappointments at human nature?

Mr. KRAUSS: Yeah. I think like many suicides, it was combination of variables that all occurred within a very short amount of time. I mean, certainly the criticism that was leveled at Kevin because of his vulture picture was a huge weight on his shoulders. But he was also during that time grieving over the loss of his close friend, Ken Oosterbroek who was shot to death in the townships.

And also during that time, we saw the end of apartheid. And while that was a great joy for South Africa, for a lot of journalists it was the end of their mission. Kevin was invested very heavily in witnessing the end of apartheid and contributing to the struggle to end the apartheid. And when that mission was accomplished, he was left a little purposeless. There was a sort of postpartum depression that set in after Mandela took office.

And so I tried to avoid giving one specific answer to the question of why he took his own life, but I think that you can make an argument that all of these variables occurring within a short of amount of time led to his self-destruction.

CHIDEYA: So what was it like for you to see the photos that the club shot, to look at these pictures which make up quite a bit of your documentary and that are just full on gruesome?

Mr. KRAUSS: Yeah, they are gut wrenching pictures. I mean, we're talking about extreme degrees of violence, people being burned alive, being hacked to death. These photojournalists were not afraid of being very close to the violence that they were witnessing. And in some cases, I think these photographers were willing to risk injury or death to get a prize-winning picture. I mean, they were driven to make compelling pictures partly because of their own ego as photo journalists, but also because they had a great since of mission and they knew that these photographs had the power to change public policy and public awareness of what was happening in their country.

CHIDEYA: Now, you have been nominated for an Oscar for depicting a man who won journalism's highest award. So things in a way have come through the circle. What do you hope to convey to people through this film?

Mr. KRAUSS: Part of my mission is to give a better understanding and a better contextual environment in which to absorb Kevin's story and to try to find some meaning in his life and his death. That picture is so emblematic of the struggle that Kevin faced internally facing his own--questions his own morality. I mean, he understood that what he doing was parasitic, that he was profiting from suffering.

And so a part of my mission was to show that he was conflicted, that it was not a straightforward circumstance of him profiteering from people's suffering and their deaths, that he was very committed to the mission of exposing the ills of apartheid.

CHIDEYA: Dan Krauss is San Francisco based filmmaker and director of the Oscar-nominated documentary, The Death of Kevin Carter. Thanks for joining us and good luck at the Academy Awards.

KRAUSS: Thanks very much.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: That's our program for today. Thanks for joining us. To listen to the show, visit npr.org. And if you'd like to comment, call us at 202-408-3330; that's 202-408-3330. NEWS AND NOTES was created by NPR News and the African American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS AND NOTES.

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