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.”
Most of us have trouble comprehending how Kevin Carter and the rest of the Bang-Bang Club did this kind of work day after day. But it turns out that it took its toll on them, and in Carter’s case, fatally so. 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. 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. That same month, Nelson Mandela became president of South Africa.
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.
On assignment for Time magazine, he 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, he 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.
For more on Kevin Carter, we suggest the film The Bang Bang Club, which chronociles the lives of the members of the Bang Bang club. And for more on photojournalism, head over to our gallery of the most influential photos in history.