On May 28, the SC heard the case related to “problems and miseries of the migrant workers” of which it had taken suo motu cognizance on May 26. Of the several submissions made by the Solicitor General (SG) Tushar Mehta, one was a reference to the Pulitzer winning picture of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter depicting the 1993 Sudan famine. He ruled that the reason why Carter took his own life just four months after winning the prize was because of his guilt of not helping the subject of the iconic photograph he created.
SG Mehta used Carter’s death to make a point about the Indian journalists who have been highlighting how a health crisis has spiraled into a humanitarian crisis. More than hundred migrant workers have died while trying to reach home since the lockdown was first announced in late March. Several heartbreaking videos, photographs of workers are in circulation, and most likely, they are one of the reasons why the SC took cognizance of their dire state.
By citing the example of Carter, SG has inadvertently exposed his misunderstanding of journalism as well as mental health issues.
“The Vulture and the little girl”
In March 1993, Carter flew to South Sudan to film the famine situation and help the UN raise awareness about the humanitarian crisis unfolding there. Shot in Ayod, the photograph shows a starving frail boy (assumed a girl for a long time) trying to reach UN feeding center with a vulture in the background. The photograph was featured by the New York Times and was reproduced widely to appeal to people to donate for the cause. It worked exceptionally well for that purpose and successfully gave a distinct human image to a distant crisis of Sudan; precisely what a photojournalist tries to achieve with his/her work.
As hundreds of readers started calling NYT to know the fate of the child in the picture, the curiosity sparked a larger debate on why the photographer didn’t help the child reach the feeding center. Carter had accepted that he just shooed away the vulture but didn’t help the child. It was later reported that Carter had been warned never to touch famine victims, who may have communicable diseases. But that didn’t kill the controversy, and as seen in SG’s comment, it continues to rage.
Debate on the role of photojournalists
His action, or inaction, rekindled a long debate on what should be the role of a journalist – to record or to intervene. As Susan Sontag says in her book ‘On Photography’, “Photographing is essentially an act of non-intervention…in situations where the photographer has the choice between a photograph and a life, to choose the photograph. The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.”
In case of Carter, Sontag explains his non-intervention due to his conception of self as an observer rather than agent, when the photographer’s mind becomes so closely allied with the camera that ‘any intervention is out of the question’.
The controversy over his image, and fixation on the fate of one child dwarfs the fact that through his one powerful photograph, he alerted viewers to the thousands of famine victims who were not photographed, but who nonetheless deserved the public attention that his photojournalism ensured.
In 2011, the child’s family was traced and contacted. They confirmed his identity as a boy named Kong Nyong. He survived the famine but died to other illness in 2007.
Solicitor General jibe at journalists as vultures
SG Mehta ended his mention of Carter’s photograph by saying there were two vultures when the picture was taken, one being the photographer himself. In his attempt to bring down journalists who are reporting on migrant crisis in the face of a deadly pandemic and a harsh summer, Mehta extended vulture analogy to them. His comment not only passes the onus of help on to those who are reporting it, but also insults their intention in bringing out the misery of the migrants. It can’t be ignored how journalists are working in these tough circumstances, accepting pay cuts, risking their health, and cutting through several obstructions to bring out the stories of ordeal of migrant workers. Also, there are numerous stories of them helping workers in their personal capacities.
Oversimplifying mental health conditions
SG Mehta’s reference to Carter’s suicide is unfortunate and further heaps the guilt on those working to draw attention to the plight of migrants. His comment highlights how not only the questions posed to the Centre government are scorned upon, but those asking questions are compared to vultures and reminded of a tragic end.
Carter was 33 when he took his life. He attached a garden hose to his vehicle’s exhaust that funneled toxic carbon monoxide fumes inside. He sat inside the locked car, turned the engine on, put music on his Walkman and lay on his side to never wake up again.
A simple google search on Carter’s life picks up his suicide note which touches upon several complex, emotional reasons that took a toll on his mental health and made him to give up on his life. A part of his last note, cited in Time’s obit reads:
“I’m really, really sorry. The pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist. …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 … I have gone to join Ken if I am that lucky.”
Carter had a tough life, and all his fame and accolades couldn’t reconcile that. He grew up in South Africa when it was struggling to get out of the claws of apartheid. He was bullied and beaten for standing up for a black waiter, was called a “nigger lover”. He attempted to take his life in 1980 but survived.
He worked to expose the brutality of apartheid, that made him to witness grisly violence and killings. He along with his three other friends Ken Oosterbroek, Greg Marinovich and Joao Silva – covered the civil war that was peaking by 1990. He got into drugs, and unstable, broken relationships. He fathered a daughter out of wedlock, whom he missed sorely. He had bills piling up and work drying up. He missed assignments, got rejections, lost important undeveloped films on airplanes. He also lost his dear friend. He was devastated by the death of Ken Oosterbroek. He mentioned Ken in his suicide note as well. Clearly, a lot was going on in Carter’s life that made him to end his life.
SG Mehta’s misplaced criticism of journalists working at the forefront, by drawing parallels to the death of Carter is a humiliation of not only the hard work of journalists but also of the memory of a celebrated photographer who may have lived on to win many more Pulitzers had his mental health not failed him.
(The views expressed above are the author’s own)