Prioritising the Shot: The Ethical Debate around Kevin Carter’s “The Struggling Girl”

November 04, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Something a little different this week.  I thought I’d share an essay that I recently completed for my degree course, all about the ethical debate around Kevin Carter’s famous 1993 image of the famine in Sudan.  It explores the decision to take the photograph, the intense reaction of the public and how Carter’s experience compared to that of other photojournalists.  This essay forms part one of two of a discussion about ethics and representation in shocking imagery, and the concept of ‘compassion fatigue’.  I’m interested in your thoughts, so please do let me know what you think about this subject. 

The Essay

When South African photojournalist Kevin Carter shot his 1993 photograph The Struggling Girl, he sparked a debate that has continued for 30 years.  

(The Struggling Girl, aka The Vulture and the Little Girl - Rare Historical Photos, 2013)

Dubbed “The picture that made the world weep” when it was published by The New York Times, the photograph depicts a small, emaciated child collapsed in a barren scrubland, while a vulture looks on.  The accompanying article reported that the little girl was trying to walk to a food station when she became exhausted.  The photograph won the Pulitzer Prize for Photography, gaining praise from journalists and aid organisations for its depiction of the shocking humanitarian crisis in Sudan, but also drawing criticism from the public for Carter’s decision to prioritise the picture over helping the girl.  This essay explores the ethics of his decision and the factors that may have contributed to the reaction of the public. 

“The person who intervenes cannot record; the person who is recording cannot intervene.”(Sontag, 1977)

The role of the photojournalist is to document an event or situation as an observer, and while photographs may distort, they are proof that something existed or happened at that moment (Sontag, 1977). This photograph clearly comprises visual signifiers of famine, poverty, and suffering, while the presence vulture connotes the likely imminent death of the child. During this era, coverage of this kind of suffering was commonplace, owing in part to the Live Aid fundraising of the mid 1980s, which led to the widely accepted idea in trauma photography of compassion fatigue. 

“It takes a lot to get full attention to a picture these days, because we are bombarded by pictures every waking hour, in one form or another, and transitory images seen, unconsciously, in passing, from the corner of our eyes, flashing at us, and this business where we look at bad images‐ impure.” Dorothea Lange (Doud, 1964)

The viewing public were saturated with famine imagery and, in many cases, Western colonialist views of what was referred to as ‘The Third World’ disconnected them emotionally from the people’s suffering.  Visually, the black girl is emaciated to the point of almost unrecognisable as human, further adding to that disconnect.  

“For some viewers of Carter’s photograph, or of any image of suffering, the victim may still be Other; we see her pain but cannot feel it. Conceivably, viewers may be guilty of what Sontag describes as a ‘failure of empathy’, an inability to extend our emotional identification beyond the confines of the self.”  (Kit Ow Yeong, 2014)

What really shocks in this image is the degradation of the girl to the status of carrion for the vulture. Upon publication, this caused outcry at Carter’s behaviour. which resulted in the publisher having to release more details about how the image was made.  However, this action did not help to calm the public reaction to the photographer.  He was labelled as unfeeling, ‘a predator, another vulture on the scene’ (Stanets, Reena Shah, 1994) etc, with many people feeling that his careful composition, which lasted 20 minutes (Cate, s.d.), was lacking in humanity.   

To understand these reactions, we must consider the viewer’s gaze.  Carter’s composition brings the viewer in close to the scene and its two subjects, so that they witness the hopelessness of the girl’s condition and the threat from the vulture as events unfold before them.  The gaze is, of course, that of the photographer, so the helplessness of the viewer can be related to the photographer with the belief that “I would help, so why didn’t he?”. Contrast this with Napalm Girl (1972) by Nick Ut, which similarly depicts a young girl suffering, and also won the Pulitzer for its powerful impact on public perception.  

“Napalm Girl”, by Nick Ut, Associated Press (1972) (Wayback Machine, s.d.)

Here, the gaze is almost cinematic, with children fleeing the chaotic attack, surrounded by soldiers, and running towards the photographer crying for help.  There are similar signifiers of pain and despair, yet distance from the explosion, the soldiers, their positions in the frame, all connote hope of survival.  Their running towards the camera invokes a natural instinct in the viewer to want to help them.  When Napalm Girl was published, details of how Ut helped save her life emerged at the same time, which spared the photographer scrutiny until much later on, when she was identified and exploited as a propaganda tool (Holland, 2022). The gaze, the horror of the hopelessness of Carter’s image, and his perceived apathetic reaction, made things much more difficult for him. 

If we compare the decision to photograph in these cases with the National Press Photographers Association (NPPA) Code of Ethics, both men acted appropriately in being ‘accurate and comprehensive in representation’ and ‘not seeking to alter or influence’ (NPPA, s.d.). Both observed and did not intervene, until afterwards; Carter chasing the vulture away and Ut seeking medical attention for the badly burned girl, Kim Phuc.  When we compare their approach to the alleged behaviour of Steve McCurry in coercing the subject of his Afghan Girl (1989) portrait to be photographed (Karnad and Karnad, 2019), or the controversy around Newsha Tavakolian’s identifying of a child rape victim in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, (Batty, 2022), we can conclude that the decision to take a shocking photograph isn’t necessarily professionally unethical, even if it appears to conflict with our own personal values.


While the anger at Carter’s perceived inaction is understandable, his ethics are, for me, not in question.  His behaviour after the photograph makes us uncomfortable because of the viewer being placed intimately within the scene and that while we are used to seeing images of starving children, the idea of one being eaten by a vulture is abhorrent.  In considering his behaviour, I conclude that there are further ethical discussions that are rarely considered beyond the photograph itself, principally around what happens after the image is published.   Carter described sitting under a nearby tree, watching the girl continue her journey, and weeping.  In attempts to answer his critics, he expressed regret at not helping the girl, despite shooing away the bird and remaining long enough to watch her continue her journey once the vulture had gone.   His efforts weren’t enough to assuage his guilt, however, as two months after winning the Pulitzer Prize, Carter took his own life at only 33 years old. 

"I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain . . . of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners. . . . The pain of life overrides the joy, to the point that joy does not exist." -  excerpt from Kevin Carter’s suicide note, quoted in Time Magazine (Cate, s.d.)

Regret is a sentiment echoed by other photojournalists, such as Carter’s close colleague Greg Marinovich, who witnessed a killing by an angry mob without trying to help save him, and Donna Ferrato, who documented domestic violence in her subject’s relationship as a passive observer (‘I was gutted that I’d been such a coward’: photographers who didn’t step in to help, 2012).  However, these photographers were working, either directly or indirectly, for an editorial publisher who ultimately decide ethically how the image is to be used, with varying results.  In Carter’s case, the subsequent publication of the image didn’t cause the girl any direct harm, because it wasn’t known whether she had even survived.  In fact, in 2011 it was claimed that she was actually a boy named Kong Nyong, who not only survived, but lived another 14 years before dying from a fever (Vnuk, 2021).  In the case of Napalm Girl, Kim Phuc survived, but was psychologically damaged by the picture’s success, and her subsequent use as both a pro-war and anti-war propaganda tool.  She doesn’t hold the photographer accountable for that though, with her and Ut remaining close friends to this day.  In the case of Afghan Girl, the subject claimed that the experience and her identification caused her many problems in later life, and in the case of Tavakolian, the commissioning body, Médecins Sans Frontières, was forced to withdraw publication of the controversial images following wide-spread criticism over victim safety (Batty, 2022). 

My main conclusion here relates to the ethics of editorial, which I feel failed Kevin Carter by getting him to directly answer public anger about his image, that were less relevant than his journalistic representation of the horrors of the famine.  If the editorial had carefully managed their response to the public backlash to publication, the additional strain may not have contributed to his mental decline and its tragic outcome.  In an area of photography that is perhaps the most ethically challenging, the duty of care must be internal as well as external.



The vulture and the little girl - Rare Historical Photos (2013) At: (Accessed 23/10/2023).

Wayback Machine (s.d.) At: (Accessed 24/10/2023).


Sontag, S., 1933-2004 (1977) On photography. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, [1977] ©1977. At:

Doud, R. (1964) Oral history interview with Dorothea Lange, 1964 May 22 | Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. [Text] At: (Accessed 24/10/2023).

Kit Ow Yeong, W. (2014) '‘Our Failure of Empathy’: Kevin Carter, Susan Sontag, and the Problems of Photography' In: Think Pieces: A Journal of the Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences At: (Accessed 23/10/2023).

Were his priorities out of focus?, Stamets, Reena Shah (1994) At: (Accessed 23/10/2023).

Cate, F. H. (s.d.) THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY (full text). At: (Accessed 19/10/2023).

Holland, O. (2022) ‘Napalm Girl’ at 50: The story of the Vietnam War’s defining photo. At: (Accessed 31/10/2023).

NPPA (s.d.) Code of Ethics for Visual Journalists. At: (Accessed 28/03/2023).

Karnad, R. and Karnad, R. K. (2019) You’ll Never See the Iconic Photo of the ‘Afghan Girl’ the Same Way Again. At: (Accessed 17/10/2023).

Batty, D. (2022) 'Médecins Sans Frontières pulls images of teenage rape survivor after outcry' In: The Guardian 23/05/2022 At: (Accessed 18/10/2023).

‘I was gutted that I’d been such a coward’: photographers who didn’t step in to help (2012) In: The Guardian28/07/2012 At: 31/10/2023).

Vnuk, H. (2021) Kevin Carter took one of the most famous photos of all time. The following year, he was dead.At: (Accessed 31/10/2023).



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