Photograph analysis of iconic “Vulture Stalking a Child”

While searching for iconic photographs taken throughout history, the one that stuck out to me the most was the “Vulture Stalking a Child” photo taken by Kevin Carter. Carter started his photography career by working in sports, but soon after began photographing the political issues, anti-apartheid protests, violence and repression in South Africa. After several years of covering the South African beat, Carter felt he needed a change of scenery. Thus, he paid his own way to southern Sudan so he could capture images of the extreme hunger that was being overlooked by much of the world. This is what led Carter to the iconic scene he captured in March of 1993 (MacLeod).

Herman Cohen, a former assistant secretary for African affairs, called the issue in Sudan, “one of the world’s darkest humanitarian nightmares . . . a chaotic territory where civil war, disease, homelessness and hunger form a tapestry of tragedy for millions of Sudanese” (Struck 1993). A civil war was occurring between the government of the north, who wanted an Islamic country, and the non-Muslim rebels of the south. The fighting forced millions of people away from their homes, walking miles upon miles in lands of drought and disease with no cattle or crops. Death was commonplace (Struck 1993).

Upon Carter’s arrival to Sudan, near the village of Ayod, he witnessed villagers heading to a nearby feeding center. Though one cannot tell by the image, the little girl was not in a secluded desert as it appears. The starving toddler was struggling to keep up with the others and laid down to rest. Carter was prepared to photograph this heartbreaking scene when a vulture landed nearby and silently watching the emaciated child. Carter later stated that he waited about 20 minutes hoping to get a photograph of the bird spreading its wings, though this did not end up happening. He then positioned himself to get the best angle and snapped some photographs which would later land him a Pulitzer Prize and a great deal of controversy (MacLeod).

The photograph was published in The New York Times on March 26, 1993. Calls flooded in to the newspaper with people wanting to know what happened to the poor little girl. The photo sparked such a large reaction that the paper actually ran an editor’s note saying that the girl made it to the food station but apart from that her condition is unknown. The photo was reproduced in many other newspapers and quickly became the image of Africa’s devastating conditions (Cinders 2009).

Carter was heavily criticized for this photo as many thought he should have done something to help the girl. However, the journalists in this area were told not to touch the subjects as there was a fear of spreading disease. In later interviews, Carter estimated that about 20 people died per hour at the food station and that he regretted not helping the girl; though to be realistic, there is not much he could have done (Cinders 2009). After Carter took the
photo, it is reported that he chased the vulture away from the scene and then “sat under a tree, lit a cigarette, talked to God and cried” (MacLeod).

In April of 1994, Carter won a Pulitzer Prize for the photo. Unfortunately this was not enough to erase all the tragic events he had witnessed and photographed in his short life from his mind, and he took his own life that July (MacLeod). Pieces of his suicide letter read, “the pain of life overrides the joy to the point that joy does not exist … I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain … of starving or wounded children, of trigger happy madmen” (Cinders 2009).

Carter was able to angle the photo in a way that it appeared as if the vulture was only a few feet from the child, when in actuality it was further. Also, the girl’s side is turned more toward the audience of the photo, allowing us to see how emaciated she really is. The vulture is diagonal from the girl, which also adds interest. It seems to me that both the vulture and the child’s head lie on a vertical third of the photograph, showing that Carter used the rule of thirds. What’s better is that the eye of the vulture and the child’s body are on the horizontal third line, making it even more appealing to the eye.

The photographer seems to have employed natural lighting in this photo. I do like how there is not much contrast in this image; the colors seem kind of dingy and drab, which works in this type of photo. The photo is a long shot as there is a positional relationship between the girl and the vulture and their setting. Also, their full figures are in the frame.

I think the purpose of this photograph is to pull at peoples heartstrings, to get them to comprehend and see with their own eyes the dire situation that Africans are facing. According to Sean Thomas Dougherty, the photo is also meant to get people to act. The fact that the photo incited so much controversy and anger means that the photo is doing what it should; and hopefully all that anger will get people to do something about the continuing problem (Dougherty 2006).

It also clearly speaks to the social and political issues of Sudan. The civil war is mainly what was causing the severe starvation in Sudan, which is portrayed in the photo, since it was driving people away from their homes, which is where their food sources were  (Struck 1993). This single photo of one child does an excellent job of summarizing the immense distress the entire country was enduring.

People have analyzed this iconic photograph in different ways. Some critics said that a photographer adjusting their lens to capture just the right image of the dying girl may just as well be the vulture. Others believed the starving child symbolized Africa’s anguish, while the vulture symbolized all those who just sit back and watch, waiting; not doing anything to help. Carter’s daughter even said that the suffering child represented her father, and the rest of the world was the vulture (Cinders 2009). This is referring to the criticism he faced and how all the terrors he had witnessed in the world haunted him so much so that he could not continue living. In my opinion though, the purpose of this photograph was to provide a shocking metaphor for what was going on in Sudan.


Cinders. (2009). Kevin Carter: The Consequences of Photojournalism. Fanpop. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from

Dougherty, S. (2006). Killing the Messenger. Massachusetts Review, 47(4), 608-616. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from EBSCOhost database.

MacLeod, S. (n.d.). Wanting a Meal: The Ultimate in Unfair. Flatrock. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from

Struck, D. (1993). A harvest of death: Famine stalks Sudan Civil war brings ‘nightmare’ for millions. The Baltimore Sun. Retrieved February 21, 2012 from


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