Beautiful Suffering

In 1993 South African photojournalist, Kevin Carter, took a photo of a young Sudanese girl during the famine, which caused a widespread uproar. The young girl, looking to be resting, crouches down while a vulture looks on.

Kevin Carter

As instantly as the photo is published by The New York Times, people around the world write in to the magazine expressing concern for the young girl, wondering whether she had been saved from near death. Carter was blamed for not helping and received a lot of negative comments from the public (Ow-Yeong 2014). Unfortunately, the public were unaware that Carter was not allowed to touch the girl as he was surrounded by Sudanese soldiers so he would not interfere (Neal 2014). A picture can tell a thousands words but sometimes there’s still a thousand more.


To look at the image is heartbreaking and quite confronting. But it also begs the question, if people are so upset by this image, what are they doing to help? Carter was part of a group of South African photojournalists called the “Bang-bang club”. The four photographers took some of the most devastating and confronting photos of the end of the apartheid and the famine during the 90’s. Without the courage of these men, we would not have seen some of these images, known of the incredible tortures of black South African people or seen the devastating effects of famine.


The whole world would’ve turned a blind eye. But as soon as something as confronting as these images are seen, people want scrutinise the photographer and not look at the real issue. It’s like people don’t want to face the reality of the world and want to blame someone for all of these issues. Sadly, Carter committed suicide not long after he won the Pulitzer Prize. People attributed his death to the backlash of the vulture image, but really it was because he was tortured by the death of a Bang-Bang Club member and all of the horrific scenes he had witnessed, which really placed a toll on his mental health.

In contrast to Carter’s photos of truth and violence, we have an artist by the name of Sebastiao Salgado whose photographs receive reviews detailing that they are “too beautiful” (Kimmelman 2001). In a book titled Sahel: The End of the Road, shot in Chad, Ethiopia, Mali and Sudan, it depicts images of famine in these areas in the 1980s.

By Sebastiao Salgado

“Black and white photos pair unforgettable horror with great beauty” (McDonald 2005).

 In 1991, Ingrid Sischy a writer for the New Yorker, wrote an article about the Sahel photographs. She said “Salgado is far too busy with the compositional aspects of his pictures—with finding the ‘grace’ and ‘beauty’ in the twisted forms of his anguished subjects. And this beautification of tragedy results in pictures that ultimately reinforce our passivity toward the experience they reveal. To aestheticize is the fastest way to anesthetize the feeling of those who are witnessing it. Beauty is a call to admiration, not to action”. (McDonald 2005).

By Sebastiao Saldago

While in Carter’s photos we feel upset and almost helpless for his photographic subjects, in Salgado’s images I feel a sense of art and beauty. His photographs are something I feel you could hang up on a wall in your house and people would comment “how tragically beautiful”. It makes us look past the real issue unlike Carter’s photos. So, what do you think is the better approach to capturing suffering? Do we photograph the truth or do we find the beauty beyond?



Kimmelman, M 2001, ‘PHOTOGRAPHY REVIEW; Can Suffering Be Too Beautiful?’, The New York Times, 13 July, viewed 28th March 16,

McDonald, M 2005, When People’s Suffering is Portrayed as Art, Nieman Reports, viewed 28th March 16,

Neal, L 2014, How Photojournalism Killed Kevin Carter, All That is Interesting, viewed 28th March 16,

Ow-Yeong, W 2014,’ ‘Our Failure of Empathy’: Kevin Carter, Susan Sontag, and the Problems of Photography’, Think Pieces: A Journal of the Joint Faculty Institute of Graduate Studies, University College London vol.1, no.1, pp. 9-17.


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