April 7, 2014
An image that speaks
Some photos never leave one’s memory. The photo that I choose for this essay is one such photo. It is the Pulitzer prize-winning photograph taken in 1994 in Sudan by Kevin Carter during the Sudan famine depicting a child about to die of starvation with a large vulture type bird in the background waiting for child’s impending death. The question I want to discuss in this essay concerning the photo “the starving child and the vulture” photograph, is how does this photo illustrate some of the terms that Barbie Zelizer uses in her essay “ The voice of the Visual Memory” including: collective memory, subjunctive voice, third meaning and the about to die moment and the rhetorical terms to describe this photo?
This photograph was produced by Kevin Carter, the Pulitzer award –winning photographer, who in March of 1993 went on a trip to Sudan. Carter photographed the poverty that people faced in Sudan . He was getting ready to photograph a starving young little girl who was trying to reach a feeding center when a vulture landed behind her. As he was taking his pictures, Carter was told that he was not allowed to touch any of the starving children, because they had contagious diseases. It was said that he waited about 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings. He did chase the vulture but he did not help the little girl.(Macleod,1994) A few months later after Carter received the Pulitzer he took his own life committing suicide as a result of his sad experience with this little girl. In the “Time” magazine article following Carter’s suicide the article portrays the guilt that Carter felt and how “ even some of Carter’s friend wondered aloud why he had not helped the girl” ( MacLeod. 1994). The photographer purpose for publishing this photo was to get the world’ s attention on the poverty and hunger and misery that Africa was dealing with and also to encourage help from humanitarian organizations. This image is incredibly powerful because it visually shows the terrible conditions of people in poverty. The pathos of this picture causes the audience to be extremely distressed especially when innocent children are involved. As a result, they feel the need to help the people of Sudan in any way possible. When looking at this picture, the child appears naked skeletal and does not look to have a chance of surviving. She looks as if she has collapsed without any source of strength in her limp body of skin and bones. Even the ground that the child is laying on shows no signs of life.
The ground shows a lack of water and moisture. The most disturbing part of this picture is the vulture in the background which appears to be waiting for the child to become its prey. The colors of this photo are very important to the viewer. If the photo had been in black and white, it would not have given the same effect to the viewer. The colors of different shades of brown in the background of the picture show the lack of life and add to the reality of the suffering child. The color of the photo makes possible for the audience to immediately focus right way into the two characters in the photo. Barbie Zelizer in her essay " The Voice of the Visual Memory" suggest and elaborates on how different visual images effect a person’s collective memory. Collective memory refers to social groups who construct their own images by constantly shaping and reshaping the past. Zelizer says “ that images such as portraits ,pictures, photographs, films –which constitute a cogent means tackling the past and making it work for the present.(186). This photo makes the viewer realize that there are still starving children in the world like this little girl. She mentions how images are important because “they help us remember the past freezing it’s representation at a powerful moment already known to us.”( 186). When one looks at Carter’s photo of the starving child, it forever remains in the mind of the viewer. If the same information were given to the audience through printed words, the impact would not be the same. Zelizer states this idea when she says, “how we remember through images remains powerfully different from how we might remember the same event were images not involved”(186).
When the viewer sees the picture above they think about the tragedy of death by starvation and the problems of hunger in the world. In addition to this, if we would have just only read about the story without an image we might have not remembered this event as a tragic moment. What does this powerful image of a vulture who is looking for his prey, the child, do to our collective memory? As Zelizer says, it “makes us remember the past by freezing its representation at a powerful moment known to us” (186). Looking at the picture many viewers might have different opinions whether or not this little girl was rescued. People could say “ This person might have not survived” or “maybe she did”. At this point the audience might be hoping that the photographer that took the picture could help her. I think this photograph relates to Zelizer’s article. She defines this moment as the subjunctive voice. She says that this is a way a photo allows us to think about multiple alternative possibilities. She writes “ that by freezing the sequencing midway at a particularly memorable representational moment, spectators are able to embellish numerous imaginary schemes on the“about to” moment that is depicted in sequencing of action ( 192) .This photograph illustrates Zelizer’s term in her essay, subjunctive voice, which “offers and apt way of depicting the difficult topic of death” .( 193) The audience responds strongly to this photo because makes the viewer wonder what the final outcome was for this little girl. Was she helped or did she die? Also the audience is wonders if the child will die of starvation or will she be killed by the vulture in the background. This demonstrates the subjunctive voice because you have to try to fill in missing information to draw a conclusion as to what happened in this situation.
The third meaning can be used to analyze my photo. Zelizer in her essay explains that there is a first and second meaning. The first meaning is defined as literal and informational. Zelizer explains that the first meaning is “ photographs work through a denotative force that is connected with verisimilitude, or the ability of the image to reference things “as they are”(187). When the viewer sees the photograph of the starving child, the viewer understands that it is an image of a suffering child. This is the first meaning of the photo. The second meaning is defined as a symbolic dimension. Zelizer explains that the second meaning is “ photographs that through connotative force are connected with symbolism and is capable of invoking and repairing to broad symbolic systems that draw on certain meanings for the visual representation that are displayed. ( 187) . In the background of the photo of the starving child is a vulture like bird that seems to be waiting for its prey. This is symbolic of death. The vulture becomes the death symbol of the dying child and even makes the viewer wonder if it will even be the cause of death. The third meaning is defined as “ drawing off or connecting to a reoccurring visual element in our “ collective memory”. It is going back or making us connect with other experiences in our lives to make us remember. Zelizer quotes Barthes that the third meaning “is difficult to locate because it is not situated structurally or in a certain place of the image”(187). The third meaning of the picture of the starving child is different for everyone. To me the image brings thoughts of the past when I was in danger and feeling hopeless. The image brings about fear of the unknown.
Zelizer’s term “the about to die moment” is also illustrated in this photo. The gruesome image of death was not used in this photo, but the viewer is given an image which shows that death is almost inevitable. The “about to die moment” in this photo is horrific enough to the audience. Zelizer states, “the image tells the story of what happened at a point just before the end of its unfolding(195). The choice of using the about to die moment seems to used because that is what the journalist and photographer wanted to see. It almost seems that the photographer thinks that the public can’t deal with the truly newsworthy subject of death. Therefore, they chose to depict something that gives reference to death without giving all of the detail. This photo of the starving girl with the vulture in the background is a horrific picture that stays in the collective memory of the viewer. It is a photo that never leaves one’s memory. It will not have been taken in vain, if it inspires people to help other starving children in the same condition of this little girl.
Zelizer, Barbie, “The Voice of the Visual Memory.”
Carter, K. (1999). 1994 Pulitzer Prize winner, Retrieved October 10,2011,from http//pulitzerprize.orf/files/2009/07kevin-carter-1994.jpg. MacLeod, S (1994, September), The life and death of Kevin Carter, Tine,144. Retrieved from http://members.home.nl/gerhardnijenhuis/msp/time.htm