Lens Choice, Death and Suicide

Kevin Carter's Pulitzer prize photo of Sudanese boy and vulture

Kevin Carter’s Pulitzer prize photo

This oft-seen photograph of two figures – the starved collapsed child like a fetus and the scavenger awaiting nourishment – contains a third figure, one so visible that we do not see it. This figure is of course that of Death, who emerges with sickle in hand from the space composed between child and vulture.

Realist questions of actual metric distance between the boy and the bird expose their irrelevance by displaying the pretense of faith in the reality which the photographic image captures. This affectation of belief is a curious manifestation which requires that we ignore our knowledge of the glass one must look through to create a photograph, even though it is this glass’ surface being captured and not the world’s (there is image, but no substance).

Not only are we aware of the photograph’s means of production, but photographic vraisemblence functions in a surprising way – the more a photograph’s surface mimics reality, the less true it seems (which is why the black and white photograph still seems a far more convincing witness to truth than color photograph, and why the 3-D 4K video image emanates uncanniness).

Photography’s artificiality is fundamentally akin to that of any other art, only differing in its relation to reality through our beguiling perception of a different connection. Perhaps we persevere in our faith in the pre-photographic reality despite our knowledge of the technical efforts to create the photograph and the infinite possibilities of its alteration due to sight’s primacy over all other senses in our epoch and culture.

In this Pulitzer winning photo, the denial of photography’s artifice ultimately blinds us from seeing the very visible figure of Death staring at us from the photograph’s central space. Kevin Carter’s choice of telephoto lens collapsed the space between the child and vulture, invoking Death if not creating it. It is the lens selection and its production of photographic space which summoned Death into the photograph. The force of this image mores than its content is that the essence of this death, emerging only from the focal length, is entirely photographic. And as Death’s summoner if not acolyte the photographer, who committed suicide only shortly after publishing the photo, may have felt that he could only expiate its invocation with another death, his own.

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